Cuban Missiles vs American ARth Ropods

On October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation with this chilling announcement:

Good evening my fellow citizens. This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet Military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.

So began a game of brinkmanship the likes of which the world had not seen before. Tensions escalated when Kennedy ordered a naval blockade and the Russian Premier, Nikita S. Khrushchev, responded by authorizing his field commanders in Cuba to launch the nuclear missiles if U.S. forces attacked the island. All the while, Kennedy's advisers played out a range of scenarios, including armed invasions, tactical air strikes—and unleashing crop-destroying insects (see Figure 19.1).1

Entomological warfare drew rather less attention than more conventional responses, but herbivorous insects had their moment in history. An individual planthopper or leafhopper (superfamily Fulgoroidea and family Cicadellidae, both in the suborder Auchenorrhyncha) is hardly an imposing weapon, being a green bullet-shaped creature about the size of a grain of rice. But females can lay 300 eggs in their month-long adult lives. Like an entomological shotgun blast, these insects inflict their damage by virtue of overwhelming numbers rather than individual potency. Planthoppers feed by piercing the plant tissue

Figure 19.1. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the American government considered unleashing planthoppers against Castro's crops. Entomologists at Fort Detrick had been working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to weap-onize planthoppers and leafhoppers as vectors of plant diseases to destroy sugarcane and rice. This photo shows the black-faced leafhopper (Graminella nigrifons), which transmits diseases of corn. (Photo by Stephen Ausmus, USDA/ARS)

and sucking the sap through their straw-like mouthparts; a heavy infestation can wilt a crop in a matter of days. But the military had far greater plans for the planthoppers.

Because these insects tap directly into a plant's fluids, they are extremely effective in transmitting microbes. An insect-vectored plant pathogen gains the same advantages as an animal pathogen: protection against adverse environmental conditions and direct transport to a susceptible host. With these advantages, an outbreak of a plant disease can devastate an agrarian nation, such as Cuba.

Available evidence suggests that the Army Chemical Corps was in cahoots with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in weaponizing planthoppers.2 The goal was to destroy Cuba's most important economic asset—sugarcane. The sugarcane leafhopper (Pyrillaperpusilla) transmits the virus that causes Fiji disease, which stunts plant growth and induces tumorlike deformities. Although the details of the proposed entomological assault remain murky, it seems that substantial progress was made.

Not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Dr. Charles L. Graham, an entomologist with the Crops Division at Fort Detrick, received a special award for his work on virus transmission by leafhoppers. And declassified documents show that the U.S. military had also considered the Hoja blanca virus, a planthopper-borne pathogen of rice (another of Cuba's major commodities), to be among the highest priority biological warfare agents.3 The importance of insect-borne plant diseases might be debated, but there's no doubt that the Americans were pursuing the weaponization of pathogens capable of destroying crops. According to William Patrick, Fort Detrick's chief of product development, the U.S. military had programs that covered the waterfront of rice and wheat diseases and had a stockpile of 40 tons of wheat rust spores—a pathogenic arsenal that was replenished every three years.4

In the end, Khrushchev backed down. On October 28, the Soviet premier ordered the removal of the missiles. Although the superpowers avoided launching nuclear warheads, a long series of suspicious insect invasions convinced the Cubans that the Americans had no reservations about launching insects. Throughout the early years of the Cold War, Fidel Castro often sprinkled his epic speeches with bombastic accusations that the United States was waging entomological warfare against his nation. His claims seemed to be little more than propagandistic rants and drew little international attention.

It took nearly 20 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis before Castro finally had what he wanted: credible evidence to support a plausible allegation. And in this instance people, rather than plants, were the supposed targets.

In May 1981, the citizens of Havana began to come down with a series of alarming symptoms: raging fevers, crippling muscle and joint pains, searing headaches with severe pain behind the eyes, and bright red rashes.5 The terrible pains in people's joints tipped off the doctors seeking a diagnosis, for the common name used to describe the disease is breakbone fever. An outbreak of dengue fever (the technically accepted name) would have been bad enough had the disease followed its typical course of merely debilitating victims, but in some cases the illness turned lethal. After four or five days of agony, patients began to develop bruises and started bleeding from the nose, mouth, and gums. Children died of internal bleeding, while adults succumbed to shock as their circulatory systems collapsed. Hemorrhagic dengue was sweeping through Cuba's capital—and new cases were cropping up in two other cities.

