Alex Volberding

Washington Targets Havana

A high-powered cabal of ultra-conservative Cuban-Americans and rightwing hardliners within the Bush administration are determined to engineer Castro’s downfall at any cost.

The latest salvo was delivered by Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton, who accused Havana of exporting “dual-use biotechnology” to “rogue” nations and engaging in “offensive biological warfare research and development.” Claiming that the Cuban threat had been “underplayed” during the Clinton administration, Bolton tried to cast Havana’s biotechnology sector -- which accounts for tens of millions of dollars in vitally important export income and substantially contributes to Cuba’s high health standards -- as a front for bio-terrorism.

The claims -- made on May 6 while addressing the conservative Heritage Foundation -- appear to be based on rumors, circumstantial evidence, inaccurate analyses and anonymous intelligence sources, but appear totally bereft of hard data. Administration sources later acknowledged that Bolton’s inflammatory remarks were not based on “any new information provided to the State Department,” but rather on documents recently de-classified at the behest of the Assistant Secretary of State for inter-American Affairs, Otto Reich. However, senior officials familiar with bio-warfare, including former General Charles Wilhelm (ret.) of SOUTHCOM, denied credible evidence ever existed that Havana posed a bio-terrorist threat.

At the heart of Bolton’s remarks was the thinly veiled threat that those nations choosing not to join the Bush administration’s anti- terrorism campaign “can expect to become our targets.” While military intervention against Cuba is inconceivable at this time, it remains a tantalizingly attractive option for administration hardliners warped by their hatred of Castro and not restrained by an increasingly irrelevant Colin Powell.

The comments made by Bolton, while extremely audacious, represent only the latest facet of what now seems to be a concerted campaign by high level Bush administration officials to hector the Castro regime and radicalize U.S.-Cuba relations. This movement is being spearheaded by Reich, whose personal animus towards Castro is shared by his fellow Cuban-Americans who currently occupy half of the 12 most influential policymaking posts for Latin America and the Caribbean. Disinformation is a specialty of Reich who headed the Office of Public Diplomacy, the propaganda headquarters for the Contra war, in early 80s.

Although the addition of Cuba to the Bush Administration’s “axis of evil” lexicon is entirely arbitrary, it fits perfectly into Reich’s well-orchestrated campaign to ensure the island's political and economic isolation in order to create a Castro-less “vision for the future of Cuba.” Bolton’s comments also signal the beginning of a broader policy offensive. On May 20 President Bush plans to announce an array of anti-Castro initiatives at a speech in Miami as part of the State Department’s “review” of U.S. policy towards Cuba. Bush hopes his increasingly hard-line position towards Cuba will yield electoral dividends both for Jeb Bush in this year’s Florida gubernatorial race and for his own race in 2004. The anti-Castro measures are seen as rewards due to Miami’s Cuban exile community, which was influential in securing the presidency for Bush in 2000.  

It is no coincidence that Bolton launched his attack on the eve of former President Jimmy Carter’s historic visit to Cuba, timing that was clearly meant to blunt its impact. Carter himself dismissed the allegations. He said State Department’s intelligence experts repeatedly assured him that there was no “evidence that Cuba has been involved in sharing any information with any country on earth that could be used for terrorist purposes."

Despite such political shenanigans, President Bush is fighting a losing battle for public support. Any administration policy that continues to restrict U.S. travel or trade to Cuba faces a growing and increasingly united opposition, consisting of politicians, businessmen and the majority of the U.S. public. President Carter's trip symbolizes just the tip of the movement’s iceberg. A recent poll revealed that a growing number of Cuban-Americans also oppose trade and travel restrictions. Carter and most Americans realize that free access to Cuba can enhance the island’s prospect for democracy.

However, with Otto Reich at the helm of US policymaking, there is an increasing danger that an ongoing war of words could spiral out of control under the administration’s ill-defined parameters for its war on terrorism, which could even inadvertently trigger a military showdown between the U.S. and Cuba. Or at the very least, such sabre-rattling will serve to isolate the United States and jeopardize its long-term objectives in the region.

Larry Birns is the Director and Alex Volberding is a research associate at the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

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