PETER MCKENNA: Making sense of an unconscionable and irrational U.S.-Cuba policy

Posters with revolutionary slogans are for sale at a street market in Cuba. The CIA was once involved in introducing an African swine virus into the neighbouring country. – RF Stock

Peter McKenna
Special to The Guardian

Much of the world is preoccupied these days with the huge human toll from the deadly novel coronavirus. The figures for deaths in the United States are slowly approaching 150,000, while the count for tiny Cuba barely cracks 100.

I’ve been reading lately about another frightening pathogen involving the U.S. and Cuba almost 50 years ago. And it cries out for explanation and understanding of an extraordinarily sick U.S.-Cuba relationship — even today

Working closely with anti-Cuba exile operatives, the CIA was once involved in introducing an African swine virus (of which there is typically no transmission between animal to human) into Cuba in 1971. It was just one of many bizarre attempts to galvanize the Cuban people against the government, to tighten the noose on Cuba’s economy and to assassinate Fidel Castro himself.

On the front page of the Jan. 10, 1977 San Francisco Chronicle, reprinting a story from New York’s Newsday newspaper, blared the headline: “1971 Mystery — CIA Link to Cuban Pig Virus Reported.” It went on to state bluntly: “With at least the tacit backing of U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officials, operatives linked to anti-Castro terrorists introduced African swine fever virus into Cuba in 1971.”

While the virus infects only pigs (and thus does not kill humans), it is not something to be taken lightly. In fact, the 1971 outbreak was the first time that the highly contagious virus had actually been detected in the Western hemisphere.

Based on several interviews of key participants, Newsday was able to piece together the thrust of what happened. A vial of the virus was apparently taken from a U.S. Army base (Fort Gulick) in the Panama Canal Zone and given to anti-Castro terrorists who brought it to waters near Cuba in a fishing trawler.

After that, it was given to opponents of the Cuban government near the U.S. Navy facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It was then subsequently introduced to numerous small farms in the Cuban countryside.

Six weeks after the virus was seeded, the Cuban government evidently slaughtered 500,000 pigs to prevent a costly country-wide spread of the disease. This, in turn, led to a serious shortage of pork for several months, a staple food and an important source of meat on the island. The idea was to create havoc in the country, to undermine the country’s economy and to encourage Cubans to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro.

Not surprisingly, a CIA spokesperson in Washington denied any involvement in such an operation. As far as he was concerned, the outbreak came from the importation of uncured meat from Europe (though one virologist at the time questioned whether the virus could be transmitted through dried meat). Of course, this is precisely the type of covert action that the CIA would not want to leave any fingerprints on.

When you think about it, though, it’s just hard to comprehend. So, how do we explain the amoral and reprehensible lengths to which the U.S. will go punish Cuba and the Cuban people?

Fidel Castro got it right when he once said that Cuba — in the eyes of the U.S. — has committed the unforgiveable sin of opting for a socialist path and a centrally-planned economy. Add to that Cuba’s unwillingness to bow to incessant U.S. pressure, its predilection to criticize openly the U.S. at every opportunity and its penchant to challenge U.S. hegemony or dominance in the Americas.

This is all closely linked to the argument that Cuba represents another alternative way or model that Washington has always feared other countries in the hemisphere might emulate. Simply put, the U.S craves stability, order and control in its so-called “backyard” — mostly for economic and security purposes — and thus will do whatever it takes to prevent revolution, socialist reforms and non-market systems from taking root in the region.

Yes, it’s true that more instrumental factors are also at play, such as crude domestic electoral politics and the 29 Electoral College votes of Florida, the bureaucratic inertia of a decidedly anti-Cuba officialdom in Washington and the vested interests of a declining Cuban-American presence and its hard-line Cuba policy preferences.

There is something more ingrained, though, in the U.S. psyche — namely, the belief that Cuba is and always will be the “enemy” (see the U.S. Trading with the Enemy Act). Many Americans just can’t get past the idea that Cuba has defied the U.S. repeatedly and has survived to tell the tale proudly.

Perhaps there’s hope in the fact that the U.S. has grudgingly been able to make peace with Vietnam and fashion an economic entente with communist China. But it will need to begin with the U.S. government forgetting altogether the notion of “saving face” when it comes to revolutionary Cuba. It really is time to turn the page.

Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Source: the guardian