The CIA's outlandish plots to bump off the Cuban dictator would put
007 to shame ... poison pills, toxic cigars and exploding molluscs. Once he
even offered to shoot himself, reports Duncan Campbell
For nearly half a century, the CIA and Cuban exiles have been trying to devise
ways to assassinate Fidel Castro, who is currently laid low in Cuba following
an operation for intestinal bleeding. None of the plots, of course, succeeded,
but, then, many of them would probably be rejected as too fanciful for a James
Fabian Escalante, who, for a time, had the job of keeping El Commandante
alive, has calculated that there have been a total of 638 attempts on Castro's
life. That may sound like a staggeringly high figure, but then the CIA were
pretty keen on killing him. As Wayne Smith, former head of the US interests
section in Havana, pointed out recently, Cuba had the effect on the US that
a full moon has on a werewolf. It seems highly likely that if the CIA had had
access to a werewolf, it would have tried smuggling it into the Sierra Maestra
at some point over the past 40-odd years.
The most spectacular of the plots against Castro will be examined in a Channel
4 documentary entitled 638 Ways to Kill Castro, as well as in a companion book
of the same name written by the now-retired Escalante - a man who, while in his
post as head of the Cuban secret service, played a personal part in heading off
a number of the plots. While the exploding cigar that was intended to blow up
in Castro's face is perhaps the best-known of the attempts on his life, others
have been equally bizarre.
Knowing his fascination for scuba-diving off the coast of Cuba, the CIA at one
time invested in a large volume of Caribbean molluscs. The idea was to find a
shell big enough to contain a lethal quantity of explosives, which would then
be painted in colours lurid and bright enough to attract Castro's attention when
he was underwater. Documents released under the Clinton administration confirm
that this plan was considered but, like many others, did not make it far from
the drawing-board. Another aborted plot related to Castro's underwater activities
was for a diving-suit to be prepared for him that would be infected with a fungus
that would cause a chronic and debilitating skin disease.
One of the reasons there have been so many attempts on his life is that he
has been in power for so long. Attempts to kill Castro began almost immediately
after the 1959 revolution, which brought him to power. In 1961, when Cuban exiles
with the backing of the US government tried to overthrow him in the Bay of Pigs
fiasco, the aim was to assassinate Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevara. Two
years later, on the day that President Kennedy was assassinated, an agent who
had been given a pen-syringe in Paris was sent to kill Castro, but failed.
On one occasion, a former lover was recruited to kill him, according to Peter
Moore, producer of the new film. The woman was given poison pills by the CIA,
and she hid them in her cold cream jar. But the pills melted and she decided
that, all things considered, putting cold cream in Castro's mouth while he slept
was a bad idea. According to this woman, Castro had already guessed that she
was aiming to kill him and he duly offered her his own pistol. "I can't
do it, Fidel," she told him.
No one apparently could. This former lover is far from the only person to have
failed to poison Castro: at one point the CIA prepared bacterial poisons to
be placed in Castro's hand-kerchief or in his tea and coffee, but nothing came
of it. A CIA poison pill had to be abandoned when it failed to disintegrate
in water during tests.
The most recent serious assassination attempt that we know of came in 2000
when Castro was due to visit Panama. A plot was hatched to put 200lb (90kg)
of high explosives under the podium where he was due to speak. That time, Castro's
personal security team carried out their own checks on the scene, and helped
to abort the plot. Four men, including Luis Posada, a veteran Cuban exile and
former CIA operative, were jailed as a result, but they were later given a pardon
and released from jail.
As it happens, Posada is the most dedicated of those who have tried and failed
to get rid of the Cuban president. He is currently in jail in El Paso, Texas,
in connection with extradition attempts by Venezuela and Cuba to get him to
stand trial for allegedly blowing up a Cuban airliner in 1976. His case is due
to come back before the courts later this month but few imagine that he will
be sent to stand trial, and he appears confident that he will be allowed to
resume his retirement in Florida, a place where many of the unsuccessful would-be
assassins have made their homes.
Not all the attempts on Castro's life have been fancifully complicated: many
have been far simpler and owe more to the methods of the mafia who used to hang
out in the casinos and hotels of Havana in the 40s and 50s, than they do to
James Bond. At one time the CIA even approached underworld figures to try to
carry out the killing. One of Castro's old classmates planned to shoot him dead
in the street in broad daylight much in the manner of a mafia hit. One would-be
sniper at the University of Havana was caught by security men. But the shooters
were no more successful than the poisoners and bombers.
Officially, the US has abandoned its attempt to kill its arch-enemy, but Cuban
security are not taking any chances. Any gifts sent to the ailing leader as
he lies ill this week will be carefully scrutinised, just as they were when
those famous exploding cigars were being constructed by the CIA's technical
services department in the early 60s. (They never got to him, by the way, those
cigars contaminated with botulinum toxin, but they are understood to have been
made using his favourite brand. Castro gave up smoking in 1985.)
All these plots inevitably changed the way Castro lived his life. While in
his early years in office, he often walked alone in the street, but that practice
had to change. Since then doubles have been used, and over the decades Castro
has moved between around 20 different addresses in Cuba to make it harder for
any potential hitmen to reach him.
Meanwhile, jokes about Castro's apparent indestructibility have become commonplace
in Cuba. One, recounted in the New Yorker this week, tells of him being given
a present of a Galapagos turtle. Castro declines it after he learns that it
is likely to live only 100 years. "That's the problem with pets,"
he says. "You get attached to them and then they die on you".
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