638 ways to kill Castro
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
* Duncan Campbell
* The Guardian,
* Thursday August 3 2006
* Report errors or inaccuracies: email@example.com (external - login to view)
* Letters for publication should be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org (external - login to view)
* If you need help using the site: email@example.com (external - login to view)
* Call the main Guardian and Observer switchboard:
+44 (0)20 7278 2332
o Advertising guide
o License/buy our content
About this article
This article appeared in the Guardian on Thursday August 03 2006 on p14 of the G2 comment & features section. It was last updated at 00:09 on August 03 2006.
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 Bond novel.
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".