Tiny Terrorist In Castros Crops

The Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs presented the U.S. government with a written complaint of entomological warfare the day after Christmas in 1996. The allegation concerned the release of insects by an American plane that passed through the Giron corridor, a designated flight path over Cuba. Per the diplomatic drill, the U.S. State Department explained away the charge in early February, maintaining that the incident was merely the release of warning smoke—not a cloud of crop-eating insects—meant to ensure visual contact with a nearby aircraft.1 Such a cursory denial would have completed a typical tête-à-tête between the two countries, but the Cubans had other plans.

Perhaps the U.S. government should have suspected that something more than another spat was in the offing when the Cubans took their case to the United Nations, issuing a strangely worded communiqué to the secretary-general on April 28:

The Permanent Mission of Cuba to the United Nations presents its compliments to the Secretary-General and, with regard to item 80 of the preliminary list, has the honour to convey hereby a report on the appearance in Cuba of the Thripspalmi plague.2

Thrips are obscure little insects that resemble animated hyphens on a page. Only under a microscope can one see that the clear yellow creatures are bedecked with a pair of feathery wings, formed from extraordinarily fine hairlike structures (see Figure 20.1). Although these delicate insects might not be the sort of organisms that one associates with a plague, what thrips lack in terms of body size they make up for with respect to their eclectic feeding and wanton reproduction. The species that was plaguing the Cubans was known to consume citrus, cotton, cucumbers, mango, melons, peas, potatoes, soybeans,

Figure 20.1. Thripspalmi is about i/i5th of an inch in length and bears frail, featherlike wings. Despite its feeble appearance, this species is phenomenally fecund and feeds on a spectacular range of crops, including beans, cantaloupe, melons, peppers, potatoes, soybeans, and sugarcane. The Cuban government formally charged the United States with releasing these pests over agricultural lands east of Havana in October 1996. (Photo by J. Marie Metz, USDA/ARS)

Figure 20.1. Thripspalmi is about i/i5th of an inch in length and bears frail, featherlike wings. Despite its feeble appearance, this species is phenomenally fecund and feeds on a spectacular range of crops, including beans, cantaloupe, melons, peppers, potatoes, soybeans, and sugarcane. The Cuban government formally charged the United States with releasing these pests over agricultural lands east of Havana in October 1996. (Photo by J. Marie Metz, USDA/ARS)

sunflowers, tobacco, tomatoes, and watermelons, along with various flowers.3 The insects suck fluids from the host's tissues, yielding stunted and deformed plants. And as if to mock the unfortunate farmer, thrips add an insectan Midas touch, causing damaged leaves to appear silvered or bronzed.

With females producing as many as 200 offspring during their two- to three-week lifetimes, and the larvae maturing into adult egg-laying machines in about a week, a population of thrips can reach staggering numbers in a very short time. If humans reproduced and matured as quickly, Adam and Eve would have populated the earth with 6 billion offspring in just 110 days. The Cubans may not have calculated the biotic potential of thrips, but they had enough information to inform the UN Secretary-General that "there is reliable evidence that Cuba has once again been the target of biological aggression."4

By involving the United Nations, Cuba forced the United States to dignify the accusation with a reply in front of a global audience. In response, the Americans issued a terse dismissal on May 6: "The United States categorically denies the outrageous charges made by the Cuban Government regarding the alleged discharge of the Thrips palmi insect over Cuba to damage agriculture there."5 The U.S. government figured that their response had cued the curtain fall in the diplomatic theater of the absurd. But after a two-month intermission, Castro raised the curtain for a spectacular encore on the world's stage.

On July 7, the Cubans filed an official request through the Russian government, acting in its role as one of the original treaty depositories of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.6 Article V of the Convention stipulated that its signatories could initiate "consultation procedures"—a formal hearing concerning violations of the treaty. In a quarter century, no government had ever pursued such an action. But now the United States was officially charged with having engaged in biological warfare. With the British ambassador, Ian Soutar, serving as the chair, a Formal Consultative Meeting convened later that year in Geneva, Switzerland, to hear the case.

