How Fidel Castro Survived 638 Very Bizarre Assassination Attempts
In 2006 the former head of Cuban intelligence, Fabian Escalante, told a British documentary team the CIA had tried to kill Fidel Castro more than 600 times, over a period of about 40 years.
In a series of bungled and bizarre schemes - like something out of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, Get Smart, or any other James Bond parody ever - the CIA overwhelmingly failed to kill Castro.
Was Escalante exaggerating? Hard to say, but we know from declassified CIA reports, as well as the testimony of some would-be assassins, that the agency did try to kill Castro plenty of times. Not all these plots were executed; many were ideas plucked from the fevered imagination of the world's most powerful spy agency. They inevitably shrivelled up when exposed to reality. Somewhere behind this list of exploding cigars and flesh-eating wetsuits are a bunch of nameless inventors, and what must have been a pretty surreal office culture.
The U.S. government doesn’t generally discuss its assassination efforts, but records made public by the CIA explain how agents planned to poison Castro in early 1960s with a “gangster-type action.”
At the time, the mob was suffering financial losses because Castro was shutting down their casinos. CIA officials met up with two prominent Mafia members and connected with Cuban-based men who were willing to take the risk.
“(He) suggested that they not resort to firearms, but if he could be furnished with some type of potent pill that could be placed in Castro’s food or drink, it would be a much more effective operation,” the CIA documents show. “After several weeks of reported attempts, (the operative) apparently got cold feet and asked out of the assignment.” Another operative also tried and failed, and the CIA reported retrieving the botulism pills.
The scandal surrounding the assassination attempts on Castro and other foreign leaders — as revealed by newspaper reporters — prompted Congress to create the Church Committee to investigate abuses of power and led to the 1976 intelligence reforms by President Gerald Ford that included a ban on political assassinations. The Church Committee’s report offered, in stark language, clear evidence the U.S. government had repeatedly tried to kill Castro, after first attempting to weaken him politically by trying to make his beard fall out or dose him with a chemical to make him babble during a radio address.
“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 proposed assassination devices ran the gamut from high-powered rifles to poison pills, poison pens, deadly bacterial powders and other devices which strain the imagination.”
Among those devices: an exploding sea shell, a wetsuit laced with a fungus that would infect Castro’s skin and a breathing mask dusted with botulism, according to the committee’s investigation. The committee said some of the efforts never made it past the planning stage.
In 1975, Castro gave the U.S. government a list of what he claimed were 24 American-sponsored assassination attempts on his life. The Church Committee investigated and decided none of those were authentic, but found eight other attempts it deemed credible.
The attempts on Castro’s life didn’t end with Ford’s order: In 2000, former CIA operative Luis Posada was arrested and charged with planting explosives beneath a podium where Castro was to speak at a summit in Panama. Castro’s security detail found the explosives, but Posada was pardoned in 2004 by then-Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso and he fled to the United States. Posada has been linked to the 1976 bombing of a Cubana flight in which 73 people were killed, including 24 members of the Cuban national fencing team.
More than anything, the list suggests a complex, tangled bureaucracy that was able to insulate personnel from external review, while giving them unlimited resources to kill a distant, powerful figure of myth; the phantom menace of the United States.
This went on for years, and in that time President John F. Kennedy was shot dead by a gunman in Dallas. The Kennedy administration had tried to kill Castro 42 times, according to Escalante.
A series of newspaper reports in the 1970s led to a government investigation of the CIA's abuses of power. President Ford banned political assassinations in 1976, but according to Escalante they continued for two more decades, including in the '90s under President Clinton.
1. Exploding Cigar
Where: New York
Who: Police officer
How: A newspaper reported in 1967 that a year earlier the CIA had approached a New York City police officer with the idea of slipping Castro a cigar packed with enough explosives to take his head off. This has never been confirmed, though we know the CIA did use cigars for another, separate assassination attempt. In 1960, the CIA laced a box of Castro's favourite kind of cigars with poison, but the package never made it to Castro.
Close but no cigar.
2. Mafia ice cream surprise
How: Castro loved ice cream as he loved cigars, and the CIA hit upon a plan to poison his dessert. To do this, they asked for help from the casino mafia who had been kicked off the island after Castro took power and outlawed gambling. According to some accounts, the mafia was able to slip a jar of poison pills to a cafe worker in the capital of Havana.
Some say the worker was meant to slip the poison into an ice cream cone, other say it was a milkshake. But at the crucial moment, the poison could not be dislodged from inside the freezer. It was frozen stuck.
Either way, this was the closest the CIA came to getting the marked man.
3. Exploding seashell
Where: Under the sea
Who: A Commie-hating mollusc
How: Castro loved diving as he loved cigars and ice cream, and the CIA looked into the idea of luring him to his doom with a large, brightly painted sea shell packed with explosives. It would be rigged to explode and then dropped in an area where Castro commonly went diving. The CIA purchased a large number of shells for this purpose, but there's no evidence the weaponised marine life were ever deployed.
4. Flesh-eating wetsuit
Where: Under the sea, slowly
How: This plan got quite far. The gadgets arm of the CIA dusted the inside of a diving suit with fungus that caused a chronic skin disease, and put tuberculosis in the breathing apparatus. All they needed to do now was get Castro to put it on. It was decided a high-profile American lawyer who had been leading negotiations with Castro would become their unwitting accomplice, and present the suit to the Cuban leader. The plan fell apart when the man was tipped off by a CIA lawyer.
5. Character assassination
Where: On air
Who: The periodic table
How: The idea was to undermine Castro's public image by making him behave strangely while he was speaking to the nation. To do this, they would spray the radio broadcasting studio with a chemical similar to LSD, so that he would hallucinate on air. Another idea was to give him a box of cigars that would temporarily disorient him while he was giving a speech on television. Yet another scheme was to dust the inside of Castro's shoes with a chemical that would make his iconic beard fall out.
In the end, Fidel had the good fortune of growing old, bearded and not tripping balls.