And Why, By the Way, is Fidel Castro Still Alive?
The Inside Story of Cuban Intelligence
by Gaeton Fonzi, 1996
The General is tired and would like to relax. He has gone up against very powerful adversaries and the struggle has not been easy. Yet he has helped keep both Cuba and Fidel Castro alive and while that is no longer his direct responsibility, he finds it very difficult to put his mind at ease after almost four decades of living on the edge. The General and I are sitting on the ocean-side terrace of the Copacabana Hotel in Havana. It is mid-January but the weather has turned warm. I am sipping a Cuban-brewed cerveza Hatuey, he is drinking iced tea and staring intensely into the distance. I think he is pondering a question I had asked. But his eyes have turned to the ocean and are concentrating on the cloudless blue horizon. I wonder what he's staring at, I see nothing. Then in the distance I notice it. A dot in the sky had appeared, catching his attention and interrupting his thought. He watches it closely as it grows larger. It turns into a passenger jet moving towards Havana airport. The General eases back in his chair.
Will he ever really be able to rest, to pull back from the edge?
"There have been more provocations recently," he explains. "Yesterday the Brothers to the Rescue, the Miami group that says it is only looking for rafters, one of its planes flew over Havana dropping leaflets. That is an illegal provocation. We have warned them many times but still they come." He shakes his head in sad frustration. "I am afraid of what will happen next," he says.
A month later back in Miami, I learn what the General was afraid would happen happens. Local television and radio stations interrupt their programs to report the news: Cuban MiG jets have shot down two of three Brothers to The Rescue planes flying off the coast of Cuba. Four crewmen are missing and presumed dead. The Miami exile community explodes with outrage. The next day Sunday's Herald devotes fat headlines and many pages to the story. The planes had filed a false flight plan to the Bahamas and the question arises whether one or all of the planes violated Cuba's air space. For two days the newspaper is heavy with the black spittle and fiery rhetoric of local anti-Castro leaders and politicians, many calling for the United States to take military retaliation. Then, on the third day, there is a story in the Herald about Juan Pablo Roque, a former Brothers to The Rescue pilot who had been reported missing from Miami under mysterious circumstances since Friday. He has turned up on television in Havana. A former Cuban fighter pilot, he had defected in 1992 and became one of the most popular members of Brothers to The Rescue. Now it is reported that Roque was sent by Cuban Intelligence to penetrate the group. Roque says he discovered that Brothers to The Rescue was not strictly a humanitarian organization with the sole purpose of saving rafters on the high seas. He says the group was involved in paramilitary operations and trained pilots in weaponry. He says he worked with the leader of the group in assembling a map of Cuba's provincial highways on which a small plane could land. Such operations were not only for the purpose of sabotage, he says, but for carrying out attacks "specifically against Fidel Castro."
Oh no, not another Castro assassination plot! I can see the General dropping his head into his hands in a gesture of sad despair. Are they never going to stop? How many failures, how many years will it take before they realize how hopeless it is?
If anyone has a right to be sick and tired of Castro assassination plots, it is Fabian Escalante Font, Division General of the Cuban Revolutionary Army. Escalante is the former chief of Cuba's Counter-Intelligence. Charged with detecting and diverting the continuing fusillade of anti-Castro plots, his covert unit went mano a mano with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency at its most venomous. Later, Escalante was made head of the Cuban State Security Department, the powerful, ubiquitous Big Brother bureau known as G2. Those key posts make Escalante the one man largely responsible for keeping Fidel Castro alive for more than three decades.
More than three decades! Hard to believe, isn't it? Remember where you were when you heard that Castro had ridden triumphantly into Havana? Not likely one of your indelible recollections. Three decades! Hell, you could have been anywhere from womb entombed to honeymooning. Wherever, you likely didn't give a damn who banged the big bongo in Ricki Ricardoland. But over the course of the 37 years that Fidel has survived as Cuba's lider maximo, you came to care very much. You cared more if you lived in Miami in the early Sixties, suddenly a city of exiles being tutored in dark conspiracies by the United States government. But by then you had learned that Communists -- certified, predatory Communists! -- had crawled to the very edge of Free America's continental shelf. You were so outraged that you even forgave President Kennedy for botching the Bay of Pigs invasion. Hey, at least he tried. But you weren't truly aware of Castro's presence until one night in October of 1962 when you heard Jack Kennedy tell you that the United States was ready to confront Russia in a nuclear war over its missiles in Cuba. Suddenly, maybe for the first time in your life, you were really scared shitless.
Imagine, of all the tribal rulers and ancient warlords, kings and queens, presidents and potentates who have ruled empires and nations through centuries of man's history on earth, it was because of Fidel Castro prevailing on a rugged, little Caribbean island that civilization came closest to vaporization.
We all dodged the bullet, of course, but by then Castro was used to dodging bullets -- as well as bombs, bazookas, mortars and poison capsules. General Escalante claims that Cuba's intelligence files document more than 142 direct assassination plots against Fidel. If counter-revolutionary actions in which a Castro assassination was a potential adjunct are counted, the number jumps to 612.
Aww, com 'on! Does the good General actually expect us to believe those numbers?
The tall, lanky guy in the aviator shades, grey windbreaker, jeans and blue canvas deck shoes took the front steps with an easy agility, two at a time. On the porch, a small, dark-skinned woman in a housedress and light sweater quickly rose from her chair and smiled diffidently. The tall man greeted her warmly, clasped her hand in both of his and said, "Thank you. Thank you very much." Two men in casual work clothes beside the front door nodded their welcome, then a casual salute. The tall man smiled and returned the salute. "Thank you," he said again.
As we entered, the tall man turned back to me. "This place has been closed because it is undergoing renovation," he explained. "I have asked them to open it for me as a favor because I want to show it to you. They have been kind enough to do that." As if a maintenance crew had options to a request by a Division General in Cuba.
General Escalante had waited until my third day in Havana to bring me to the massive, white porticoed house along a tree-lined boulevard in Miramar. Although it showed signs of aging, the building was obviously one of the better maintained in what was once the city's most elegant neighborhood. Now, as the gold letters on the white plastic sign at the front of the property proclaimed, this was no longer a private home but the state-owned Museo del Ministerio Del Interior. Here, after having spent two days reviewing intelligence reports, revealing his secret operations and touring the actual sites where Castro assassination attempts had taken place, Escalante wanted to give me a broader perspective and more graphic confirmation of the plots.
Against high-ceilinged white walls, in room after room of the big two-story house, hang hundreds of large, stark black-and-white photos. Some are police mug shots, men and women with blank stares and weary resignation; others are of groups in ill-fitting battle fatigues or ragged campesino clothes, prisoners lined up for photographs to document their failure; others depict the broken, blood-darkened forms of dead men lying along the mangrove shorelines where they fell; still others are photos of individuals, some taken from family albums, victims who have fallen, a few government officials but mostly ill-starred citizens, killed in explosions and bombings set by anti-Castro activists.
Also on the white walls are enlarged documents and investigative reports written by Escalante's State Security agents detailing the results of their investigations and their accusations against the individuals involved in each of the cases. Most incidents have been given names, some reflecting where they took place, others their character: Caso La Opera, Caso Imprenta, Caso Sorpresa, Caso Pinar del Rio, Plan Stadium, Operacion Gato Negro -- scores and scores more. It is not the names but the number of them that is startling.
But most striking is the quantity and type of hardware. On the floor and in glass cases around each room is the weaponry seized by Escalante's agents from anti-Castro activists. Here are rifles, pistols, machine guns, submachine guns, bazookas, mortars, recoilless rifles, even small anti-aircraft canon. Here, too, are samples of all types of ammunition, incendiary devices, bombs, packs of C4 explosives and anti-personnel mines. The weaponry on exhibit is a small sample of what is depicted in the dozens of photographs on the walls, and those photographs reveal an incredible amount, tons and tons of weapons and ammunition. The anti-Castro Cubans were obviously not getting arms from local gun shops.
Escalante claims that almost all of the weapons seized were directly supplied by the U.S. government, and points to a Colt AR-15 marked "PROPERTY OF US GOVT." More probative are the exhibits of spying devices, sophisticated communication gear, encoding and decoding equipment, hidden microphones, Minox spy cameras and all sorts of espionage equipment that had the special smell of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
It is a strange place, this white-walled Cuban museum, a starkly simple, well-lit and quiet sanctuary dedicated to dirty warfare and deadly chaos. Escalante leads me through it, room after room, not speaking much and softly when he does, pointing out special cases and exhibits. I follow him, fascinated by the details of the individual cases, the presence of the actual weapons and devices used. He is a handsome man, Escalante is, trim and much younger looking than his 55 years. But he has taken off his sunglasses inside the building and I notice as we are leaving he seems very tired, the lines in his face and under his eyes have deepened. And then it strikes me: This is his life, this is what he has done for almost 40 years. More, this is the history of Fidel Castro's Cuba, the story of its interminable struggle for survival. It is enough to make even a General weary.
