With the recent warming of relations between the United States, it’s easy to forget that the two nations despised each other for decades. In December 2014, President Obama began a completely new relationship with the Cuban dictatorship. The rocky relationship has thawed so much since the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis that Obama is visiting Cuba on March 21, the first by an American president in 88 years. But back during the height of the hostilities between the two countries, the CIA desperately wanted Fidel Castro out as the Cuban Prime Minister, and were willing to assassinate him by any means possible.
There were alleged to be over 600 assassination attempts on El Jefe Maximo – The Supreme Leader, the covert operations were called “The Cuban Project” and “Operation Mongoose.” According to Fabian Escalante, who had the job of keeping Fidel Castro alive, there were exactly 638 attempts on Castro’s life. Escalante, who was the former head of the Cuban Secret Service, breaks down the murder attempts as such: the Eisenhower administration tried to kill Castro 38 times; Kennedy, 42; Johnson, 72; Nixon, 184; Carter, 64; Reagan, 197; Bush Sr., 16; Clinton, 21. We will examine 12 very unorthodox and brazen methods that the Central Intelligence Agency attempted to kill Castro.
1. Femme Fatale – Marita Lorenz, was a German-born American woman who arrived in Havana with her father in February of 1959, weeks after the conclusion of the Cuban Revolution, on board of the MS Berlin. Castro and his men visited the ship and the Máximo Líder became quite smitten with the 19-year-old girl. She stayed in Havana, and became one of Fidel’s many mistresses. After a few months, she became pregnant by Castro and was allegedly forced to get an abortion in the 6th month of pregnancy.
She left Cuba and joined an anti-Castro activist group in Florida. That is where she testified that a CIA agent named Francisco Fiorini recruited her to kill Castro. She was given poison pills that she was instructed to put in Castro’s food. In January 1960, she didn’t poison the Communist leader, and instead told Castro about the dubious plot, because she apparently still loved him. Castro allegedly gave her a gun and told her to kill him, but once again she could not pull the trigger.
2. Poisoned Wetsuit – If you’ve seen the movie Bridge of Spies, you are familiar with Tom Hanks’ character lawyer James Donovan. Well, he too was involved with an assassination attempt on El Comandante. The National Security Archive recently posted a new story detailing a murder plot of the Cuban dictator.
After the Cuban missile crisis in October of 1962, Donovan began secret negotiations with Castro from orders by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He was to negotiate the release of over 1,100 prisoners that were held by Cuba after the botched Bay of Pigs Invasion by CIA-sponsored paramilitary group Brigade 2506 on April 17, 1961.
Donovan was meeting with Castro in person in April of 1963. Knowing Fidel was a huge diving enthusiast, Donovan, who also loved diving, was giving a wetsuit to Castro. Reportedly, the CIA saw this as an opportunity to knock off Castro and devised a scheme to contaminate the diving suit with Madura foot fungus and tuberculosis bacteria. The murderous plot never happened after Donovan’s CIA handler, Milan Miskovsky, told Donovan to secure the wetsuit and not let anyone tamper with it, especially the “executive action” side of the CIA.
The CIA never got the chance to contaminate Castro’s diving suit with TB, but Donovan did get to go diving with Castro.
3. Exploding Seashells – Since the diseased wetsuit plot was dead in the water, the CIA went another route to try to exterminate Castro while he was diving.
Central Intelligence Agency deputy director Desmond Fitzgerald purchased two books on Caribbean mollusks, not because he loves mussels, but so he could research what shellfish were in Cuba and then plant explosives near them.
The strategy was to plant an explosive device underneath a conch shell at Castro’s favorite diving spot. The shell would be brightly colored and unusual looking so it would catch Fidel’s attention and lure him to the deadly shell. When the conch shell was lifted it would trigger an explosive and kill him. However, logistical issues stopped the death-dealing plot. They would need a tiny submarine to plant the explosive shell, and the vessel that they had at the time had too short of an operating range.
4. Ballpoint Hypodermic Syringe – Everyone has pens lying around, but the CIA wanted to use a lethal writing utensil to end Castro’s reign. What sounds like a gadget straight out of the Q Branch in James Bond was a real and deadly weapon.
