AMERICA’S MOST WANTED – The extraordinary CIA plans to assassinate Fidel Castro

638 ways to kill Castro

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro died aged ninety of natural causes in November 2016. Despite the mixed opinions and vast amount of controversy surrounding Castro, the Cuban leader managed to rule for over five decades and is still the longest-ruling non-royal national leader since 1900. Castro’s regime is argued to be have successful in terms of improving Cuban healthcare and minimalizing racism, but his leadership was also criticised based on restrictive economic and political freedoms. However, Castro’s biggest challenge was Cuba’s relationship with the United States. The 1960’s saw the Bay of Pigs Invasion (April 1961), the Cuban Missile Crisis (Oct 1962) and a trade embargo against Cuba that was maintained for over fifty years. The United States’ personal dislike for Castro was also obvious. Castro’s bodyguard Fabian Escalante claimed, in his book Executive Action: 634 Ways to Kill Castro, there had been 638 assassination attempts on the leader’s life. The Church Committee, led by US senate Frank Church, was responsible for investigating governmental operations related to intelligence activity. The committee released a report which offered, in stark language, clear evidence the U.S. government had repeatedly tried to kill Castro, after first attempting to weaken him politically. “We have found concrete evidence of at least eight plots involving the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro from 1960 to 1965,” the committee reported. The CIA also declassified their ‘Family Jewells’, 705 pages of memorandums and reports detailing some of the agency’s worst illegal abuses during 25 years of overseas assassination attempts, domestic spying and kidnapping. Based on these claims and reports, it seems incredible that Castro made it through his period in office, and I found it fascinating to explore the many astonishing ways the CIA failed to assassinate arguably their most wanted man. In this blog, I will present some of my favourite, extraordinary CIA assassination attempts against Fidel Castro.

FRIENDS WITH THE MAFIA

Johnny Roselli
John Roselli

You would think the CIA and American government would not cooperate with the likes of the Mafia to execute their plans, even when trying to assassinate Castro. This was not the case. The ‘Family Jewells’ documents revealed that in August 1960, a CIA agent contacted Colonel Sheffield Edwards, the CIA’s Office of Security, to ask whether he had contacts worthy of ‘gangster-type action’. From then onwards, Mafia members and undercover Cuban officials began to step forward, such as Johnny Roselli, Momo Salvatore Giancana, Santo Trafficante, Juan Orta etc. Both Giancana and Trafficante were on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list at the time. However, many of them had contacts and abilities to access Castro through hidden identities, making the CIA believe they were the best men available to help assassinate Castro. Orta, a corrupt Cuban official took on the challenge of killing Castro, once a meeting was held between the participants. They decided it was best to try and poison Castro. Supposedly six pills of highly toxic content were given to Orta, but after weeks of unsuccessful attempts to access Castro, Orta was described as having ‘cold feet’. It’s also believed that further assassination attempts were undertaken but their end-results are unknown. The CIA’s willingness to cooperate with criminals and gang members highlights the hopelessness of the agency. Clearly they believed Castro’s assassination was justifiable enough to allow payments to Mafia members. I found the revelations of the ‘Family Jewells’ documents interesting, especially regarding the cooperation with the Mafia, as it reveals the CIA conducting so many wrongs in order to achieve what they believe was a ‘right’

LOVER’S PILLS

Castro and Lorenz
Lorenz and Castro

The CIA studied Castro’s habits and hobbies in an attempt to conjure up a full-proof plan to assassinate the Cuban leader. A lot of attention was also placed on both the everyday items and valuable possessions of Castro. Ultimately, it can be said that the CIA looked into as many assassination options as possible. One well-known hobby of Castro was smoking, particularly from Cuban cigars. In 1960, it is believed that the CIA poisoned a box of Castro’s favourite cigars with a substance called botulinum toxin. This toxin was lethal enough to instantly kill anyone once put in contact with the mouth. However, the poisoned cigars never reached Castro and he ended up quitting smoking anyway in 1985. Rumour has it the CIA tried to deliver an ‘exploding’ cigar to Castro, but that story is littered with speculation. Castro’s fondness of diving was also noticed by the CIA. Knowing that Castro was a keen diver, agents looked to deploy assassination tactics centred on a diving expedition. Incredibly, according to a Church Committee report in 1963, the anti-Castro task force proposed a plan which involved rigging an exotic shell with explosives and depositing it in an area where Castro commonly dived. Another diving-related plan involved presenting Castro with an infected diving suit. The CIA hoped James Donovan, who negotiated the release of prisoners taken during the Bay of Pigs invasion, would offer Castro a diving suit dusted with fungi that caused a chronic skin disease (Madura Foot). However, although the suit was bought and contaminated, the suit never actually left the laboratory during times of tense negotiation with Cuba. And finally, perhaps the most desperate attempt to limit Castro’s lifestyle to constantly avoiding danger, was the ice cream/ milkshake plot. As mentioned before, the CIA were not scared to reach out to Mafia contacts, and in March 1961 prominent Cuban Tony Verona was contacted. Tim Weiner, writer of Legacy of Ashes, and Fabian Escalante believed this was the closest the CIA came to assassinating Castro. Supposedly Verona handed a vial of poison to a Havana restaurant worker, whose job was then to slip the poison into Castro’s ice cream cone. However, Cuban officers later found the vial in an ice box at the back of the restaurant. Escalante though claims the plot involved chocolate milkshake instead of ice cream. He believed that although the poison was never discovered by Cuban intelligence, it instead spilled out of the restaurant freezer it was kept in and was deemed useless. It would seem that the CIA truly pulled out all the stops in order to eliminate Castro, to a point where it seemed extremely desperate. This desperation to undermine Cuba and Castro was explained simply by Wayne Smith, the former head of the US interests section in Havana. He said “Cuba seems to have the same effect on American administrations that a full moon has on a werewolf. We may not sprout hair and howl but we behave in the same way.”