Superspys, even when they come in from the cold, are not easy guys to get to. General Escalante had not wanted to talk about himself or his work and it had taken more than a year for him to get clearance from his superiors to see me. But the General had initially contacted me, through someone passing through Miami after a research trip to Cuba, because he wanted to talk with me about a "mutual interest," someone connected with the John F. Kennedy assassination.
That Kennedy connection didn't surprise me. I had worked as an investigator for U.S. Senator Richard Schweiker in 1975, probing the President Kennedy murder for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Later I continued on the case for the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Since my end of the investigation focused on anti-Castro Cuban groups and the CIA, I didn't doubt the General and I had a number of mutual interests. I could only guess what that special one could be.
Escalante's interest in the Kennedy assassination, I later learned, stemmed from his belief that Oswald's connection with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and his visit to Mexico City to obtain a visa to travel to Cuba prior to the assassination were CIA-planned ploys to establish a link between the Kennedy murder and Fidel Castro. That false link, Escalante figured, was designed to arouse the American people to demand retaliatory action against Castro. Assessing such mirror images was part of Escalante's job. Eventually, I would learn more of Escalante's background and the important but mostly covert role he had played not only in keeping Castro alive, but in Cuba's war of survival. He was, indeed, a superspy who had come in from the cold.
Actually, Escalante had been in from the cold for a while, emerging from the world of deep cover security as he rose in the ranks. It was not a secret in Cuba when he was promoted to division general -- at 34, one of the youngest ever at that rank -- nor when he was made boss of Cuban State Security. But for most of his career Escalante has operated in el mundo negro of the master spy, working under the deepest of cover when he headed the Cuban Counter-Intelligence division during its most active years. Those were the times it was very cold and very dangerous and, for the sake of survival, it was necessary to remain anonymous. Although he maintains his military rank as general and is retired, Escalante's interest is now historical and requires a public presence. He teaches at the University of Havana and was the primary organizer of the Centro de Estudios Sobre Asuntos de Seguridad Nacional -- a national archive dedicated to preserving the history of Cuban intelligence activities. It is a history that parallels Cuba's struggle for survival under the menacing shadow of a hostile neighbor -- and a history that is inextricably linked to the determination of the United States government to assassinate Fidel Castro.
Most Americans have no idea just how deep and persistent was the U.S. government's desire to kill Castro. The reason they have no idea is because the CIA, which orchestrated many of the plots and played a support role in most of them, had, until the mid-Seventies, consistently denied any involvement. Its directors even lied to Congress when they had to. And one, Allen Dulles, never mentioned the Castro plots to his fellow members on the Warren Commission. Then, under pressure of investigating Congressional intelligence committees, the Agency admitted only those attempts it made with the help of Organized Crime figures in the early Sixties. Even today, that's still as far as the CIA has gone.
Actually, the CIA's efforts began immediately after Fidel toppled Cuba's military dictator, Fulgencio Batista, on New Years Day, 1959. Now Cuban Intelligence is claiming -- and producing supportive evidence -- that the CIA had continued Castro assassination plots at least through three decades. And considering the web of intrigue linking the wealthy and politically influential forces of Miami's Cuban exile clique to the powerful shadow government of Washington bureaucracy, it's not easy to dismiss Cuba's contention that the U.S. government secretly condoned the recent incursions of its air space by Miami exile pilots -- incursions which it claims were prelude to schemes to dispose of Castro.
You would think Fidel might be a bit paranoid by now but the multitude of attempts seems only to have affected his sense of humor. "I have an Olympic record in that regard," he recently wisecracked, "and I should be awarded a medal."
But seriously, folks, why the hell did all the attempts fail? General Escalante provides a variety of fascinating details about specific cases. Yet he also claims there is a simple generic answer. That simple answer goes to the heart of the intrigues, complexities and absurd convolutions that have marked U.S.-Cuba relations since Castro came to power.
Below my open window, Cuba's tri-color banner flaps wildly atop a crows-nest flagpole over the Hotel Copacabana's huge, angular swimming pool. Despite the clouds and stiff wind, pale-skinned tourists gleaming with oil sprawl scantly clad on white plastic chaises. The echoing rolls of angry waves charge the sea wall with fearsome roars and slide away with spent sighs. Beyond, the awesome forces of a monstrous ocean are building dark blue and mean and I imagine that somewhere out there a terrible terror is growing in the minds of those caught on its seething surface, being tossed about on a raft built of inner tubes and twine-lashed wood scraps, suddenly aware of the sea's immensity and the fragility of their determination to flee from Castro's Cuba.
And yet sitting across from me now is a man who has devoted his life to the struggle for the survival of that same Cuba. Those rafters and this man, how can they be siblings of the same time and place and emerge with such divergent perspectives? What this man is telling me about himself goes well beyond an insight into that divergence, it touches on why the U.S. government and the CIA never did -- and still don't -- understand why all its plots against Fidel Castro have failed.
General Fabian Escalante Font was born a Communist. His father, Cesar, was a professional organizer of the Communist party, known formally as the Popular Socialist Party, and his uncle, Anibal, was a top PSP leader. Like Cuba itself, Escalante's family has a heritage of political revolution. His great-grandfather fought in the rebellion against Spain that began in 1868, and his grandfather was a captain in the Cuban Army when the United States intervened in 1898, sent in Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, kicked out the Spaniards and set up the Republic of Cuba in 1902. Both his parents were militants in the struggle against the despotic General Gerardo Machado, who ruled from 1926 until a coup led by a former Army sergeant toppled him in 1933. Sergeant Fulgencio Batista promoted himself to the rank of general, took over the government, got elected president, and then retired in 1944 - at least for a while.
Escalante was 12 years old and in Havana's Thomas Edison School in 1952 when Batista became aware that his elected successor, President Carlos Prio, was growing rich in deals with the Mafia bosses running Havana's casinos and vice dens. Batista decided to overthrow the government again. The heavy-handed General's strong anti-Communist stance won him solid U.S. government support - for a price. Once back in power, Batista willingly permitted a force of FBI "advisors" to help him fight Communists. Out of that cooperative effort came a notorious agency called the Bureau for the Repression of Communist Activities, or BRAC.
That changed Escalante's life. With the Communist party suddenly illegal, Escalante's family had to go underground. "The memory I have of those years," he says, "is of the police coming to our house and searching. We had to move several times. It was very difficult and we became poor."
Then, on July 26, 1953, a 22-year-old lawyer named Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz made what would turn out to be his first indelible thrust into Cuban history. Driving a blue Buick and leading a convoy of 14 automobiles, 111 men and two women, Castro attacked the Moncado army barracks in Santiago, Cuba's second largest military base. The action, a chaotic and terrible failure, was over within a half hour, with 69 rebels dead and five wounded. Yet Escalante remembers the exhilaration that swept through him and his fellow students when word of the daring assault reached Havana. "We heard rumor that there was a Moncado attack," he recalls, "and that Batista's forces had killed thousands of young people, even many who had nothing to do with the attack. We could believe it because in those years Batista's dictatorship was known for its indiscriminate repression of young people. Between 1952 and 1958, more than 20,000 people were killed."
Escalante had wanted to be a doctor, but when he reached secondary school he found himself immersed in a cauldron of political activism. There were dozens of dissident student groups but the charismatic and daring Castro suddenly provided a rallying point. Fidel had been arrested after the failed Moncado operation, but the growing pressure from student demonstrations eventually forced Batista to pardon all the jailed rebels. Castro fled to Mexico and there re-grouped his forces for what would be an operation even more daring than Moncado.
On December 2nd, 1956, Castro and 81 supporters on the Granma, a leaking, 13-year-old, 81-foot wooden yacht, landed on Cuba's southern coast in Oriente province. Within hours, a Batista general on the scene issued a report that the rebels had been "literally pulverized" and that Fidel Castro's body had been identified. In reality, the situation was bad, but not that bad. Four days after the landing, having evaded capture by crawling on his belly through fields of dry sugarcane, Castro found refuge in the hills of the Sierra Maestra with what was left of his "army" -- eight men and seven weapons. He was undaunted. "Now we have won the war!" he announced. Thus began Fidel's successful two-year guerilla campaign against Batista.