At the peak of the epidemic in early July, more than 10,000 patients per day were being reported by an overwhelmed medical system. The Cuban health officials knew that to control the disease they had to suppress its vector. Dengue is spread by mosquitoes, and heavy spring rains had fostered enormous numbers of Aedes aegypti; the infamous yellow fever mosquito turns out to be a versatile vector. A massive campaign was waged to suppress the biting insects, and this program quashed the disease before it spread to the entire island. During the five-month outbreak, the Ministry of Public Health recorded 344,203 cases, with 116,151 people hospitalized and 158 deaths.6

The episode was traumatic, but at first glance nothing appeared particularly unusual. Dengue is a tropical disease and Cuba was a poor nation—an epidemiological slam dunk. However, to the keen investigatory eye, the outbreak was not so easily dismissed as a natural event. William H. Schaap, a man possessing a healthy—his critics would say paranoid—distrust of the U.S. government, argued that the epidemic was artificially induced.

As a codirector for the Institute for Media Analysis (an organization devoted to "uncovering the deceptions of the mass media, which functions as a mouthpiece for the military-industrial complex") and founding editor of Covert Action Information Bulletin, Schaap may not be the most objective analyst in the world, but his case against the American government is worth considering.7 Perhaps this is a classic conspiracy theory in which genuine coincidences are framed so as to form a pattern. On the other hand, any government that seriously considers assassinating the leader of another nation via exploding cigars would seem capable of using infected mosquitoes as weapons.

The initial anomaly that set the tone for the more speculative elements of the case was the timing of the outbreak. The 1981 outbreak in Cuba was the first occurrence of dengue in nearly four decades and included the first large-scale irruption of hemorrhagic cases in the Caribbean since the turn of the century. (The hemorrhagic form of dengue can develop when a person is reinfected with the virus after an earlier bout of the disease.) Mexico and parts of Central America were also stricken by the disease in the early 1980s, so the outbreak was not localized to Cuba. However, the geographic pattern of the outbreak within Cuba was peculiar.

Dengue emerged contemporaneously in three widely separated cities. While disease outbreaks may have multiple loci, Cienfuegos is 150 miles southeast of Havana and Camaguey is another 180 miles southeast of Cienfuegos. Somehow, infected mosquitoes had simultaneously arrived in cities more than 300 miles apart. The widely spaced epicenters would have been less surprising if the initial victims had visited hot spots of the disease elsewhere in the world and brought the virus back to their communities. However, Cuban medical authorities asserted that patients had not engaged in international travels—a plausible claim given the economy and politics of Cuba. Officials reported that in May, when dengue first appeared, only a dozen people had entered the country from endemic regions (Vietnam and Laos), and the Institute of Tropical Medicine had certified them as being free of the disease.

Based largely on these epidemiological aberrations, Schaap concluded, "There appears to be no other explanation but the artificial introduction of infected mosquitos."8 The scientific community was intrigued, but unusual patterns of disease do not necessitate intentional human agency. For example, medical entomologists pointed out that at the time of the epidemic, Cuba had extensive military operations in Africa, a continent rife with hot spots of type-2 dengue. A garrison of soldiers returning to their homes in cities around Cuba could have triggered the outbreak. Facing such counter-explanations, the conspiracy theorists tapped into other lines of evidence.

The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Treaty of the Nixon administration notwithstanding, the U.S. military had developed the means of mass-producing Aedes aegypti, and the army's inventory of pathogens had included dengue, so the essential ingredients and technical know-how for entomological warfare were on the shelf. And in 1981, the Americans would only have needed enough infected insects to seed an epidemic and then let Cuba's abundant mosquito population do the rest. Skeptics retorted that the United States, not known for its patience, would not have kept a colony of dengue-infected mosquitoes going for years while waiting for the optimal conditions to develop naturally in Cuba.

Confronted with this argument, America's accusers proposed that the U.S. military had altered the weather, so as to foster the conditions necessary for mosquito-borne diseases to flourish. Nobody contested the facts that in the three afflicted cities rainfall totals were 42 to 146 percent above normal or the observation that mosquito populations exploded as a result. And it was true that since the 1940s, the U.S. military had been experimenting with cloud seeding—using silver iodide or dry-ice pellets to wring rainfall from clouds. By connecting rather distant dots, Schaap contended that the Americans first seeded the clouds to induce torrential rains, which fostered an outbreak of native mosquitoes, and then U.S. agents seeded the urban centers with dengue-infected mosquitoes to trigger the disease cycle.9 Aside from such fanciful conjectures, one thing is known: Americans were still deadly serious about entomological warfare.

