638 attempts. That’s how many assassination attempts Fidel Castro claims to have survived from 1959 to 2001(Guess he just can’t take a hint, huh?). For context, those are assassination attempts by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) throughout eight presidencies, starting from the Eisenhower administration to the Clinton administration. You’d think that after all those assassination schemes, one would eventually be successful, but Castro claims to have survived them all without as much as a scratch!
Cuban Communism and Castro
The Cuban Marxist, who staged a violent communist revolution that was the first in the Western Hemisphere, promised to the People of Cuba, free elections, full employment, living wages, a free education, and universal health care to all(As do they all). The downside was that it came at the cost of imprisonment and execution of teachers, college professors, the professional classes, homosexuals and pretty much anyone else who didn’t want to be part of his glorious revolution. He shut down anti-Castro media and turned the Cuban economy upside down by abolishing private businesses and nationalizing all US-owned establishments, including oil refineries, factories, farms, hotels and casinos, with Socialists running the economy Cuba went from having the highest standard of living in the Caribbean to competing with Haiti for the lowest.
Soon, the Castro-led Cuban government, after seizing power in 1959, would gradually gravitate toward the Soviet Union’s influence. This is where the United States would start to see the communist government as a security threat. Castro was backed by the USSR in toppling Cuban dictator, President Fulgencio Batista. Batista was a committed anti-communist supported by the US due to economic and military interests.
“At the beginning of 1959 United States companies owned about 40 percent of the Cuban sugar lands—almost all the cattle ranches—90 percent of the mines and mineral concessions—80 percent of the utilities—and practically all the oil industry—and supplied two-thirds of Cuba’s imports,” said former President (then-senator) John F. Kennedy at the 1960 Democratic Dinner. Cuba enjoyed thriving trade with the U.S. and was a favorite for vacationers.
Losing all that economic gain and influence at the height of the Cold War, of course, was seen as a severe challenge for the United States to overcome, beyond the problem of a Soviet client state just 90 miles from the Florida Keys.. The Soviets supported the Cuba heavily subsidized the government’s economy due to its failed state-run economy. Strings attached of course. Cuba would supply sugar, tobacco and oranges to the USSR and Moscow would send Cuba weapons. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the effects of the US embargo struck Cuba hard sending the economy into further decline. Due to gross mismanagement by the Castro regime, Cuba was unable to feed its own population despite an ideal climate and good soil for farming.
With little to show for his economic reforms, with multiple generations denied basic political freedoms, repression of virtually all civil and political rights, arbitrary detention, torture, and even killings, he stepped down in 2008 and passed his leadership to his brother Raul.
Following the Cuban Missile Crisis which brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of war over Soviet nuclear missiles stationed in Cuba, the U.S. made a secret agreement not to invade Cuba(again, see Bay of Pigs invasion) but we never made any promises about not trying to knock Castro off. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet intelligence agencies were both very active in trying to overthrow governments all over the world along ideological lines, especially in South and Central America.
An Exploding Cigar And A Laced Cigar
Cuban cigars, called by some the world’s finest tobacco, were the guilty pleasure of many influential people, one of which was former President John F. Kennedy, who bought 1,200 Cuban cigars before implementing the US embargo on Cuba.
“Kennedy smiled and opened up his desk. He took out a long paper which he immediately signed. It was the decree banning all Cuban products from the United States. Cuban cigars were now illegal in our country,” JFK’s Head of Press Pierre Salinger wrote in a 1992 article. You could still get them from Canada and Mexico by the way, which had no reservations about trading with a totalitarian communist regime guilty of outrageous human rights abuses.
Well, guess who loved them even more? That’s right, Fidel Castro.
In a 1967 newspaper report, it was revealed that the CIA coordinated with a New York City police officer. He had the idea of lacing the cigar with explosives so that it would blow his face off after a few puffs. It is unknown whether they attempted this, but they did come up with another way to kill Castro with a cigar. This was later attributed to urban legend due to poor evidence and documentation, from the CIA.