By then Fabian Escalante had become one of the student leaders who helped establish the underground movement in the city. Although Escalante had joined the Socialist Union, not Castro's 26th of July Movement, Castro's ability to unify their dissension made him the focus of students opposing Batista. That is still Castro's strength among most Cubans, says Escalante today. It is not primarily socialism or communism, but a deep nationalistic loyalty that assured Fidel's victory -- and has helped keep him immune from assassination plots.
From the time he was very young, Escalante has had a bitter awareness of what he considers the United States' disregard for the Cuban sense of nationalism. One of the first books he remembers reading was by an American. He forgets the name of the writer but not the title: Our Cuban Colony. It rankled him and his fellow students seeing U.S. Navy ships steaming into Havana harbor and the hordes of sailors flocking wildly ashore. "They thought all Cuban women were prostitutes," he says. What sticks in his mind is a newspaper photograph of a group of U.S. Marines pissing on a statue of Jose Marti. "Of course they were drunk," says Escalante, "but it exhibited a lack of feeling for Cubans."
During the Fifties, the United States government injected its manic antagonism toward Communists into Cuba's economic, political and social policies. The young Escalante suffered greatly as a result. "I was very unlucky during those years," he says. "I was in jail four times." His first arrest came when he was 14 years old. The police wanted him to tell them where his father was hiding but he refused.
Escalante's last arrest came on December 30th, 1958. He was at a meeting in a house that was used as a center for medical supplies to be sent to Castro's forces in the mountain. It was about noon when the house was raided by forces from the Bureau of Investigations, headed by the infamous Colonel Orlando Piedra, a chunky little guy known for his sadistic interrogations. The 18-year-old Escalante and the others were taken to Bureau headquarters where for two days they were questioned and beaten.
"The man in charge of my questioning," he recalls, "was Orlando Piedra's second assistant, Commandante Ricardo Molina. He was a man in his fifties, with a very pleasant face. Later, after I had been beaten earlier, they took me to his office and Orlando Piedra himself came in. I remember he was dressed in a dark suit and a big coat because it was cold in Havana that day. I remember his wide face and his moustache. I remember him quite well. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'I advise you to tell everything you know because these people are savages!'
"Then they sat me on a chair facing backwards. The Commandante was sitting at his desk and Orlando Piedra was standing next to him and there were several others in the room. One of them started punching me as they were asking questions. I told them all the lies I could think of. Then the lieutenant who was beating me in the morning put his fingers on my back and started to move this bone on my shoulder. It made me jump and I hit him with my head. Then they really started to beat me. They started beating me with a whip. I had a long sleeve corduroy shirt and when they were finished with me the only thing left was a little piece of the collar and the end of the sleeves."
That night, after being whipped, Escalante was taken to one of six small cells on the roof of the two-story building. Before they put him in, they took all his clothes and threw buckets of cold water on him. Then the officer who had been beating him told him, "I'm going to wait until the New Year and then I'll be back to finish you." Escalante told himself he wouldn't let that happen and thought of jumping off the roof when they returned for him.
"But we knew something was happening that night because we heard many cars coming and going, their doors opening and closing," he recalls. "Then about four o'clock in the morning they took downstairs one prisoner, I couldn't see who it was, he was in the last cell. We heard him being shot. Then about eight o'clock a prisoner who had been assigned to clean up came by my cell and told me that Batista had run away. I didn't believe him, I thought it was a trick. I pleaded with him to just find my clothes, I was very cold. But about ten o'clock they took the prisoners from all the cells and took us to Orlando Piedra's office. Piedra had already fled and the only one left in charge was the head of the narcotics section. I remember he was standing in front of Piedra's desk and behind him was a large photograph of Batista and he announced to us, 'Gentlemen, the tyrant has gone! You are free!'"
When Escalante hit the streets he knew it was true. The city had exploded with people dancing, waving flags, singing, cheering and shooting guns into the air. "It was very touching," he remembers. "To be thinking at one moment you were ready to die and then all of a sudden to be alive in the streets and to know that the Revolution had triumphed!" The fact that he would have to immediately spend a few days in a hospital didn't dampen his elation.
Although young Fabian Escalante was assigned to the Revolutionary Army's fledgling intelligence unit immediately after Castro took power, he was not, of course, aware of the seeds of assassination plots then being sown. Those seeds didn't originate within the CIA. They sprang from two non-governmental sources: The Organized Crime syndicate, whose ranking members lost a huge amount of income when Castro closed their gambling casinos; and the American corporate bosses who watched hundreds of millions of their investment dollars and property disappear when Castro began his Agrarian Reform and business nationalization programs. The early CIA, led by Eisenhower-appointee Allen Dulles and a brotherhood of uppercrust Ivy League types, was closely aligned by both blood and economic interests to the highest banking and financial powers on Wall Street. Corporate America had a big stake in Batista's Cuba: It owned about 40 percent of Cuba's sugar land, 90 percent of its mines and mineral concessions, almost all its cattle ranches, 80 percent of its utilities and practically all the oil industry. Yet, initially, when Batista's regime began to wobble, the Agency's outlook remained flexible, thinking it could best protect America's corporate interests by hedging its bet and surreptitiously supporting both factions.
That was a decision made in 1958 by Allen Dulles against the strong objections of his Western Hemisphere Division chief, Colonel J.C. King, an ardent supporter of Batista. King insisted that all Batista needed to destroy the revolution were more weapons and a contingent of military "advisers." But Dulles had earlier sent the CIA's Inspector General, Lyman Kirkpatrick, to Cuba for an assessment. There, Kirkpatrick had not only been given assurances by Batista's army chief that Castro was about to be crushed, he heard the same line from the American Embassy's top spy, William Caldwell, and its Ambassador, Earl E.T. Smith, a wealthy ex-stockbroker. But Kirkpatrick, fearing he was being snowballed, also wanted the skinny from someone closer to the action. He was told to contact one of the CIA's deepcover operatives, David Atlee Phillips, a handsome, congenial, acting buff who ran his own public relations business. Phillips' only client was the local Berlitz Language School. Kirkpatrick and Phillips held a secret meeting in a safehouse office in the Berlitz building and Phillips gave his CIA superior his take on the situation. He said that the economy was in shambles and that Batista's days were numbered. He suggested the United States begin to boost compromise figures who would be supportive of U.S. interests, such as former President Carlos Prio's cohorts, Sanchez Arango and Antonio de Varona. Both men, along with Prio, would later be deeply involved in Castro assassination plots -- as would David Atlee Phillips.
Despite Director Dulles' decision to have the CIA take a wait-and-see attitude, Western Hemisphere chief J.C. King maintained his pro-Batista stance and, in fact, was instrumental in pushing the United States into trying to crush Castro's movement before it took power. For one thing, King's personal interests were at stake. He had developed extensive business connections with one of Cuba's heaviest American investors, former Ambassador William Pawley, who controlled Havana's bus, trolley and gas systems and had large sugar holdings throughout the island. (In January, 1976, I sent to Washington a list of key Miami witnesses to be interviewed by the House Select Committee investigating the JFK assassination. Near the top of the list to be questioned under oath was William Pawley. Exactly one week later, in bed in his Miami Beach mansion with a nervous ailment, Pawley put a gun to his chest and committed suicide.)
Escalante believes that William Pawley was a key player in the history of Castro assassination plots. He claims that Pawley used his close friend, Eisenhower's vice president, Richard Nixon, to set the wheels in motion. Oliver Stone's fictional film Nixon was directly involved in Castro murder plots. Likely not fiction. The real Nixon was the first one in the Eisenhower administration to propose military action against Castro.
In March of 1960, President Eisenhower signed a secret Executive Order permitting the CIA to recruit a body of anti-Castro Cubans -- from the more than 100,000 exiles who had settled in Miami -- and to arm and train them at American expense. In the scheme the Agency presented to Eisenhower, there was no hint of a massive military operation, although the top brass at the Agency were confident they could handle one. They were emboldened by their successful Guatemala operation in 1954, when elected President Jacobo Arbenz nationalized part of United Fruit's banana plantation. Using a force of only 150 exiles and a handful of World War II P-47 fighters flown by American contract pilots, the CIA toppled Arbenz's government in less than a week. The key to success was a clever psychological warfare ploy, using a clandestine radio station to broadcast false reports of a massive force of rebels advancing against government forces fleeing in chaos. The myth created the reality and Arbenz's government collapsed. Creator of the ploy was David Atlee Phillips, the CIA agent who was later moved to Havana to become a deepcover operative.
On March 11, 1961 -- less than five weeks before the scheduled invasion -- CIA Director Allen Dulles and his mastermind of the Cuban operation, Richard Bissell, a brainy, former Yale economics professor, gave the new President his first briefing. Bissell presented a plan involving 750 Cuban exiles who, after a series of air strikes to clear the beachhead, were to come ashore on the south coast of the island near the small town of Trinidad. At the same time, counter-revolutionary forces throughout Cuba would stir a popular uprising and Castro would topple.