In 1981, the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command at Dugway Proving Grounds completed "An Evaluation of Entomological Warfare as a Potential Danger to the United States and European NATO Nations."10 Although most of the report is hidden from public view, the declassified portions reveal the ruthless calculus of military strategists. As the title suggests, much of the analysis is expressed in terms of defending America and its allies, but there was no difficulty substituting a communist target for a western city.

The document includes an economic comparison of two biological weapons based on a pair of warfare scenarios. Assuming that a battalion was attacked with a cloud of yellow fever-infected mosquitoes or an aerosol of the bacteria responsible for tularemia, the entomological weapon proved to be substantially less costly. But battlefield releases were considered largely impractical owing to the unpredictability of the vectors' movements. There would be no such problem when attacking a city, however. The army's report laid out the scenario:

The cost of attacking an urban area covertly with yellow fever—infected mosquitos was estimated. It was assumed the cost of planning a city attack with yellow fever-infected mosquitos is comparable with the cost of planning an aerosol attack on Washington, DC (scenario 7 of reference 10). In the present hypothetical attack, 16 simultaneous attacks were planned.11

The detailed cost accounting reveals that the analysts had extremely precise knowledge of every phase of entomological warfare, suggesting that economics and logistics were derived from the perspective of an attack by the U.S. military. A table listed the costs of planning ($547), agent production ($9,066), munition acquisition ($500), and weapon deployment ($36o).12 So as not to miss any facet of an operation, the report included travel and per diem costs of covert agents. The total budget worked out to $10,473—less than a tenth of the cost for an attack with a bacterial aerosol (tularemia was used for comparison). But what really mattered was not total cost but dollars per death, and the military bookkeepers had this carefully figured. From the data in a table titled "Resource Cost Summary for Yellow Fever—infected Mosquito Attack on a City" along with a bit of back-calculation from other information in the document it appears that an attack using mosquitoes would set the military back only 3 cents per corpse.

Much of the rest of the report remains classified and therefore hidden from public scrutiny. However, the conclusions pertaining to the communist threat survived the censors and demonstrate how earnestly the U.S. military considered the possibility of entomological warfare:

Intelligence information gathered about the Warsaw Pact countries indicates that in the past, they have attempted development of an EW [entomological warfare] capability. Indirect evidence, e.g., mass rearing of potential insect vectors and working with microbiological agents compatible with EW that are not a problem in these countries, comprises the evidence available to indicate present activity in this area. The Warsaw Pact nations certainly have the capability to conduct EW. . . .

EW systems are not likely to be employed on military units because the agent vectors must be released too close to the target area. This would make a covert attack on a military unit very difficult to achieve. EW could be very effectively used against civilian urban populations or it could be used to cause great economic losses in the cattle and livestock industry.13

In fact, no evidence has ever emerged that the Soviets or their allies were poised to use yellow fever—infected mosquitoes as a weapon.14 The only nation with such a program was the United States, so one must wonder to what extent the purported analysis of the Warsaw Pact was a diversion, with the primary purpose of the report being an assessment of the Americans' capacity to wage entomological warfare.

Based on the declassified segments of the report and historical snapshots of the work conducted by military scientists, there can be little doubt that the Americans had the motive, means, and opportunity to conduct an entomological attack on Cuba. And as this tale was unfolding, another remarkable coincidence emerged on the other side of the globe.

Less than a year after the dengue epidemic in Cuba, a similar story emerged in Afghanistan. In February 1982, the Soviet weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta reported that CIA operatives posing as malaria-eradication workers in Lahore, Pakistan, were experimenting with the spread of dengue and yellow fever. The Afghan and Soviet governments accused the United States of waging biological warfare via mosquito-borne disease.15 Nothing much came of these claims, other than adding fuel to the political fire of the Cold War.

Throughout the 1980s, the Cubans kept the pot simmering by making the occasional accusation that the Americans were engaging in clandestine entomological warfare. Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. With his greatest ally in disarray and the Cold War ending, Castro turned up the political heat.

