Cuba accuses US of invasion - by insect

A creepy-crawly plague has caused a new crisis, reports Phil Davison
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Having failed to kill its arch-enemy Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar in the Sixties, has the United States become more subtle? Is it now engaged in discreet biological warfare, bombarding Cuba with bacteria that will spread a plague across the communist Caribbean island?

"Yes," says Mr Castro's regime. "Outrageous disinformation," insists the State Department. But then again, the US said the same about the exploding cigar, which was later confirmed by its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents.

The Cuban government sent a protest note to the United Nations Secretary- General, Kofi Annan, last week, accusing the US of "biological aggression" by bombarding the island with a plague of insects which destroy all crops in their path. The insects were released among a "mystery substance" sprayed by a small private US single-engine aircraft, registered under the name of the State Department, the note said.

The insects - which Cuba described in what appeared to be a quaint distortion of Latin as thrips palmi - first wiped out potato fields in Matanzas province and could further threaten the island's vital sugar crop, already badly hit by last year's Hurricane Lili, Mr Castro's government insisted.

"This is a new biological attack carried out by a hostile neighbour," the Cubans said. "This pest strikes and severely damages practically every crop and is resistant to a variety of pesticides. These insects are ideal biological agents for inflicting the utmost damage on agricultural crops."

Needless to say, the Cuban protest was widely treated in the US media the way the State Department portrayed it - "disinformation" in public, "baloney" in private. But then the Cubans described the US plane, gave its registration number and wheeled out a respected Cuban commercial airline pilot with an eyewitness account.

"It was an S2R crop-dusting plane. I saw it release unknown substances, in the form of a white or greyish mist," said the pilot, who had been flying a Fokker aircraft for Cuba's state airline Cubana de Aviacion.

Ah, yes, there was such a plane over Cuba, it did belong to the US government, it was a crop-spraying plane - but it never released anything other than smoke, responded a State Department spokesman, John Dinger. The plane was on its way to Colombia to help eradicate narcotics plantations there and had been given permission to overfly Cuba, he said.

When the plane's pilot saw a Cuban commercial airliner nearby, he used his smoke generator to "mark his spot" to ensure the bigger aircraft saw him, Mr Dinger said. "The pilot was following prudent and safe aviation procedures."

The American plane was carrying no herbicides, the American spokesman added. These are only taken aboard in Colombia. "During long flights, the sprinkling systems are not operational. The tanks which normally carry herbicides are actually used to carry fuel."

Mr Castro gave up cigars a long time ago. Whether he is still eating local potatoes is not immediately known.