The Bulgarian Treatment

Carlos Alberto Montaner
Dec. 28, 1997, in El Nuevo Herald and other newspapers.

Nine years ago, following the death of Sebastián Arcos, Carlos Alberto Montaner published an article titled The Bulgarian treatment, about the possible utilization of radioactive isotopes to murder Cuban dissidents. It was not an unfounded speculation: some time earlier, the author had met in Madrid a defector from the Cuban intelligence services who had received special training in Bulgaria to utilize that method of assassination. The death Nov. 23 in Londres of Alexander Litvinenko, precisely the victim of a radioactive isotope (Polonium 210) presumably injected by Russian spies, again brings up the theory posited in that column, which is reproduced below.

Madrid -- He so looked forward to his daughter-in-law's delivery. After all, it would be his first grandchild and he didn't want to die without seeing the baby's face. It wasn't to be. Fate is almost always miserly. Then 65, he missed the child's birth by a few weeks. After a very long agony -- three years of unspeakable suffering -- Sebastián Arcos, one of the heroes of the Cuban resistance during the tyranny, former fighter against Batista and Castro, former political prisoner, former university professor, the founder -- along with his brother Gustavo and Ricardo Bofill -- of the Committee for Human Rights, died surrounded by his children, his faithful wife, the remarkable María Juana, and a few friends he made in the prison cells during his misfortune. He was a good and tough fellow, straight as an arrow, the kind who knows neither disloyalty nor deceit.

But I'm not going to write a panegyric to my friend Sebastián, whose death I feel like a stroke of the lash. Rather, I'll venture a terrible hypothesis: it is very likely that Sebastián Arcos' captors induced cancer on him in the Cuban prison where he served a sentence for political rebellion. His jailers liked to boast of that. They warned Leonel Morejón Almagro: "We're going to put you in the cell once occupied by Sebastián, so you can come down with cancer like he did." The truth is that, when Sebastián complained of back pain and was taken to the prison doctor, the diagnosis was cynically benign: "It's nothing. It's only fatigued vertebrae or muscles."

At the end, when they allowed him to go into exile, the metastasis was implacable and the government knew it. That's why they authorized his expatriation. They didn't want another "martyr" in a Cuban prison, much less of his international dimension. After he arrived in Miami, it took the doctors barely half an hour to reach the correct diagnosis. The chances of cure were nil. At the most, doctors could only lengthen his life and reduce the pain with a merciful combination of morphine and severed nerves. Am I exaggerating? Is this article just another example of exilium tremens? Read the following with extreme care.

Nineteen years go, a young Cuban biologist -- let's call him David -- "defected" at Barajas Airport. He was traveling from Bulgaria to Cuba, with a stopover in Madrid. He was so clever that he not only escaped from the Cuban Security Service guards who accompanied him in the plane but also slipped out of the airport without being detected by the Spanish authorities. The following day, he turned himself over to the police and told his story. That same afternoon, he repeated it to me, in hair-raising detail.

He was coming from Sophia, where Zhivkov's sinister political police had given him special training on how to induce cancer on adversaries who were slated for elimination by unsuspicious means. He called it the Bulgarian treatment. "The simplest way," he told me, "is to place a radioactive isotope on the target's favorite chair" -- he already talked the Security Service jargon -- "or in a jacket he wears frequently, or in his mattress, or the car seat. After a few months, chances are good that a cancerous process will begin in his mediastinum."

A "radioactive isotope" is not a strange element. Almost all the big hospitals use them, paradoxically to combat certain forms of cancer. They are small metallic filaments that are easily concealed. "The ideal thing is to place it and then, after six months, remove it so no signs of the crime remain." "Have you already put it into practice?" I remember asking, quite alarmed. "No, but I thought about doing it as soon as I arrived in Cuba, if I couldn't manage to defect." "On some dissident?" I asked, nervously.

"No," he said, with an absolutely convincing straight face. "I was thinking of trying it out on my mother-in-law, an odious Spanish-Russian woman who shattered my marriage." Fortunately, David met a wonderful Spanish girl, married her, and now lives in the United States far and away from the ignoble "profession" he learned from the Bulgarians.

More information. In Cuba, there are two supersecret, high-security laboratories in the Siboney district, both with decontamination chambers. They are situated in the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, which produces aflatoxin -- another strongly cancerogenic substance that attacks the lungs -- and a variety of toxic and chemical weapons similar to those apparently hidden in the palaces of Mr. Saddam Hussein, a good friend of Castro's who shares both the Cuban leader's hatred for the gringos and Castro's personal physician, Dr. Alvarez Cambra, an eminent orthopedist.

Why those weapons? To face "Yankee imperialism" in the event of a military conflict. Chemical and biological weapons are said to be the atomic bombs of the poor. Some plagues have already been tested by the least-risky means, using as a method of transmittal the migratory birds that fly between Cuba and Florida during specific periods of the year. The experiments -- co-conducted by a Cuban ornithologist, a specialist in birds of prey, who is today living in exile -- were made using relatively harmless mites, but the purpose was to ascertain the effectiveness of the means of transport. If the method proved to be effective, ducks could later be used to carry much more lethal viruses and bacteria.

Castro is a dangerous enemy who is guided only by his survival instinct and does not hesitate to order the assassination of an adversary if he thinks that person is a potential risk to the stability of his regime. He ordered the deaths by shooting of comandante Aldo Vera, a former comrade-in-arms, on a street of Puerto Rico, and José Elías de la Torriente in Miami.

It is probable that he ordered the death by cancer induction -- a more subtle technique -- against Manuel Artime Buesa, his arch-enemy of the 1960s, who died at the age of 38 with his lungs inexplicably ravaged. And against Rafael García Navarro, an active anti-Castro militant, an economically powerful man, a partner and friend of Rafael Díaz-Balart, Castro's former brother-in-law and the person most hated by the Cuban dictator, who died at 41 of the same symptoms. And even against Jorge Mas Canosa, who -- at the age of 53 and after a healthy life untainted by cigarettes -- discovered that he had only five years left, a coldly exact death sentence.

Someday, perhaps, all the pieces of the puzzle will fit together. Or maybe everything will become a rumor that will fade with time. Lamentably, the crimes of state are usually "perfect." I would have liked to write a heartfelt obituary of Sebastián, but I know that the best homage is to tell what we know and what we intuit. Sebastián was a good, upright and tough man. That's the way he lived. That's why he knew how to die.

Firmas Press