UNITED STATES: Cuba's 'axis' listing a cover for other goals

May 15, 2002


NEW YORK — The administration of US President George Bush lumped Cuba into its “war on terrorism” on May 6 — placing the country on a second-tier “axis of evil” list with Syria and Libya.

The US has accused Cuban leader Fidel Castro of trying to develop and distribute biological weapons. Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for the western hemisphere, said Bush has ordered his foreign policy team to review the policy tools that are available to “accelerate” the end of the Castro regime.

For the most part, the Bush administration has lacked a substantive foreign policy in Latin America. Any energy expended on the region was subsumed by September 11 and the war against al Qaeda. Suddenly, however, Washington is setting its terrorism-fighting sights on Cuba and, by extension, the entire region. The question is: Why? And, more pertinently: Why now? The answer may ultimately lie at home.

Washington's inclusion of Cuba on the list of suspected promulgators of “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) is probably an attempt to shore up domestic support for the anti-terrorism war by bringing the threat closer to home — putting it in familiar territory, with a familiar enemy. At the same time, it marries the administration's floundering Latin America policy — and recent misadventures in Venezuela and Colombia — with the overriding goal of eradicating terrorism.

The new focus on Cuba serves as a diversion from the battle against al Qaeda — which has focused on almost every region of the world except Latin America, where Islamic extremism is hard to find. The range of the al Qaeda battle has stretched US forces and capabilities, making the lack of a threat in Latin America a welcome reprieve. But, from another perspective, it created a hole in US foreign policy, where the war on terrorism could not be used as a Trojan Horse to help achieve other goals in the region.

By adding Cuba to the expanded “axis of evil”, the Bush administration will seek to pursue its goals in Colombia and Venezuela — the two Latin American countries dominating Washington's radar screen at the moment — with greater gusto, all under the guise of fighting terrorism and warding off the frightening possibility of a biological attack on the United States.

For Colombia, this means even greater US involvement in its escalating civil war. Bush administration attempts to expand aid to the Colombian military in its fight against leftist insurgents have been largely unsuccessful, despite branding the insurgents as narco-terrorists and linking that fight to the drug war.

Washington now can play on the historical connections between Cuba and the Marxist-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), as well as on alleged links between FARC leaders and a wider terrorist network, to claim that Colombia's internal struggle against insurgents is a national security priority for the United States.

Demonising Cuba will be even more useful in dealing with Venezuela, where the real issue is, and always will be, oil.

President Hugo Chavez counts Castro among his closest friends, and the connections between the two countries are myriad, including a valuable oil supply deal. Washington is still smarting from Chavez's return from a failed ouster and from allegations that US officials may have had advance knowledge of — or even supported — the coup attempt.

The Bush administration can use the friendship between Castro and Chavez to paint the Venezuelan president as a potential threat to US national security. It will do so obliquely — but even so, that connection will be important as US officials plan their next move regarding Venezuela.

Cuba appears to be just a pawn in a wider strategy, despite the administration's efforts to paint Castro as a real threat. Cuba certainly didn't make the list purely on its own merits, for there is little evidence that it represents an immediate or expanded threat.

In its global survey of WMD, the Federation of American Scientists states that Cuba does not possess nuclear or chemical weapons, nor are there credible reports of Havana's efforts to acquire them. The FAS notes that “Cuba is generally regarded as having a program of research on biological warfare agents, though the scope and focus of this effort remains obscure and controversial”.

Furthermore, the Bush administration has acknowledged the limited scope of the threat. Speaking May 6 to the Heritage Foundation, John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said the United States believes Cuba has “at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort.” This belief is nothing new, and no new evidence yet has been made public that makes the threat of Cuba's production or distribution of biological agents to rogue nations any more immediate.

The Bush administration has learned that vague threats can be effective, especially at home, but that such threats also need a visible face. That makes launching a primarily faceless war against terrorism exceedingly difficult.

Even with Osama bin Laden, the US public eventually will lose its fear of the stateless and amorphous al Qaeda, especially if it fails to attack again soon. How convenient then to call on the usual suspects — North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi — to shore up domestic support for the war. And who, after all, is more convenient — more usual — than Fidel Castro?

From Green Left Weekly, May 15, 2002.
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