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Castro quote: “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal.”
According to CIA Director Richard Helms, Kennedy Administration officials exerted a heavy pressure on the CIA to “get rid of Castro.” It explains a staggering number of assassination plots, aiming at creating a favorable impression on President John F. Kennedy. There were five phases in the assassination attempts, with planning involving the CIA, the Department of Defense, and the State Department:
According to the CIA documents, the so-called Family Jewels that were declassified in 2007, one assassination attempt on Fidel Castro prior to the Bay of Pigs invasion involved noted American mobsters Johnny Roselli, Salvatore Giancana and Santo Trafficante.
In September 1960, Momo Salvatore Giancana, a successor of Al Capone’s in the Chicago Outfit, and Miami Syndicate leader Santo Trafficante, who were both on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list at that time, were indirectly contacted by the CIA about the possibility of Fidel Castro assassination. Johnny Roselli, a member of the Las Vegas Syndicate, was used to get access to Mafia bosses. The go-between from the CIA was Robert Maheu, who introduced himself as a representative of several international businesses in Cuba that were expropriated by Castro. On September 14, 1960, Maheu met with Roselli in a New York City hotel and offered him US$150,000 for the “removal” of Castro. James O’Connell, who identified himself as Maheu’s associate but who actually was the chief of the CIA’s operational support division, was present during the meeting. The declassified documents did not reveal if Roselli, Giancana or Trafficante accepted a down payment for the job. According to the CIA files, it was Giancana who suggested poison pills as a means to doctor Castro’s food or drinks. Such pills, manufactured by the CIA’s Technical Services Division, were given to Giancana’s nominee named Juan Orta. Giancana recommended Orta as being an official in the Cuban government, who had access to Castro.
Allegedly, after several unsuccessful attempts to introduce the poison into Castro’s food, Orta abruptly demanded to be let out of the mission, handing over the job to another unnamed participant. Later, a second attempt was mounted through Giancana and Trafficante using Dr. Anthony Verona, the leader of the Cuban Exile Junta, who had, according to Trafficante, become “disaffected with the apparent ineffectual progress of the Junta”. Verona requested US$10,000 in expenses and US$1,000 worth of communications equipment. However, it is unknown how far the second attempt went, as the assassination attempt was canceled due to the launching of the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
The Church Committee stated that it substantiated eight attempts by the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro in 1960–1965. Fabián Escalante, a retired chief of Cuba’s counterintelligence, who had been tasked with protecting Castro, estimated the number of assassination schemes or actual attempts by the Central Intelligence Agency to be 638, and split them among U.S. administrations as follows:
Some of them were a part of the covert CIA program dubbed Operation Mongoose aimed at toppling the Cuban government. The assassination attempts reportedly included cigars poisoned with botulinum toxin, a tubercle bacilli-infected scuba-diving suit along with a booby-trapped conch placed on the sea bottom, an exploding cigar (Castro loved cigars and scuba diving, but he quit smoking in 1985), a ballpoint pen containing a hypodermic syringe preloaded with the lethal concoction “Blackleaf 40”, and plain, mafia-style execution endeavors, among others. There were plans to blow up Castro during his visit to Ernest Hemingway’s museum in Cuba.
Some of the plots were depicted in a documentary film entitled 638 Ways to Kill Castro (2006) aired on Channel 4 of the British public-service television. One of these attempts was by his ex-lover Marita Lorenz, whom he met in 1959. She agreed to aid the CIA and attempted to smuggle a jar of cold cream containing poison pills into his room. When Castro learned about her intentions, he reportedly gave her a gun and told her to kill him but her nerves failed. Some plots aimed not at murder but at character assassination; they, for example, involved using thallium salts to destroy Castro’s famous beard, or lacing his radio studio with LSD to cause him disorientation during the broadcast and damage his public image. The last documented attempt on Castro life was in 2000, and involved placing 90 kg of explosives under a podium in Panama where he would give a talk. The plot was organized by CIA and foiled by Castro’s security team.
Castro once said, in regards to the numerous attempts on his life he believed had been made, “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal.”
Besides attempts on Fidel Castro, the CIA has been accused of involvements in the assassination of such foreign leaders as Rafael Trujillo, Patrice Lumumba and Ngo Dinh Diem. The Church Committee rejected political assassination as a foreign policy tool and declared that it was “incompatible with American principle, international order, and morality.” It recommended Congress to consider developing a statute to eradicate such or similar practices, which was never introduced. Instead, President Gerald Ford signed in 1976 an Executive Order 11905, which stated that, “No employee of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire in, political assassination.”