Kennedy didn't like it. He thought it was too "noisy." He wanted no intervention by U.S. forces and total deniability of U.S. involvement.
Yet in the end, 1500 men were committed to landing in a more remote area, the treacherous swamps surrounding Bahia de Cochinos - the Bay of Pigs. Dulles and Bissell had cleverly designed the plan to fail unless the U.S. military intervened. They knew there was no way that U.S. involvement could - or should - be kept secret. They knew that the hope of a successful uprising against Castro required as noisy an invasion as possible. They knew that even 1500 men was no match for the 20,000 that Castro could immediately deploy between the beach and the high ground. But Dulles and Bissell designed the scheme so that once the troops were on the ground, the President would be forced to commit U.S. forces and massive air strikes to prevent a disaster and save American prestige.
But at that meeting in March, Dulles and Bissell kept quiet. They never told the President of the plan's hidden design. Neither did they tell Kennedy that the CIA was planning to assassinate Castro before the invasion began.
Long before the Bay of Pigs invasion, the CIA's Western Hemisphere chief, J.C. King, who with his associate William Pawley and Vice President Nixon had been consistently condemning Castro as a Communist, wrote a confidential memo to CIA Director Dulles. King claimed that if Castro's "far-left dictatorship" is not eliminated it "will encourage similar actions against U.S. holdings in other Latin American countries." He added: "Many informed people believe that the disappearance of Fidel would greatly accelerate the fall of the present government."
By suggesting Castro's "disappearance," King wasn't thinking of calling in a magician. Nevertheless, the guys with the plastic pocket protectors at the CIA's Technical Services lab began coming up with some Voodoo-like concoctions. Years later, when Congressional committees began probing into the CIA's illicit activities, the Agency `fessed up to what it had done, but it insisted that none of the concoctions were meant to be lethal - not if you were very careful with the dosages.
The CIA claimed its lab geniuses devised schemes that ranged from contaminating a Castro radio studio with a chemical that would make Fidel temporarily go berserk, to dusting his shoes with a thallium compound to make his beard fall out, thus destroying his macho image. They also injected cigars with a substance that would produce a temporary personality disorder.
The CIA also claimed that none of these schemes actually involved an assassination attempt because none were even tried. However, former Cuban Intelligence chief Escalante says that when Castro visited the United Nations in New York in September, 1960, the CIA attempted, through one of the New York Police guards, to place a box of cigars in Castro's hotel room. These, Escalante says, were not poisoned but loaded with enough explosives to blow Fidel's head off.
Whatever the intent of the schemes that came out of the CIA's Technical Services lab, lethal or just plain silly, there was no doubt of the deadly serious intent of the Agency plots that would later receive the most notoriety -- those involving its association with Organized Crime.
Again, the impetus seems to have come from Western Hemisphere boss J.C. King, who, Deputy Director Bissell later admitted, was the first to discuss "the capability to eliminate Castro." Subsequently, the Agency contacted former FBI agent Robert Maheu, who had become a private investigator. Maheu was a long-time CIA asset who had taken part in a few of the Agency's more sensitive schemes, including the making of a porno movie to frame an Indonesian leader. Maheu also worked for billionaire Howard Hughes, whose diverse operations were frequently employed by the Agency.
When Maheu was told the CIA wanted a connection to Organized Crime for a hit on Castro, he called John Rosselli. A good-looking guy with an easy, beguiling personality, Rosselli was a "labor relations specialist" for the Mob's interests in Las Vegas and Hollywood.
At meetings in New York and Miami Beach, Rosselli brought his CIA contacts in touch with two of the very top Organized Crime figures, Chicago's Sam Giancana and Florida's Santos Trafficante. As a result, a series of attempts was made to kill Castro with poison capsules provided by the Agency and smuggled into Cuba by Mob collaborators. The Agency claimed the attempts were part of its larger invasion strategy, yet they actually continued long after the Bay of Pigs.
Fabian Escalante missed the Bay of Pigs. He was in Russia, with the first group of Cuban intelligence agents chosen for training there. He had distinguished himself in his first secret mission, a posting to Costa Rica to check out rumors that a force of anti-Castro exiles was being gathered somewhere in Latin America. He discovered that Puerto Cabezas in Nicaragua would be the jump-off point of the invasion -- a neat piece of intelligence for Castro.
By the time he returned to Cuba from Costa Rica, Escalante found himself in the midst of increasing anti-Castro activity prior to the United States breaking off diplomatic relations in January, 1961. Both propaganda leaflets and bombs were being dropped on Havana by unmarked aircraft, explosions were rocking factories and businesses and acts of sabotage were increasing dramatically. The previous March, the cargo ship Le Coubre, unloading arms and ammunition from Belgium, exploded in Havana harbor, killing 72 persons. Castro labeled it an act of terrorism by the CIA.
That both his and his government's survival was going to hang on the competency of Cuba's intelligence service was a no-brainer for Fidel. In February, 1961, a small group of the service's finest, Escalante among them, was sent to Moscow for training at the mother of all spy schools, Russia's KGB. Escalante is hesitant to be critical of an old ally, but he does not wax ecstatic over the experience. The instructors were old World War II veterans teaching outdated tradecrafts, while the Cubans had already learned the basics in the school of hardknocks working underground against Batista. Then, too, the language barrier was formidable. "It took us three or four months to understand the translator's Spanish," Escalante remembers. (Later, the Cubans set up their own intelligence school, using the Russians to provide supplies and equipment. But there were problems there, too. For instance, a special spy camera the Russians sent was built into a large button on a huge black overcoat, not quite the right fashion statement for a spy on a tropical island.) Whatever the value of the Russian training, it could in no way have prepared Escalante and his classmates for the challenge that was going to be hurled at them when they returned to Cuba.
"I've got to do something about those CIA bastards...How could I have been so stupid!" Jack Kennedy fumed to his brother when he realized how he had been suckered into the Bay of Pigs operation. There may be more delicate ways of putting it but none as accurate: Kennedy was really pissed. He was angry not only at Agency Director Allen Dulles and his covert plans boss Richard Bissell, both of whom he fired, but he also was mad as hell at Fidel Castro who, in endless public harangues and daily broadcast reviews of the battle, kept rubbing the President's nose in the humiliating defeat.
Kennedy's initial reaction was congenitally reflexive: Don't get mad, get even. Between the Bay of Pigs debacle in April of 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis in October of 1962, a massive and, this time, truly secret war was launched against the Castro regime. Insiders called it "Kennedy's vendetta." Under the guidance of Robert Kennedy, a multi-agency coordinating panel called Special Group Augmented (SGA) was set up to supervise a massive covert program to overthrow Castro's government. The program was called Operation Mongoose, after the ferret-like animal known for its ability to kill cobras and other venomous snakes.
What followed made the preparations for the Bay of Pigs pale by comparison. Publicly, Kennedy referred to it only as a "new and deeper struggle" against Castro, but that was a euphemism for a campaign which eventually employed several thousand CIA operatives and cost over $100 million a year. As it was prior to the Bay of Pigs, Miami was the focus of the effort, but this time the CIA moved in on a truly unprecedented scale. On a secluded, heavily-wooded tract in south Dade County, the Agency set up an operational center code named JM/WAVE. It soon became the largest CIA installation anywhere in the world outside of the Agency's Langley, Va., headquarters.
Those were heady times for the anti-Castro groups in Miami. With the CIA providing training and logistics, the missions to Cuba - illegal under the Neutrality Act -- began escalating in both frequency and scale. Initially intent on infiltrating small guerrilla bands onto the island, the Agency was soon supervising major raids aimed at blowing up oil refineries and sugar mills. Although some of the more militant exile groups considered themselves independent, the Agency was pulling all the strings ---- including those which controlled its continuing program of assassination attempts against Castro.
Fabian Escalante never heard of Operation Mongoose, at least not by name, until many years later, but he felt its destructive effects when he returned from Russia soon after the Bay of Pigs. He was immediately attached to a newly-formed section of Cuban Intelligence, Unit G, specifically responsible for foiling attempts against Castro's life. (Castro has, of course, a contingent of bodyguards, equivalent to U.S. Secret Service types - young, indoctrinated and reverently loyal - from the Special Forces of State Security who provide a circle of immediate protection.) In the beginning, the idea of Escalante's new unit was almost farcical. Against not only a horde of exiles determined to kill Castro, but also facing the manpower, resources and sophisticated technology of the CIA, Unit G consisted, when it was at full strength, of six young, unseasoned men working under the tutoring wing of the unit's veteran chief, Mario Morales, an old soldier who had fought with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.