They took the casing of an everyday, ordinary-looking pen, and installed a hypodermic needle inside. The needle was so fine that the plan was for someone to bump into him, and Castro wouldn’t notice that he had just been injected with Black Leaf 40, a highly toxic alkaloid poison.
5. Exploding Cigar – Cuba is known for is world-renowned cigars, and Castro was famously known to always be puffing on a cigar. The CIA planned to have Fidel’s vice blow up in his face… quite literally.
The CIA was thinking outside of the cigar box, and a New York City police officer had been propositioned to carry out a deadly attack. Castro was visiting the United Nations in September of 1960. A 1967 Saturday Evening Post article reported that New York City police chief inspector Michael J. Murphy was close but no cigar because he failed to deliver the explosive cigarro to Castro. Too bad vaping wasn’t a thing back then, could have just given him any random exploding e-cigarette.
6. Contaminated Cigar – The exploding cigar trick was never carried out, but that never stopped the CIA from going back to the cigar well. Jake Esterline, the CIA’s project director for what became the Bay of Pigs, devised a plan to spike Fidel’s cigars.
They recruited a double agent who would replace Castro’s regular cigars with one filled with botulin, a deadly toxin. The agent was given the cigars in February of 1961, but he apparently got cold feet.
Esterline later stated that the cigars were not lethal, but had a chemical that would produce temporary personality disorientation or cause his beard to fall out.
7. Nair – The CIA weren’t always using lethal methods to remove the Communist dictator. While it probably wasn’t that specific brand, the CIA did cook up a scheme to rob the Cuban leader of his iconic beard. They put thallium salt in his shoes, a chemical that removes hair, and it would be absorbed or inhaled.
According to a 1975 Senate Intelligence Committee report, the chemical would cause Castro’s bushy beard to fall out, thus damaging his image. Cubans might think that Castro was weak and encourage them to have an uprising.
8. Poisoned Milkshake – The closest the CIA came to killing Castro involved a yummy milkshake. The deadly poison pill was to be put in Fidel’s chocolate milkshake while he was at the Havana Hilton. However, when the waiter, who was the assassin, went to get the pill that was hidden in a freezer, it was stuck frozen to the freezer. When he tried to yank it off, the capsule ripped open, spilling the contents.
“That moment was the closest the CIA got to assassinating Fidel,” the former Cuban intelligence chief, Fabian Escalante, told Reuters.
9. LSD – Fidel was doing an interview at radio station that was to be broadcast live. The plan was to mist the air vents with a chemical that produces reactions similar to LSD from an aerosol spray. The thought process is that the LSD-like drug would cause him to have an acid trip, and freak live on the air. Cubans would think that their leader had lost his mind and try to remove him.
10. Toxic Handkerchief – The CIA prepared bacterial poisons that were to be placed in Castro’s handkerchief or in his tea and coffee.
11. Contracting The Mafia – In September of 1960, the CIA indirectly reached out to Momo Salvatore Giancana, a successor of Al Capone’s in the Chicago Mob, and Miami Syndicate leader Santo Trafficante, about the possibility hiring them to kill Fidel. On September 14, 1960, the mafia members were offered $150,000 for the “removal” of Castro. Reports of these illegal activities done by the United States Central Intelligence Agency from the 1950s to the mid-1970s are known as “The Family Jewels, and they were released on June 25, 2007. The report does not state whether the mob bosses accepted the job or not, but CIA files show that it was Giancana who suggested killing Castro by putting poison pills in his food and drink.
12. Explosive Speech– The most recent documented assassination attempt came in 2000 when Castro was to visit Panama. The assassins placed 200lbs of high explosives under the podium where Fidel was due to speak. However, Castro’s personal security team discovered the explosives in advance and Castro never made his speech. Four men, including Luis Posada, a veteran Cuban exile and former CIA operative, were jailed, but were later given a pardon and released from jail four years later.
Regarding all of the assassination attempts on his life, Castro once said, “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal.”
In the end it wasn’t an exploding seashell or a disease-riddled wetsuit that took Castro out of power; he resigned in April 19, 2011 and passed away on Friday.
If you want to learn more about the assassination attempts on Castro you can watch 638 Ways to Kill Castro, a 2006 British documentary based on the book of the same name written by Escalante.