In the years following the dissolution of the USSR, Cuba and its sympathizers peppered the international community with a series of accusations that the United States was launching a virtually continuous series of entomological assaults on the island nation's agriculture. The claims came fast and furious as politicians and their advisers tried to sort the plausible from the absurd. The diplomatic food fight began in 1992, when the Green Left Weekly reported:

In December 1992, citrus fruits—in great export demand—were affected by biological warfare; the black plant louse, the most efficient transmitter of the disease known as tristeza de citrico (citrus sadness), was identified. The insect vector was traced to the Caimanera municipality, where the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo is located.16

The accused was, strictly speaking, not a louse but an aphid—most probably the brown citrus aphid, Toxoptera citricida. The Americans did not contest that this tiny creature, resembling a matte black pinhead, had been discovered in Cuba, but teensy insects constantly arrive on various shores courtesy of natural processes and inadvertent human activity. The decline and death of citrus orchards was certainly lamentable—at least for the Cubans—but if every new pest outbreak in a country hostile to the United States was going to be blamed on the superpower, then the Americans would need a government department dedicated to rebutting these accusations.

The international community required more than the appearance of a new, crop-eating insect somewhere in the world to trigger an investigation. The Cubans later claimed to have caught a U.S. scientist with four test tubes of citrus tristeza virus in his camera case, but without physical evidence to support the accusation, other governments would not be drawn into the spat.17 Undeterred, Castro continued his program of wearing down international reticence.

A year after enemy aphids had infiltrated the island, a Cuban official reported the arrival of a new pest—the citrus leafminer, Phyllocnistis citrella.18 This tiny moth first appeared in La Habana province, just 100 miles from the Florida Keys, leaving no doubt (to the Cubans) that the Americans were behind the invasion. Although its wings would not quite span a hole punched into a sheet of paper, the insect spread like wildfire on the tropical winds. The adults lay eggs on citrus leaves, and the hatching larvae destroy the foliage by burrowing between the layers of leaf tissue. The little caterpillars can also tunnel beneath the citrus rinds, ruining what few fruits the trees manage to produce. With a new generation every month, the insect outpaced control efforts on the part of the Cuban farmers. Moreover, by hiding within the plant, the larvae were protected from many insecticides. The strategy of boring into plant tissue also paid off handsomely for another insect that was purportedly introduced by the Americans.

When the coffee crop in the province of Granma Santiago de Cuba began to fail, the culprit turned out to be the coffee berry borer, Hypothenemus hampei. Like a caffeine addict's ultimate reincarnation, the larvae of this beetle bore directly into the maturing beans. Although this pest is found in most of the coffee-growing regions of the world, Cuba was spared its ravages until 1994. With the beetle running amok, coffee production in infested districts dropped by more than 80 percent, and even where harvests could be salvaged the market value of the damaged beans was abysmal. According to Cuban officials, "The coffee borer is exotic in our country and there is no plausible explanation for its natural appearance in the island. On the contrary, there is ample evidence indicating that it was intentionally introduced and showing how this was done."19 No evidence was actually presented, but perhaps the Cubans were too busy figuring out how to repulse a battalion of eight-legged invaders that had come ashore just a few miles from the infamous Bay of Pigs.

A clear understanding of how the Cubans perceived the mite outbreak in their rice crop can be garnered from transcripts of a Cuban television program, broadcast on May 24, 2002:

Randy Alonso: Good afternoon, viewers and listeners. For more than four decades our people have been exposed to horrendous acts of sabotage, underhanded attacks against economic and social facilities, banditry, mercenary invasions, biological warfare, military threats and hundreds of other terrorist acts organized and financed by successive U.S. governments. This afternoon we will continue with our round table meeting "Who are the real terrorists?" Joining me on the panel are [seven other participants and] Jorge Ovies, Director of the Plant Health Research Institute . . . Jorge Ovies: The last plague in the plant kingdom, the rice mite, appeared in September 1997, in a seed farm in the Nueva Paz municipality; a crucial center for the production of rice seeds at precisely the same time as widespread rice production was being promoted. We all know how important this has been in guaranteeing self-sufficiency in many enterprises, families, cooperatives.

This mite causes blemishes and empty grains, and it facilitates the entrance of a fungus, Sarocladium oryzae, that already existed in Cuba, but that was not widespread. The symbiosis with this mite, which causes rotting in the husk, led to greater penetration by the fungus with the resultant damage caused; this is why the vulgar name "mite-fungus complex" is applied to this phenomenon in the case of rice.