"When we began," Escalante recalls, "we had one room in the house where Mario's family lived. We had a desk, a typewriter and a telephone, a couple of researchers and a secretary. That's all we had. I remember when we first started there were several months we were not paid. Mario would get angry with us when we went into his kitchen and ate his family's food."
Lacking resources, they made do with youth and dedication. "We were all very young," says Escalante, "but because we were so young we really had no idea what we were facing."
They worked in what Escalante calls "the deep underground." Neither families nor friends knew what they were doing. Escalante carried credentials as an employee in the Ministry of Industry. "We had to work in these secret conditions," he explains "so that the enemy could not discover who were our contacts."
Escalante credits the overwhelming majority of his successes to information provided by the general population. Early on, in an attempt to stifle counter-revolutionary activity, Castro devised a kind of Neighborhood Watch program called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, or CDRs. Organized on the block level throughout the country, the CDR was entrusted with surveillance of the block and reporting what happens on it, when strangers visit, if any house is generating unusual activity or if suspicious packages are being carried in by residents. Human rights groups have termed CDRs one of the most repressive elements of Castro's totalitarian regime, but Fidel may not be alive today, Escalante maintains, if raw data hadn't been fed by the CDRs to his intelligence units on a consistent basis down through the years.
Escalante remembers breaking many cases in which CDR information was especially critical. He recalls, for instance, arresting on July 24th, 1961, the leader of a plot to toss grenades at Fidel as he spoke in Revolution Square two days later. But his eight-man commando group couldn't be found. "Luckily," Escalante says, "we discovered a note in the leader's house with several addresses." With the clock ticking, the addresses were checked against hundreds of recent CDR reports. Finally, one jibed with the address of a house that had been observed with unusual activity, with people coming and going who didn't belong there. On the morning of the planned assassination, Escalante posed as an early-delivering milkman, led a raiding party on the house and caught all eight commandos sleeping on the floor with their weapons and grenades, waiting for their big day to dawn.
On a daily basis, dozens of "informations," as Escalante calls them, would flow in to the State Security office where they would be funnelled to Escalante's secret unit. "We were very, very busy in those years," he says, "because we couldn't take a chance. Often we worked night and day."
Escalante claims that these "informations" came in not only from CDR members but from ordinary citizens as well. "If you ask me why most of the Castro plots have failed, in general it is because the people's support has allowed us to obtain information very quickly, usually at the very first signs of any actions or plots."
"What Castro did," says Saul Landau, the Cuba expert at Washington's Institute for Policy Studies, "was to take advantage of the United States' immense stupidity. If we had not almost immediately imported all of Castro's most dangerous enemies, I don't think we would have had to play around with assassination plots later. But we started off by taking in all the Batista people indiscriminately, all the thieves, murderers and torturers who were hated by the majority of Cubans. Then we began taking in the worst rightwing opposition he had, anybody who showed up in Miami. Now there are a million Cubans living in Florida. Imagine, almost a tenth of Cuba's population who could have provided an activist, militant opposition. So the United States did Castro a favor by relieving him of his worst enemies, and yet we kept trying to kill him."
Ministerio del Interior
I am on the Castro Assassination Plot Tour. It had begun early, with two of Escalante's former comrades from his counter-intelligence days waiting for me in the lobby of the Copacabana in Miramar, a comfortable retreat far from the glitz of the downtown tourist lures. Neither of them look like ex-spies, at least not the Bond version. Raul Roldan has the large, soft face of a gentle bloodhound, sad brown eyes and white bushy brows, a diffident demeanor. The ebullient Jose Veiga calls himself "Moran," stocky, a bit of a pot belly, the laughing eyes of an Irishman you might guess until he opens his mouth. The Cuban accent is still there but, having lived in New Orleans in his pre-teen years, he speaks English well enough to have penetrated the U.S. Embassy as a double agent. With his tweed jacket and the big cigar in the corner of his mouth, he reminds me of the guy you'd see around the paddock at Hialeah.
We started at an ocean-side stretch a few miles west of the hotel in the area of Monte Barreto. The rough rock land is bulldozed clear and flat now, a few concrete pilings hint of a new tourist hotel coming. At one time, Moran tells me, this section of the coast was the only stretch of densely wooded oceanfront near Havana, with thick mangroves at the shoreline. That's why Antonio Cuesta and his infiltration party chose it as a landing site when they came to kill Castro in May, 1966. Their timing was lousy. An Army detachment happened to be holding night training exercises in a field not far from Cuesta's landing point. In the light of a full moon, a security guard at a nearby hotel spotted the infiltrators and called the police. Within minutes, the Army unit surrounded the area and high-speed coastal patrol boats circled the offshore waters. Two men, who were being infiltrated to kill Castro and had made it ashore in a rubber raft, were themselves killed in a gun fight. Two others, who had swam underwater to push the raft silently ashore, were also killed. Cuesta and a crewman still on the main boat offshore tried to speed away but they were caught in the crossfire of the faster Cuban boats tightening the circle around them. As the circle closed, Cuesta pulled the pin of a hand grenade and set it down beside him. He said later that he didn't want to commit suicide, he just didn't want the Cubans to get his boat. He said the last thing he saw was a bright red flash.
Cuesta woke up in a Havana hospital six days later. He was blind and his left arm was severed below the elbow. Escalante spent many hours talking with him. Cuesta had led 33 raids into Cuba and, as leader of the Commando-L group, was considered one of the most fanatical of anti-Castro exiles. But Escalante didn't realize the importance of Cuesta' s last mission until Cuesta himself told him. He said it was organized at the behest of Herminio Diaz, one of the infiltrators planning to kill Castro in a complex plan that would have taken several months to complete. Diaz had been a hit man for Santos Trafficante, one of the Mob bosses working with the CIA. The mission, Cuesta said, was supported by Jorge Mas Canosa, a longtime Agency asset who later worked with Oliver North on Iran-Contra operations and is now the multimillionaire head of the Cuban American National Foundation, the right-wing Washington pressure group that has manipulated U.S. policy toward Cuba for decades.
Now standing in that bulldozed stretch of land where once there were dense mangroves and woods, Moran was showing me exactly where the infiltrators had come ashore and where the hotel security guard was standing when he spotted them. He gazes at the empty ocean for a moment, pulls the cigar from the corner of his mouth and says softly, "We were lucky."
As we continue on the tour I am beginning to get the impression I think Escalante wants me to get: That there are so many places and so many plots it is difficult to keep track of them and the details of all the schemes. We are standing at the bottom of the wide sweep of steps that lead up to the entrance of the University of Havana and there, Roldan tells me, on that first level is where Castro would sometimes speak and from there, from that window in that apartment house behind us, is where they were going to shoot Fidel with a high-powered rifle. At another time, they were going to shoot from another building across the street. And here at the baseball stadium, one of Fidel's favorite places, there were at least two plans to kill him, one using a grenade launcher.
At this spot, on the road to the airport, a commando group was suddenly going to block Castro's car and lay down a barrage of machine gun fire that would wipe out his whole entourage. And here, at the corner of 23rd and 4th Streets, thirty men, many dressed in militia uniforms, were going to begin an especially devious plan by entrapping the car of Foreign Minister Raul Roa Garcia and killing him; then, at his funeral, setting another trap for Castro. The site that claims the most planned assassination plots is the Plaza de la Revolucion, a huge open area where Castro often stands on a hill beneath a majestic granite spire and a giant marble statue of Jose Marti and gives his marathon speeches to audiences of hundreds of thousands. Moran tells me that attempts with high-powered rifles have been planned from almost every building around the plaza. There was also one involving a mortar, a weapon that lobs rocket-like grenades great distances. ("They say this mortar expert was so good he could land one in a small box from hundreds of meters.") The most ambitious plan, Moran says, was devised by a Frenchman working for the CIA who, with the expertise of a City of Havana street engineer, was going to place 60 pounds of C4 explosives in a sewer tunnel beneath Fidel's lectern. The six men involved in that scheme were caught with the explosives, their maps and detailed diagrams.
I am told of plot after plot after plot - all foiled, says Escalante, for one of three reasons: 1) Because G2 had planted agents in the counter-revolutionary group involved, or as double-agents within the CIA itself., 2) because of reports from citizens noticing unusual activity; and 3) just dumb luck.
In 1967, syndicated columnist Jack Anderson warned: "President Johnson is sitting on a political H-bomb." Anderson said he had learned from "an unconfirmed report that Sen. Robert Kennedy may have approved an assassination plot which then possibly backfired against his late brother."
