Conversations with Wendy Zukerman: Biological Warfare, the CIA, and Fidel Castro’s pigs.

Gimlet Media’s podcasts get regular rotation in Scientific Inquirer’s playlists (can podcasts rotate?) and its no secret that they’ve got fans here. Science Vs. is one of our favorites. Wendy Zukerman, the podcast’s host and executive producer, set aside some time to discuss the latest, fascinating episodes of Science Vs. that deal with a long standing, geopolitical conspiracy. Did the CIA wage a covert biological warfare attack on Cuba’s pigs in order to destabilize Fidel Castro’s regime.

How did you come across this particular story about African Swine Fever and the CIA?

My friend, Dan Guillemette, had worked on Scattered, which is a podcast all about a family story in Cuba, and he had interviewed a bunch of people about something different. He had spoke to several people and they had talked about an incident where the US government came infected the pigs in Cuba. The Cuban government came and started confiscating pigs then killing and burning them. And they just kept hearing the story. So we did a really quick Google and then found this conspiracy theory and he was telling me about it. I was like “Oh my god we could do an episode to find out the truth.”

Then the pandemic happened. But as the coronavirus kicked in, there were all these niche conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. They had similar themes like how it was created and released. It gave the Cuba story a new angle and new relevance. Viruses happen all over the world and humans have a really hard time dealing with them.

What is ASF? How does it affect pigs? Can humans be infected?

Humans cannot be infected, thankfully because it is a horrible disease. Pig mortality rates come in at 95 to 99%. It’s a really not in a nice way to die. Academics were telling me that it’s a hemorrhagic disease and that every part of the pig starts bleeding. They get this nasty thing where if they are pregnant, they miscarry. It’s devastating. Luckily, African Swine Fever has never been seen in humans. 

It’s a hardy virus though not super contagious. However, it spreads quite well because it can survive for a very long time. If there’s pig blood on the ground and it’s washed away, there’s still virus present. Then if a farmer walks over the soil and goes to another farm, that’s how it is spread.

It’s funny, I feel like before the coronavirus, people weren’t really thinking about how long is the virus survive on surfaces. Now, we’re very familiar with this concept. 

Can you provide some historical context? What was the relationship between the United States and Cuba like at the time?

It was bad. It was very bad. Fidel Castro had defeated the dictator (Fulgencio Bautista) and came to power in 1959 and then set up the communist regime. This came at a time when the United States was really fearful of communism. At the time it was a very, very big deal. That was a little bit before the virus outbreak.

There was a big push to get rid of Fidel Castro with an assassination plot. I was reading declassified CIA documents and government memos from the time. They were discussing, “How are we going to make life difficult for Cuba. How are we going to ruin the economy? How are we going to get rid of Castro?” This was a very open policy — Get rid of the communist regime. Then as we go into the 1970s the African Swine Fever outbreak happened. 

Fidel Castro (2nd from right)

What were the exact accusations that people were making about what the CIA was involved with with the ASF outbreak?

Different people — either on the ground in Cuba and then in a Newsday article that was one of the linchpins of the CIA theory — have slightly different claims. Generally speaking, the idea was that the CIA either actively released the virus into Cuba with the aim of killing the pigs, making life difficult for Castro, and sowing discontent amongst the people. This was because, in order to contain the infection, the Castro government had to kill the pigs and people were really upset by that.

When we spoke to Drew Fetherston, the journalist involved in the Newsday article, he said that maybe the CIA helped release it. Maybe they paid a lot of money. He and his partner, John Cummings, spoke to sources who said that they had this container and they passed it from place to place and then this outbreak happened. They couldn’t directly link the CIA. One of the sources said that they were paid a lot of money and who has this kind of money? The CIA. 

During the course of putting together the podcast, you dealt with CIA bureaucracy, filing FOIA requests, etc. What was that like?

I put in a few FOIA requests with varying degrees of specificity. I mentioned that I was from the media and had deadlines. People I spoke to about it said good luck. I did hear back a few months later. Very surprisingly I got a manila envelope full of documents that were redacted. I tried to get them unredacted because I was thinking that by now — 2020 — maybe they can give me the actual documents. That’s when I ran into the CIA’s bureaucracy.

They couldn’t give us a firm sense of what they did since the documents were heavily redacted. What it did show was that the CIA followed the outbreak closely. It showed that they had people in Cuba that were reporting back what was happening. It gave us a sense of what the CIA was looking for.

At any point, did it seem believable that the CIA would engage in biowarfare?

That’s a good question. Looking at some of the other proposals that were thrown around at the time and the vigor that the United States had at the time to make life difficult in Cuba, it definitely didn’t feel crazy that they might have done something like this.

So in the latest episodes of Science Vs. you’ve addressed a lingering geopolitical conspiracy theory. What’s in store for the podcast?

Next week, we are doing an episode on magic mushrooms. The other episode might be another coronavirus episode. We’ve also been doing some interviews about AI and surveillance. Those are the things on the immediate horizon. For next season, we have an ever growing list of topics and now we’re getting all these conspiracy theories that we need to look into as well.

IMAGE CREDIT: Gimlet Media

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