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Castro: Not dead yet.

April 8, 2009, 12:01 am

On this day in 1962, two CIA officers met in New York with Las Vegas mobster Johnny Roselli to discuss plans for assassinating Fidel Castro. Roselli, an illegal immigrant from Italy who had worked for Al Capone in Chicago in the 1920s, shaken down producers in Hollywood in the 1940s, and skimmed the profits from casinos in Las Vegas and Havana in the 1950s, promised the CIA that he could find someone in Cuba who would be willing to kill Castro for the right price. The April 1962 conspiracy involved poison pills, which distinguishes it from the other CIA plots against Castro using poisoned cigars, bombs, exploding seashells, deadly fungi, LSD spray, mafia hit men, depilatory dust, and poison-filled syringes disguised as ballpoint pens.

The plots against Castro began in August 1960, during the Eisenhower administration, when some CIA officials decided to try to “undermine Castro’s charismatic appeal by sabotaging his speeches,” in the words of a U.S. Senate report. They plotted to spray his broadcast studio with hallucinogens; to douse his cigars with psychedelic drugs; and to dust his shoes with thallium salts, which would destroy his image as “The Beard.” Soon the CIA decided that these assaults on Castro’s image were inadequate, and moved on to actual assassination plots. After the first few schemes failed, agency officials thought of calling in some men who despised Castro as much as they did — and had considerable experience with killing people.

Castro had chased the mafia out of Havana in 1959 along with the other capitalists. As a result, some of America’s most notorious criminals were pleased to cooperate with their government in disposing of Cuba’s comandante. The CIA viewed Sam Giancana, the mob boss of Chicago, and Santo Trafficante, the mafia chieftain of Miami and formerly of Cuba, as “businessmen with interests in Cuba who saw the elimination of Castro as the first essential step to the recovery of their investments.” The attorney general saw them as two of the most dangerous men in the country and put them on his ten most-wanted list. In one of many ironies, the FBI was hunting them down while the CIA was hiring them to commit crimes.

At the meeting 47 years ago today, the CIA agents gave Roselli poison pills to drop in Castro’s drinks. When that scheme failed, they came up with more creative options. CIA scientists customized a diving suit for Castro by dusting it with a skin-destroying fungus and contaminating its breathing tubes with the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. They also developed an exploding seashell to be placed in Castro’s favorite scuba-diving bay. On November 22, 1963, as President John Kennedy was waving at the crowds in Dallas, one of his CIA operatives was delivering a hypodermic needle concealed in a ballpoint pen to a Cuban in Paris. The CIA planned for the Cuban to fill the pen with poison and stab Castro with it.

As I discuss in my new book, the Castro plots provide great source material for conspiracy theories about the assassination of John Kennedy. It’s easy – though not necessarily correct – to spin off theories about tales of betrayal, revenge, and retribution involving characters like Giancana, Roselli, and the target of the plots himself. Everyone has a favorite theory. For his part, Lyndon Johnson believed that “Kennedy was trying to get to Castro, but Castro got to him first.”

The plots were thoroughly documented in the 1975 report of Frank Church’s Senate Select Committee to Investigate Intelligence Activities, Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders (a misleading title, as the plots are not alleged but proven in the report itself). The report is essential reading for anyone interested in the secret foreign policy of this period, with its tales of undercover agents, with their unworkable James Bond devices, venturing into Johnny Roselli’s underworld.

The plots did not end well for Giancana or Roselli. Giancana was gunned down in his kitchen just days before he was to testify to the Church Committee in 1975. Roselli gave a colorful accounting of his many exploits to the committee, but did not show up when they recalled him for more testimony. His dismembered body was later found floating in an oil drum off the coast of Miami.  But Fidel managed to outwit them all, and reminded us yesterday that he is not dead yet.

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