Anderson's source was mobster John Rosselli, who was doing the CIA another favor. At the time, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison had begun his own Kennedy assassination probe and was focusing directly on the CIA. (I would later discover, while working for the House Assassinations Committee, that the Agency was so concerned about Garrison it planted several undercover operatives on his staff.) Rosselli's story was designed to take the heat off the CIA and switch it to Castro. Later, in sworn secret testimony to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, Rosselli admitted he had no information and knew nothing of any plots by Castro to retaliate. (In 1976, before he could be questioned by the Assassinations Committee about CIA and Mob associates suspected of involvement in President Kennedy's murder, Rosselli's mutilated body was found stuffed into a steel drum floating along the Intracoastal Waterway in North Miami.)
Nevertheless, it was Anderson's columns which eventually led to Frank Church's Senate Intelligence Committee probing into the CIA's alliance with the Mob to kill Castro.
Despite the major media attention they received, the Church Committee's revelations were a smokescreen orchestrated by the CIA. The Committee's report was based almost entirely on a document the Agency had provided: The CIA's Inspector General's Report of 1967. The Committee accepted it as the Agency's Mea Culpa, but it was actually the result of a cover-our-ass assignment given his IG by Director Richard Helms. As Deputy Director of Plans ("the dirty tricks department") at an important phase of the Castro plots, Helms had been up to his cajones in the schemes.
The IG report said that the CIA's first plan to kill Castro began before the Bay of Pigs invasion when Agency officers met with Mobsters Rosselli, Giancana and Trafficante in the late summer of 1960. After botching their initial efforts to produce effective poison pills (the first batch wouldn't dissolve in liquid and the second wouldn't kill a guinea pig), the Agency's lab guys finally came up with ones that were given to Trafficante in late February, 1961. Trafficante (or just plain "Joe," as he was known at the secret meetings at the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach) had boasted that he had just the guy for the job, a Cuban official named Juan Orta who, as the Prime Minister's office chief, worked next to Castro almost daily. Orta was promised that the kickbacks he used to get from the gambling casinos would be multiplied after Castro was gone.
The CIA never knew if Orta received the pills. Trafficante reported that he had, but later said that Orta had gotten "cold feet." The CIA eventually learned that, even before Trafficante had been given the pills, Orta had gotten fired from his job and had run into the Venezuelan consulate for asylum.
Not to worry, Trafficante said, he had another great contact. Unbeknownst to the CIA, it was Antonio de Varona, once Cuba's Prime Minister in President Prio's corrupt administration and the man E. Howard Hunt chose to head the Cuban Revolutionary Front, the CIA's umbrella organization for controlling the many exile groups. Trafficante told Varona he had a million-dollar deal if he could come up with a contact in Cuba to do the job. Varona said sure, he had a guy in the Pekin restaurant where Castro often ate. This guy could slip a pill into Castro's food or drink.
In 1967, the CIA's Inspector General's report admitted that "little was known of the delivery channels beyond Varona," but declared that "the scheme failed because Castro ceased to visit that particular restaurant."
The CIA may not know what happened but Cuba's General Escalante does. He knows because, early on, Cuban Intelligence had planted agents in almost every major counter-revolutionary group. The first thing Varona did when he received the assignment, reveals Escalante, was call Alberto Cruz Caso, his lieutenant in the counter-revolutionary group called Rescate, and told him to send a trusted member to Miami. Cruz sent Rodolfo Leon Curbelo, who met with Varona and received the poison capsules and a letter with detailed instructions from the CIA. The letter said that Fidel was to be assassinated only after the order was given by Varona. The Agency wanted to coordinate the assassination with the Bay of Pigs invasion.
The order never came. As a security measure prior to the Bay of Pigs, the CIA gathered all the members of the Cuban Revolutionary Front, including chairman Varona, and held them incommunicado at the Opa Locka air base near Miami. So when the CIA called to give the Mob boss the green light, Trafficante couldn't find Varona. Not that it mattered. Castro never returned to the Pekin because Cuba's G2 had learned of the plot from an agent planted in Varona's Rescate group. Fidel had suddenly become wary of Chinese food syndrome.
The downtown area around the 30-story Havana Libre has blaring traffic, unsavory crowd clutter and hints of sordid activity. Like South Beach on Saturday night. Escalante would have preferred to avoid it but this is an important stop on the assassination plot tour and my guides, Moran and Roldan, are leading me through the lobby. For about a year after his victory, Castro lived and worked out of a suite in this hotel, then the Havana Hilton. After years of neglect, it is almost back to glitzy, its lobby abustle with tourists and foreign business hustlers.
Escalante has sent word ahead and a representative of the hotel has greeted us, led us down a hallway beyond the registration desk to the cafeteria. It closes after breakfast but it is opened for us, the General has requested it. The lights are dim and the place is empty except for the cleaning guys in back.
Moran moves to the long, curving counter on the left, leans an elbow on it and strikes a casual pose, as if he were waiting to be served.
"Here," he points to a spot on the floor, as if there were a benchmark I could see. "Here is exactly where Fidel stood. Here is where he asked for his chocolate milkshake!"
I get an image of the bearded leader making his request and I can empathize with the expectations of his taste buds. I always felt that waiting for a chocolate milkshake is one of the great sensual pleasures of life. So is drinking it.
Moran beckons me over and leads me behind the counter to a place just several feet from where Castro was standing. He lifts the thickly insulated lid of a small, built-in box. It is stacked with dishes. "It is just storage now," he says, "but at the time it was refrigerated. This is where the chocolate ice cream was kept."
I suddenly picture that guy in the drugstore when I was a kid flipping the lid of the freezer, dipping an arm in up to his elbow and scooping out a beautiful, fat-rimmed ball of chocolate ice cream. But this is not pleasant nostalgia here. This is a piece of history, this is the very ice cream freezer which might have changed the course of world events.
Here, as far as he knows, Escalante says, here is as close as any Castro assassination plot came to successful completion -- thanks to Fidel's addiction to chocolate milkshakes.
Immediately after the Bay of Pigs, the CIA told its Mob contacts that the Castro hit plots were being called off. Kennedy's "secret war" had begun and Miami's JM/WAVE station was going to get rolling. The station was put under the command of something called Task Force W, headed by veteran CIA officer William Harvey. A hard-drinking, gun-toting ex-FBI man, Harvey didn't fit the Agency's preppie Good-Old-Boy mold. In fact, Harvey was so fat he hardly fit anything. He had the Agency's permission to fly First Class because regular airline seats squished him painfully. But he was a daring operative who, within a year after the Bay of Pigs, was back in touch with the CIA's Organized Crime cohorts to revive the plots to kill Castro.
Although the CIA never found out what happened to the poison capsules it originally sent to Cuba via Antonio de Varona before the Bay of Pigs, the Agency played the same dumb blind man role in its renewed Castro plotting with the Mob. More poison capsules were given to Varona but, again, the Agency never learned what happened to them. Varona kept asking for more money and supplies for three-man infiltration teams to augment the poisoning plot. Harvey was told the team went in, then didn't go in, then went in and didn't come out, then another team was going in, then wasn't going in. After months of meetings and liaisons, with waffling reports and non-reports and a huge amount of money being dropped, Harvey decided to abandon the operation in February, 1963. He never knew that one month later it almost reached a successful climax.
This is one Escalante credits to luck. He himself might have never known how close Castro came to buying the farm if all the conspirators in Cuba hadn't later been arrested. Varona's main conduit was ex-socialite Maria Leopoldina Grau, the niece of former President Ramon Grau. She distributed the poison capsules to three employees of the Havana Libre, two maitre d's in the restaurant and a cafeteria counterman. With Castro coming in and out of the hotel regularly, eventually one of them might have an opportunity to use them.
But weeks passed and the opportunity never came. Frustrated, the plotters conceived another plan. A cohort, a waiter in El Recodo Cafeteria on the MalecOn waterfront, reported that a ranking Castro Commander, Efigenio Ameijeiras, dined there regularly. The new plan was to use one of the capsules on Ameijeiras and later, in the confusion of the large crowd at his funeral, shoot Fidel. A request was sent to the CIA in Miami for two pistols with silencers, which eventually arrived hidden in art work sent to CIA assets in the Italian Embassy. But it was too late. The waiter who worked at El Recodo had already fled to the United States.