If you can’t make his head explode, why not spike the cigar with botulinum, a toxin that attacks a human’s nerves, cause respiratory problems and muscle paralysis and eventually lead to death. The CIA allegedly recruited a double agent in 1960 and was given a box of Castro’s favorite cigars to smoke. These cigars were laced with the toxin. Reports said it was so potent that just putting it in one’s mouth would kill them. Reports said they were in place by 1961, but it is unknown whether the double agent had given them to Castro—one wonders if he had a Tobacco-Taster who took the first few drags for him to ensure his safety.
Trading Poison Pills for a Good Old Shag
Marita Lorenz, one of Castro’s lovers, agreed to an operation with the CIA involving poisoning Fidel with two botulism-toxin pills. She kept the pills in a jar of cold cream, to which the pills dissolved, and she got cold-feet to and never carried out the plot. One wonders how she would have safely gotten cold cream onto Fidel’s body without also poisoning herself.
Eventually, Castro noticed her unusual behavior and confronted her. Castro was said to be sleepy during the time of the attempted assassination. However, he went on to question Lorenz, who openly admitted to the attempt on his life. Upon discovering the plot, he allegedly handed Lorenz a .45 pistol for her to finish the job. Lorenz could not finish the job, and they allegedly made love afterward.
Should we trust Lorenz’s personal account of the story? Well, the CIA never confirmed or denied this one, but it’s not an impossible attempt, that’s for sure.
A Deadly Delicious Dessert
Castro was known as an ice cream lover, a treat that would soon almost cost him his life. There are two versions of this story, one with ice cream and one with a chocolate milkshake.
First, according to journalist Tim Weiner’s version of the attempt, the CIA worked with the Mafia in 1961 wherein they paid Tony Varona, an anti-communist who worked with organized crime leaders to kill Fidel Castro, to place poison pills into Castro’s ice cream cone via an inside man at joint Castro usually got his ice cream from. Later on, it was revealed that the vial containing the poison was left in an icebox.
Fabian Escalante, Cuba’s former intelligence chief, claimed that the poison was actually planned to go into a chocolate milkshake at the Havana Libre Hotel in 1963. The poison pills were allegedly disguised in a bottle of Bayer aspirins to hide their true nature. According to Escalante, it was one of the attempts that almost succeeded.
Diver’s Hell Hole: An Exploding Seashell, Contaminated Suit
The Cuban leader was an avid scuba diver who loved to pick colorful seashells off The People’s Coral Reefs. The idea was that the CIA would place bright, colorful seashells in his favorite diving spots and wait for him to pick these mollusks up. Little did he know that these seashells would be rigged with enough explosives to send him into the ocean’s oblivion. No doubt, the Underwater Demolition Team guys were tasked with planting the exploding sea shells.
Along with this plan, a 1975 Senate report claimed that the CIA also explored the idea of giving the Communist leader a diving suit that would be laced with a fungus that could burn his skin off. Alongside this plan, a breathing apparatus was supposed to be infected with Tuberculosis. These were gifts supposed to be given by famed American lawyer James Donovan who you probably know for making a successful negotiation to release the Bay of the Pigs prisoners.
The plan was later aborted because an exploding seashell was too impractical to do. Second, Donovan gave Castro another suit that left the contaminated suit in a laboratory somewhere deep within the CIA.
The Plot To Make Castro Appear Bat-S*** Crazy
Chances are that you live a clean lifestyle, as you should! But the CIA in 1960 thought the Cuban leader should have a whiff of an LSD-like spray before a live radio broadcast speech to have him appear whacked out of his mind to Cubans and Soviets listening to the speech with the result that he would be toppled. Also considered was an attempt at spiking Castro’s cigars with chemicals to disorient the dictator before delivering a public speech, making it seem that he lost his mind.
His iconic beard was also not safe. The CIA hatched a plan to dust Castro’s shoes with thallium salts which would apparently make his beard fall out while delivering a speech abroad. However, the trip was canceled, and another opportunity was lost. It would seem the guys in charge of the Poisoning Dictators Directorate at the CIA never ran out of ideas that didn’t work.
Nonetheless, those are the most bizarre and weirdest assassination attempts on Castro, all of which either failed or were never attempted. You have to wonder what the other 600 attempts were though. We suspect quite a few of them(most of them) could be chalked up to the expected paranoia of a communist dictator who fancied himself the main target of the West’s efforts to contain Marxism in the region.