Both sides agreed on the essential facts.7 On the morning of October 21, 1996, an American plane operated by the U.S. State Department had taken off from Patrick Air Force Base in Cocoa Beach, Florida. The aircraft was initially bound for Grand Cayman, with authorization to fly over Cuba via the Giron corridor. The ultimate objective of the mission was to participate in a drug-eradication program in Colombia, via the spraying of coca fields with herbicide. While flying through the Giron corridor, the pilot made visual contact with a Cuban aircraft and released several puffs of a smoky substance (see Figure 20.2). When the Cuban pilot reported the gray mist, the air traffic controller radioed the American plane to determine if there was a mechanical problem. The pilot replied that he was having no difficulties and continued on his way. The nature of the material released from the American spray plane was the crux of the case.

The Americans explained that their pilot, having observed the Cuban plane in adjacent airspace, released a smoke signal to ensure visual contact and avoid a midair collision. Officials noted that such a warning was standard operating procedure: "Aircraft used for crop eradication by the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Bureau of the Department of State are equipped to generate smoke and with an aerosol sprinkling system."8 The Cubans countered that such equipment and procedures were anything but ordinary. Rather than a prudent puff of smoke, the Cubans contended that the cloud was a mass release of thrips. And their case was based on more than rank suspicion—they had some damning circumstantial evidence.

Figure 20.2. A map showing the Girón corridor from the report given to the UN Secretary-General, which asserted that "on 21 October 1996, at 10:08 hours, crew members of scheduled flight CU-170 of Cubana de Aviación (Cubana Airlines) . . . noticed a single-engine airplane flying from north to south, at about 1000 feet (300 meters) above them, apparently spraying or sprinkling unknown substances—some seven times—in an intermittent manner." The Cubans claimed the substance was a mass release of thrips from a U.S. plane. (Courtesy of Granma International)

Figure 20.2. A map showing the Girón corridor from the report given to the UN Secretary-General, which asserted that "on 21 October 1996, at 10:08 hours, crew members of scheduled flight CU-170 of Cubana de Aviación (Cubana Airlines) . . . noticed a single-engine airplane flying from north to south, at about 1000 feet (300 meters) above them, apparently spraying or sprinkling unknown substances—some seven times—in an intermittent manner." The Cubans claimed the substance was a mass release of thrips from a U.S. plane. (Courtesy of Granma International)

Two months after the American flyover, Thrips palmi irrupted with a vengeance. This period corresponded with the time necessary for the insects to complete three generations, an entirely plausible lag from introduction to outbreak. Moreover, the pattern of the infestation was extraordinary. The pests were decimating potato fields within the Giron corridor of western Cuba, while farms to the east were unscathed.9 The nearest natural sources of the thrips were island nations to the east: Haiti, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic. A natural invasion of thrips from one of these islands would not have skipped 400 miles of vulnerable farms to infest fields that just happened to lie in the flight path of the Americans' "smoking gun."

In rebuttal, the U.S. representatives argued that there were many cases in which airborne organisms had invaded Caribbean islands—without invariably infesting the fields closest to their point of arrival. Furthermore, various pests had long made their way into new lands via agricultural trade, so any port of entry could serve as a locus of infestation. But the Cubans weren't done yet.

A thorough analysis by Cuban scientists suggested that T. palmi was an ideal agent for waging covert biological warfare.10 The evaluation pointed out that this species could be mass-produced in the laboratory. Thrips would dis perse like aerial plankton on the winds after release from a plane, and their rapid development and fantastic fecundity meant that even a couple of dozen adults could seed an outbreak. Moreover, the tiny invaders were difficult to detect until their numbers and damage were beyond control. And finally, control with insecticides was notoriously difficult given the insects' tendency to shelter themselves within the plants.