LETHAL PLEASURES

The CIA studied Castro’s habits and hobbies in an attempt to conjure up a full-proof plan to assassinate the Cuban leader. A lot of attention was also placed on both the everyday items and valuable possessions of Castro. Ultimately, it can be said that the CIA looked into as many assassination options as possible. One well-known hobby of Castro was smoking, particularly from Cuban cigars. In 1960, it is believed that the CIA poisoned a box of Castro’s favourite cigars with a substance called botulinum toxin. This toxin was lethal enough to instantly kill anyone once put in contact with the mouth. However, the poisoned cigars never reached Castro and he ended up quitting smoking anyway in 1985. Rumour has it the CIA tried to deliver an ‘exploding’ cigar to Castro, but that story is littered with speculation. Castro’s fondness of diving was also noticed by the CIA. Knowing that Castro was a keen diver, agents looked to deploy assassination tactics targeting a diving expedition. Incredibly, according to a Church Committee report in 1963, the anti-Castro task force proposed a plan which involved rigging an exotic shell with explosives and depositing it in an area where Castro commonly dived. Another diving-related plan involved presenting Castro with an infected diving suit. The CIA hoped James Donovan, who negotiated the release of prisoners taken during the Bay of Pigs invasion, would offer Castro a diving suit dusted with fungi that caused a chronic skin disease (Madura Foot). However, although the suit was bought and contaminated, the suit never actually left the laboratory during times of tense negotiation with Cuba. And finally, perhaps the most desperate attempt to limit Castro’s lifestyle to constantly avoiding danger, was the ice cream/ milkshake plot. As mentioned before, the CIA were not scared to reach out to Mafia contacts, and in March 1961 prominent Cuban Tony Verona was contacted. Tim Weiner, writer of Legacy of Ashes, and Fabian Escalante believed this was the closest the CIA came to assassinating Castro. Supposedly Verona handed a vial of poison to a Havana restaurant worker, whose job was then to slip the poison into Castro’s ice cream cone. However, Cuban officers later found the vial in an ice box at the back of the restaurant. Escalante though claims the plot involved chocolate milkshake instead of ice cream. He believed that although the poison was never discovered by Cuban intelligence, it instead spilled out of the restaurant freezer it was kept in and was deemed useless. It would seem that the CIA truly pulled out all the stops in order to eliminate Castro, to a point where it seemed extremely desperate. This desperation to undermine Cuba and Castro was explained simply by Wayne Smith, the former head of the US interests section in Havana. He said “Cuba seems to have the same effect on American administrations that a full moon has on a werewolf. We may not sprout hair and howl but we behave in the same way.”

Fidel Castro arguably avoided more assassination attempts that any other national leader. Despite being in power for over fifty years and rarely conceding to the threats of the US, Castro avoided every assassination attempt the CIA threw at him. It is obviously important to remember to not believe everything you read, but my sense of amazement comes from the fact no stories or plots have yet been revealed where it seemed as if Castro did not have everything under control. Even when the CIA came ‘close’, Castro always seemed to have a plan up his sleeve. I think the fact he was not naive and almost expected the assassination attempts, meant his chances of avoiding danger was much higher. Even once the CIA had given up assassinating him, Castro still evaded schemes which looked to tarnish his reputation. Plans included spraying Castro’s broadcasting studio with a chemical that would make him suffer ‘LSD-type’ hallucinations, spiking Castro’s cigars with a chemical which was meant to disorientate him before he made a speech, and even dusting his shoes with thallium salts which would have made Castro’s iconic beard fall out. Whether Castro was aware of these plots or not, he always managed to side-step the danger, much to the frustration of the CIA. He may have been the CIA’s most wanted but he was virtually untouchable. Castro even said himself, “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal.”Plot to Kill Castro newspaper


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