It is interesting to note, Randy, that this plague did not exist on the American continent. The only incident was a plague reported 20 years before, in Taiwan and the People's Republic of China. We did not even have any monitoring programs in place. . . .

No model could ever predict that this plague would arrive directly from Asia to our rice farms, and to a seed farm nonetheless. What is more, seeds do not transmit the mite that was introduced. When we import, we always import seeds. . . . What cannot be scientifically explained is how this plague arrived in Cuba and how exactly it coincided with the other factors; when the rice popularization program was at its peak.20

Of course, the conclusion was that the outbreak of panicle rice mite (Steneotarsonemus spinki), which cost Cuban agriculture $44.3 million in annual losses and control measures,21 was the work of the Americans. And not only were the capitalists using mites to devastate crops, but in a strange twist, insects themselves also became targets of eight-legged agents.

In 1991, just as honey was becoming a major export for Cuba, their bee industry was crippled by an epidemic of "acariasis disease."22 Although this was not a true disease in the sense that a pathogen infected the insects, the size of the culprit was very nearly microbial. This malady is due to the infestation of a tiny mite (acariasis is derived from Acari, the order to which mites belong). The culprit, Acarapis woodi, sets up house within the host's trachea, the network of breathing tubes that carry oxygen directly to the tissues. The mites crawl into the bee's spiracles, the openings of the tracheal system along the sides of the insect (which would be the equivalent of a half-inch creature crawling up your nose), and suck their meals through the thin walls of the moist, oxygenated tubes. Between draining the bee's vital fluids and stuffing its respiratory system with offspring, the mites grievously weaken their host. Infested bees are lethargic, unable to fly or gather nectar, and suffer a lingering death. Honey production plummets as the colony collapses.

The Cubans were well aware that acariasis spreads when the mites crawl out of a dead host and into healthy individuals. But a microscopic mite isn't going to get very far by walking, so the only way that a nation's hives can become infested is by the introduction of infested bees. And while mite-laden honeybees can't fly across the Gulf of Mexico, an American plane laden with sick bees could make the crossing in less than an hour. As Cuban beekeepers struggled with this new affliction, an even more devastating mite found its way to into their hives.

In 1996, varroasis was found in three apiaries in Matanzas.23 Previously unknown in Cuba, this "disease"—which is caused by another mite, Varroa

Figure 19.2. A developing worker bee is parasitized by a Varroa mite (the dark, oval object on the midsection of the host). The mite feeds on the bee's hemolymph, or "blood." In addition, these parasites can transmit deformed wing virus, a pathogen that causes lethal deformities, including stunted wings, distorted appendages, and paralysis. Castro's government accused the Americans of introducing the Varroa mite to Cuba in 1996. (Photo by Scott Bauer, USDA/ARS)

Figure 19.2. A developing worker bee is parasitized by a Varroa mite (the dark, oval object on the midsection of the host). The mite feeds on the bee's hemolymph, or "blood." In addition, these parasites can transmit deformed wing virus, a pathogen that causes lethal deformities, including stunted wings, distorted appendages, and paralysis. Castro's government accused the Americans of introducing the Varroa mite to Cuba in 1996. (Photo by Scott Bauer, USDA/ARS)

jacobsoni—is perhaps the most feared malady of bees (see Figure 19.2). Resembling a minuscule crab, the mite clings to the outside of the bee, feeding through the body wall of adult and larval bees (by comparison, imagine a five-inch tick latched onto your back). In short order, the honey industry wracked up $2 million in losses, along with the destruction of 16,000 beehives in a desperate effort to contain the epidemic.24 The Cubans were quick to note that the epicenter of the outbreak was on that part of the island nearest to southern Florida. Knowing that the United States had been battling the Varroa mite since its arrival in Wisconsin a decade earlier, Cuban officials drew what had become the obvious conclusion for a besieged island nation—imperialist mischief.

The accumulation of cases didn't seem to be headed anywhere, but the camel's back was about to break. For years Castro and his officials had been griping through unofficial channels about America's assault on Cuban agriculture. But never had the communist regime taken its complaints to an international forum. For that matter, no government had ever formally invoked the provisions of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. That is, until the final straw descended on Cuba in 1996.

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