The Cubans' analysis might have been brushed aside as so much speculation were it not for the Federation of American Scientists. This scientific association seemed beyond repute: an independent, nonprofit organization founded by members of the Manhattan Project in 1945, directed by prestigious researchers and dedicated to ending the worldwide arms race. Eight months before the purported entomological attack on Cuba, the federation issued their "Report of the Subgroup for Investigation of Claims of Use or Escape of Agents Which Constitute Biological or Toxin Weapons." The scientists included T. palmi among the organisms of concern to the signatories of Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.11

The American response to the Cubans' so-called evidence was an exasperated plea to use reason and science, albeit not that of the Federation of American Scientists. The U.S. government argued that there would always be ecological coincidences to provide rich fodder for those bent on creating conspiracy theories. But no rational collection of jurists could conclude that clandestine military operations were the most plausible explanations for such unusual occurrences. Surely the United States could not be blamed for having released every creature that had the qualities of a biological weapon and managed to find its way to the shore of a backward nation seeking to vilify the West while lacking the infrastructure to protect itself from pest outbreaks.

In closing, the Cubans argued that the timing and location of the pest outbreak were so perfectly matched to the mysterious emission from the American plane that the United States simply had to be the culprit. The Americans scoffed at such a farfetched interpretation, contending that normal flight operations and natural events readily accounted for all of the supposed evidence. Moreover, western observers noted that Cuba had taken its case to the international community via Article V of the Convention, which meant that the decision would rest on arguments provided by the adversarial governments. Had the Cubans invoked Article VI, the United Nations Security Council would have been compelled to undertake its own investigation. The implication was that Castro's regime sought to avoid a credible, independent inquiry.12

The participants in the Formal Consultative Meeting were given until late September 1997 to ponder the allegations and render their verdicts. Hungary and the Netherlands concurred with Denmark's assessment:

[The United States] convincingly demonstrated that the occurrence of Thrips palmi in the Matanzas province of Cuba . . . could have resulted [from] a number of causes, including natural phenomena as well as the normal movement of trade and goods.13

Germany agreed and further asserted that "insects such as Thrips palmi couldn't be dispersed from an aircraft as a dry substance," presumably because the tiny soft-bodied creatures were thought to be too fragile to survive such treatment. In the end, all but two of the nations found the Cuban charges to be without substance.

Cuba's communist allies could not bring themselves to side with the Americans. The Chinese chose to simply prevaricate, stating that their experts had found it "hard to draw conclusions." The North Koreans were more direct, finding it "regrettable that the incident of spraying of biological substances by the United States against Cuba has taken place."14

With these verdicts by the representatives, a dismissal of the charges from the Formal Consultative Meeting might have been expected. However, when the summary judgment was issued by the chairman, Ambassador Soutar of the United Kingdom, the wording could not have been more equivocal. In mid-December 1997, he reported, "Due inter alia to the technical complexity of the subject and to the passage of time, it has not proved possible to reach a definitive conclusion with regard to the concerns raised by the Government of Cuba."15

Use of the British legal term inter alia, meaning "among other things," only obfuscated an already enigmatic statement. In the minds of some critics, this unwillingness to render a clear decision signaled political weakness among the parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and encouraged the Cubans to persist in their accusations. According to Milton Leitenberg (a researcher from the University of Maryland who also energetically sought to discredit the charges that the United States had employed entomological weapons during the Korean War):

If there had been a quite aggressive investigation of the 1997 Cuban charges, and a definitive and noticeable report at the end stating that the charges were unsupportable and concocted, that would most certainly have served to impede further politicized allegations every time a natural disease outbreak occurs in a country in which there is an ongoing conflict, or in which local political elites think that there is some domestic political gain to be obtained by making charges of biological weapons use by an external actor.16

Based on subsequent charges by America's adversaries, Leitenberg's analysis was on the mark. In a 1999 interview, Lieutenant General Valentin Yevstigneyev, deputy director of the Russian Defense Ministry's Office of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons, alluded to the Cuban case in insinuating that America was behind an insect outbreak along the Volga:

Last year in the Saratovskaya region, we fought against locusts and managed to save the harvest, nearly destroyed by these insects. When we started to determine the type of these insects, it turned out that they originated on the Apennine peninsula [a very distant place from the Volga]. So, it's up to you to decide whether it was a gift of nature or a secret form of diversion, especially with regard to recent developments in Cuba.17