Finally, in March, 1963, opportunity knocked back at the Havana Libre. The cafeteria counterman, Santos de la Caridad, noticed Fidel had started coming in regularly now for a chocolate shake. It was getting to be a habit. De la Caridad began bringing the poison capsule to work with him and putting it in his locker. Then one day he got the opportunity to slip it into the corner of the ice cream box. That night, while De la Caridad was still on duty, Castro walked in with his entourage, leaned against the counter and asked for a chocolate milkshake. De la Caridad jumped eagerly to the mission. He grabbed a tall glass, moved back to the ice cream box, dug his arm down and began scooping out balls of chocolate. On one of his dips he quickly let his fingers move against the walls of the freezer searching for the capsule. He felt it. Two of his fingers gripped it but it wouldn't move. It was frozen to the icy surface. He glanced up to see one of Fidel's bodyguards watching him. He pretended he was dipping again and this time with his fingernails tried to pry the capsule away from the wall. Stuck! He made one last fast hard dig at it with his nails. He felt it break and the poisonous liquid harmlessly flow out. Now, his hands shaking, imagining the eyes of the bodyguards darkening in suspicion, he quickly came up with the last scoop of ice cream.
Castro likely wondered why there were beads of sweat on Santos de la Caridad' s forehead from the simple job of making a chocolate milkshake. Ahh, but it didn't matter, the guy made great shakes. Fidel drank it down quickly and, wiping the ring of tan foam from his bearded lips, issued the counterman a salute as he departed: Delicioso!
Luck and penetration. That's what kept Castro alive through more than 37 years of people trying to kill him. "We needed luck many times," Escalante says today, "but luck was not enough. We needed more." More for Escalante came not only from the ability of his agents to penetrate the anti-Castro groups both in Cuba and in the United States, but to burrow within the CIA itself. The first of Escalante' s agents to penetrate the CIA was our ebullient, cigar-chomping tour guide "Moran" - Jose Velga Pena. He worked with contacts right out of the U.S. Embassy and was involved in one of G2's major coups. That's when the CIA first decided to experiment with satellite-relayed transmissions to communicate with its spies. The Agency figured Cuba would be a good place to test the new technology. It smuggled in the expensive, highly sophisticated receiving equipment and gave it to its most trusted Cuban agents to use. Two of them were Escalante's men. The equipment itself is now on display in that State Security museum in Miramar.
Often Escalante's agents penetrated the CIA through anti-Castro groups sponsored by the Agency. One of the most virulent of these groups was the Movimiento Recuperacion Revolucionario (MRR), led by the CIA's "Golden Boy," Manuel Artime, political chief of the Bay of Pigs invasion force. On the CIA payroll was the National Coordinator of the MRR in Cuba, an agent with the Lebanese moniker of Abel Hayder. In the fall of 1963, Hayder received an order from the Agency to slip out of the island and come to the United States for special training. At a safe house in South Miami, he received a 45-day course in sabotage, demolition and the use of poison capsules. Before he was sent back to Cuba, he was given a Magnum Special with a telescopic sight to be delivered to a sharpshooter who was planning to kill Castro on January 2nd, 1964. In the middle of December, 1963, Hayder was secretly infiltrated back into Cuba, landing on a beach near Havana. He immediately buried the supplies and weapons, walked to the road, got on a bus and reported to Escalante's headquarters. Hayder didn't suddenly turn. He had been with Cuban Intelligence when he joined the MRR shortly after Artime had formed it.
Escalante says that at one point he had 28 agents working for the CIA - meaning they were on the Agency's payroll. He says, however, that Cuban penetration of the CIA didn't involve placing agents within the CIA's bureaucratic structure. "It was not necessary," he says. "We already knew all the case officers working against Cuba and our men had gotten very close to them, they were their personal friends, they told them even their family problems."
Escalante dangled one of his most successful penetration agents for almost four years before the CIA took the bait. Nicolas Sirgado Ros was made general director of supplies for the Ministry of Construction, socialized with known dissidents in Cuba and took frequent business trips to Europe. Finally, in London in 1966, Sirgado received a call from an executive in a Belgium business firm suggesting a meeting to discuss "trade questions." A tall, affably suave man who introduced himself as Harold Bensen showed up at Sirgado's hotel room and, after some preliminary probing, revealed he was with the CIA. (Bensen, says Escalante, was really David Atlee Phillips, the CIA officer then in charge of Cuban Operations.) Bensen offered Sirgado a salary if he began working for the CIA, paid in dollars deposited in a Chase Manhattan Bank account in New York. After his work was through, Bensen promised Sirgado, he would be resettled comfortably in the United States.
For more than ten years, the CIA considered Sirgado one of its most valuable Cuban assets. They trained him well, taught him sophisticated espionage techniques and supplied him with the most advanced spy equipment. In return, the CIA asked Sirgado for a wide range of intelligence information, from the details of Castro's personal life to facts about Cuba's economy, trade and production. When Sirgado traveled to Europe, the CIA augmented his regular payments, permitting him to live a bit more lavishly.
But the Agency also tested him. Periodically they put him under surveillance when he was in Europe, watched his hotel room, followed him about. They found nothing suspicious. Three times they gave him a polygraph test and three times he passed it.
In 1974, at a debriefmg meeting in Italy, the CIA gave Sirgado his most challenging assignment. It taught him how to install a microtransmitter in the office of his boss, Construction Minister Osmani Cienfuegos. Sirgado did a beautiful job. The CIA picked up an inordinate amount of information from Cienfuego who, fortunately, always talked loud enough to provide the Agency's evedroppers with clear reception.
Early in 1976, Sirgado received special recognition for his work. In an informal ceremony in a hotel room in Madrid, an officer who wore a patch over his right eye and called himself Colonel Frank said he had come to personally congratulate Sirgado and convey the compliments of CIA Headquarters for his more than ten years of service. He also gave Sirgado a personal letter from then National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and, as a personal gift from Kissinger, a Rolex watch.
Shortly after Sirgado got his Rolex, Cuban Intelligence began getting hints that the CIA was planning another assassination attempt against Castro. Then, when the Agency began asking Sirgado to provide detailed information about Castro's planned trip to Angola in November, 1976, Escalante decided that the best way to abort the plot was to have Fidel himself announce that he was aware of the detailed information the CIA had requested from Sirgado. Sirgado and his Rolex had to be brought in from the cold.
And in the mirror there is Cubela. It is a sensitive subject for General Escalante, but inevitable. Rolando Cubela was code-named AM/LASH and he represented the CIA's highest penetration into Castro's inner circle. Cubela's prime notoriety comes from being in the wrong place at the wrong time: Meeting in Paris with a CIA officer on the very day that President Kennedy was blown away in Dallas and, as the gods of fate would have it, being proffered a special pen with which to stick a lethal injection into his old buddy Fidel. The "coincidence" has bolstered the Castro-retaliation theorists. But when the House Assassinations Committee looked at all the FBI reports alleging a link between a Castro agent and Oswald, it found that almost every one of the reports was based on misinformation provided by assets of the CIA's counter-intelligence expert David Atlee Phillips -- the agent who helped recruit Cubela in Mexico City in 1961.
The stories were phony but Rolando Cubela was real enough. And Escalante admits he didn't learn of Cubela's perfidy until three years after Cubela first contacted the CIA. Yet even after Cubela was arrested and given a very public trial in Havana, the CIA still denied him. Responding to reports of Cubela's trial in The New York Times, the CIA's Richard Helms issued the Big Lie: "The Agency was not involved with Cubela in a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro," Helms declared, "nor did it ever encourage him to attempt such an act."
Major Rolando Cubela was a revolutionary war hero who had led the powerful Student Directorate guerilla forces in the mountains of central Cuba and had ridden triumphantly into Havana even before Castro had arrived. He was said to be close to Fidel, saw him often and talked to him regularly. But Cubela, a hard-drinking, partying type, had a major ego and became increasingly bitter after Castro neglected to appoint him to a top post in the new government. Although given an important position as head of the politically powerful Federation of Students, Cubela wasn't satisfied. By 1961, he told the CIA he was ready to defect.
Although secret CIA reports had labeled Cubela "temperamental" and emotionally "mercurial," the Agency persuaded Cubela not to defect, convincing him he could play a key role in toppling Castro and become the lider maxim himself. Nevertheless, because it knew he was an unstable sort, the CIA covered its ass in dealing with Cubela. Agency reports of meetings with him read like carefully contrived for-the-record documentation, with AM/LASH insisting that Castro be "eliminated" - Cubela disliked the word "assassinate" - and the Agency maintaining it couldn't help him with that but it would assist in any coup he fomented. A lot of money changed hands and loads of weapons and supplies were smuggled into Cuba and cached away for Cubela, but there was more talk than action.
Then, in the fall of 1963, AM/LASH told his CIA case officer that he was ready to move on a Castro assassination plot and a coup, that he wanted supplies and a high-powered telescopic rifle and direct assurance from the United States government that it would back him once the flames were lit. He said he wanted to meet personally with Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
That was a problem, since the Attorney General knew nothing of the AM/LASH plotting. So the CIA's clandestine plans boss Richard Helms and his deputy Desmond Fitzgerald decided that Fitzgerald would meet with Cubela in Paris and present himself as "the personal representative of Attorney General Kennedy." No need to tell Kennedy about it, of course.