Seizing the opportunity to piggyback on the Russians' claim that locusts could be used as covert weapons, Iraq launched its own diplomatic offensive. In July 1999, Iraqi officials accused a United Nations mine-removal specialist of planting locust "land mines." According to a letter sent by the Iraqi foreign minister to the UN's humanitarian relief representative, a New Zealand specialist was seen burying several boxes filled with locust eggs near the village of Khanaqeen. The day after the complaint from the ministry, Saddam Hussein ranted in a radio address about American duplicity:

They buried the locusts' eggs so that they will later become fully-grown locusts that would eat people's food. People would then be deprived of food and consequently die in this beleaguered state. . . . This is not the work of the individual, but the work of a state and its intelligence services. . . . The entire world said that there are spies who worked under the cover of the United Nations for the United States.18

Every entomologist knows that locusts are endemic to the Middle East, so finding their eggs in the soil is hardly surprising, assuming that any biological samples were actually a part of the Iraqi story. In a move of remarkable diplomacy—or weakness, depending on one's perspective—the United Nations actually launched an investigation of the charges "out of respect for the Iraqi government." In short order the case was determined to be preposterous and, to nobody's surprise, there was no subsequent locust outbreak. The Russians and Iraqis were, in fact, plowing some well-tilled political ground, given that the potential of locusts as entomological weapons had been discussed 30 years earlier. The notion was assessed and dismissed by a UK delegate during a 1969 disarmament conference in Geneva.

With the Russians and Iraqis suffering no adverse consequences for their mudslinging, Castro's government continued to accuse the United States of entomological skullduggery. Castro may have truly believed that the Americans were out to get his people by using insects as mercenaries on the Caribbean front. Or he may have been borrowing a page from the North Koreans. That is, public allegations could preempt the imminent use of entomological arms if one does not cry wolf too often. Occasionally a complaint by Castro's regime has been forwarded through recognized channels, but most of the allegations have been issued during speeches by high-ranking officials and targeted for local audiences and sympathetic media outlets. While their recent political tactics have been lacking in originality, the Cubans have added a novel, legalistic maneuver to their efforts.

Cuban organizations have twice brought suit against the U.S. government, seeking compensation for damages inflicted by biological weapons. In the summer of 1999, a suit was filed in a Havana civil court seeking $181.1 billion for the loss of life and suffering inflicted by the United States since the onset of biological attacks in 1959.19 Most recently, an 18-count indictment filed in January 2000 charged that American biological attacks had involved both the release of plant-feeding insects and the spread of plant, livestock, and human diseases, many of which were vectored by insects (including the dengue epidemic of 1981).20 As in the earlier case, the Americans did not bother to defend themselves in what they presumed would be a kangaroo court.

Political observers suggested that the Cuban suits were legal tit-for-tat in response to a previous U.S. District Court case won by the relatives of four Americans who were killed when Cuban MiG fighters shot down two private planes involved in a "Brothers to the Rescue" operation.21 Despite American and Cuban judges' rulings in favor of their respective plaintiffs, there appears to be no chance that anyone will collect on the awards. Such legal maneuvers are intended to make points of principle rather than yield payments of courtassessed damages.

If Leitenberg is right in claiming that international ambivalence fosters politically motivated accusations of biological warfare, then perhaps his concern also applies to the American government. Various government agencies and private interests have contended that Castro's scientists and biotechnology industries have the capacity to develop biological armaments—and some have insinuated that the Cubans might have moved into the production stage. In 1998, a workshop on agricultural warfare hosted by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Defense was introduced in these terms:

What would it take to induce Castro to undertake covert biological and chemical attacks on Florida, New York City, or other U.S. locations? Or could Cuba currently be undertaking biowarfare experiments in the Caribbean Basin or in the U.S.? There are a lot of animal and plant diseases popping up in unexpected places around the world and in the U.S.22

For the most part, however, the United States had the luxury of believing that it was safe from outside attack. Although a civil war once wracked the nation and assassins had taken the lives of public figures, 20th-century Americans had not contemplated the possibility that a homegrown insurgency could inflict horrific suffering. The country's tranquility was shattered on Wednesday, April 19, 1995, at 9:02 a.m. when a truck packed with 5,000 pounds of explosives detonated in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. And the reality of domestic entomological terrorism was not far behind.

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