Fitzgerald met with Cubela in Paris late in the afternoon of November 22, 1963. A CIA report conveniently notes that "Fitzgerald says that ...he told Cubela that the U.S. Government would have no part of an attempt on Castro's life." But Fitzgerald did bring along a little device Cubela might want to employ in his coup: A Paper-Mate pen modified to work as a hypodermic syringe, with a needle so fine it would hardly be felt penetrating the skin. It was to be filled with a poison called Blackleaf 40. Cubela later told Escalante he never brought the pen back to Cuba, he threw it in the Seine.
The CIA put a temporary muffler on its Castro plots after Kennedy's assassination, but it remained obsessed with the thought of having an asset in place so close to Castro. Although the Agency later claimed it had stepped away from Cubela after the poison pen gambit, its files reveal that it was back on AM/LASH's merry-go-round by the fall of 1964, repeatedly meeting his requests for more weapons and explosives to be cached away for him in Cuba.
Finally, on January 3, 1965, a CIA report noted that an agreement had been reached: "AM/LASH [would be provided] with a...rifle with a scope and silencer plus several bombs, concealed either in a suitcase, a lamp or some other concealment device which he would be able to carry, and place next to Fidel Castro."
Just when it appeared that the lamp would be lit, the CIA began receiving disturbing news. From its telephone taps and listening devices in European consulates, the Agency learned Cubela had been talking freely about his plans to kill Castro. It decided to break off with AM/LASH, this time for real.
Meanwhile, Cuban Intelligence had been tracking Cubela for almost a year. Escalante had earlier sent one of his agents to Miami to penetrate the anti-Castro group led by Manuel Artime, one of the CIA's links to Cubela. Escalante's agent happened to be the brother of Artime's chief of intelligence and he quickly learned about Cubela's Castro hit plots. Cubela was put under tight surveillance and then finally arrested in February, 1966, after more than a year of further investigation. "Castro was very disappointed in Cubela," Escalante told me, "and wanted a very good investigation to make sure."
Cubela was given the death penalty, but Castro, perhaps feeling charitable towards a former comrade who could never get his act together, reduced the sentence to a 25-year term. This despite the fact that, immediately after he had been found guilty, Cubela had jumped up and cried, "To the wall! To be executed! That is what I want! It is deserved!"
The CIA had been right after all, the guy was temperamental.
The building at 29 Misiones Street is so innocuous it takes a closer look to realize how ugly it is. Flaked and peeling, the structure is aging ungracefully. It may be an old and ugly building, but it is a very important building in the annals of Castro assassination plots.
Today it is entirely occupied by government offices, but once half the building was apartment units the half that is closer to the old Presidential Palace across the street. This is the one place on the Castro assassination plot tour that General Escalante most wanted me to see.
Specifically, it is this doorway, no longer the main entrance, but the one that was used by the residents of the apartment units. Its glass door leads to a very small vestibule and the lone elevator. It was impossible to go in or out of the building without being noticed, usually by the building manager who, most of the day and early evening, sat in a folding chair enjoying the parade of humanity strolling the tree-lined street. The building manager was, of course, a member of the CDR, the citizens surveillance organization, and would file regular reports of his observations.
Escalante told me that the corner apartment on the eighth floor of this building was once rented by an American woman who used the apartment infrequently. From the investigation he has done, Escalante believes the woman's name was fake and that the apartment was used as an Agency safe house for meetings. He believes that because one of the individuals seen frequenting the apartment was David Atlee Phillips, the CIA officer who was working undercover in Havana at the time.
In 1977, after he retired from the Agency, David Atlee Phillips published an autobiography called The Night Watch - 25 Years of Peculiar Service [Athenaeum, N.Y.] Like most books written by ex-CIA officers, the reality is more between the lines and in what is not written than in the carefully chosen words. Phillips writes of his Texas family background, his partying college career, his aspirations to be in the theater. He served a stint in World War II and made a daring escape from a German prison camp. He claims he was recruited by the CIA when he and his wife were living in Chile and publishing a small, English-language newspaper. Back in the States, he was given special training in propaganda, psychological warfare and counterintelligence. After his key role in the CIA's overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz's leftist regime in Guatemala, Phillips went undercover in Havana. He reveals his front was as a public relations counselor but writes very little of what he actually did during his undercover years in Havana, only that he "put in a full day for the CIA," and that he "handled" agents.
David Phillips was the Agency's ultimate chameleon, a man whose entire life was a theater of deceptions. As a Congressional investigator, I dug deep into Phillips' background. Multiple images of his character, his competence, his morals and his political beliefs still emerge not only from his associates but from his family and closest friends. (A heavy smoker, he died in 1988 of cancer.) From the self-effacing anecdotes and the modest accomplishments recorded in his autobiography, you'd never suspect that Phillips had carved himself a covert superstar's niche in the secret history of the CIA. He writes of his role in the Bay of Pigs operation but quickly brushes through the key assignments he had in the CIA's actions in the Dominican Republic, the overthrow of Salvadore Allende in Chile and his role as Counterintelligence Chief for Cuban Operations and later boss of all Cuban Ops. What says it all is that Phillips eventually became the CIA's Chief of Western Hemisphere Division - the highest rank short of a Presidential appointment - and was given the CIA's highest award, the Agency's equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
General Escalante considers David Phillips to be the most important, capable and dangerous CIA adversary he has ever had over the long decades of the United States' continuing war against Cuba. "Phillips was the key man," he says. "He was our major enemy. He was a very intelligent man, with the ability to conceive of very complex schemes. He was the mastermind of a great many Castro assassination plots, the secret producer and director."
Later, in Escalante's intelligence files it would be called Caso Terraza Norte - the North Terrace Case. It was part of a much larger operation that was going to include not only the assassination of Castro but the instigation of massive chaos and terror in Havana designed to ignite a public uprising. Escalante began discerning hints of it in reports that flowed in during the summer of 1961, but a clearer image didn't emerge until the arrest of CIA agent Jose Pujols in August, shortly after the Agency had infiltrated him back into Cuba following a meeting in Washington. Pujols had been the CIA's link to the group called the MRP (Movimiento Revolucionario del Pueblo). In Washington, Pujols had met with two CIA officers, one of whom was introduced to him as Harold Bishop. Escalante believes, from Pujols' description, that "Harold Bishop" was another alias used by David Phillips.
Interrogated by Escalante, Pujols said the CIA had put a major operation together that included a sabotage and terrorism campaign. Harold Bishop asked him to help in coordinating the MRP's role by getting in touch with Antonio Veciana, who had recently become the MRP's chief of sabotage. Pujols said that the terrorism campaign would include setting explosives and incendiary devices in several of the major Havana department stores. The CIA said nothing about a Castro assassination plot to Pujols, but Escalante assumed there would be one, it was always part of the pattern. All he had to do was figure out where and when.
Escalante got a break when a woman named Dalia Jorge Diaz was caught planting an incendiary device in Sears. From her, he determined that the assassination attempt would likely take place on October 4th, when Castro was scheduled to welcome Cuban President Osvaldo Dortices back from a round of visits to the socialist countries in Europe. The assembly would take place on the north terrace of the old Presidential Palace and it would include every major figure in government.
On the day of the assembly, not having specific details of the plot, State Security flooded the crowds, buildings and rooftops with militia and agents. That tactic must have worked because nothing happened. Two days later the lair of the MRP action group was found in Apartment 8-A in the building at 29 Misiones Street.
I push back the drab gray curtain and sight an imaginary weapon out the corner window in the office that used to be Apartment 8A. It would have been an easy shot. Especially with a rocket from a bazooka. Escalante's old G2 pals, Moran and Roldan, are telling me what happened in animated detail, invigorated by memories from the thrill of the game. The conspirators brought their weapons into the building piece by piece, they explain, smuggled in the shopping bags of Veciana's mother-in-law, in whose name the apartment had been rented. They walked around softly in their stocking feet so as not to arouse suspicion in the apartment below. The weapons were found behind a false wall in a closet. There was a bazooka with a rocket that would have killed not only Castro but all the government officials on the balcony. Five conspirators, dressed in militia uniforms, were to take part in the actual shooting. The plan was to fire the bazooka and then drop hand grenades into the crowd to create confusion. Then they would rush downstairs in their uniforms and pretend to join the crowd looking for the perpetrators.
Of course, no bazooka was ever fired, no hand grenade dropped. The hit team had arrived on the scene, saw the overwhelming presence of State Security forces everywhere and never entered the building. They were all eventually captured. Everyone, that is, except the director of the plot, Antonio Veciana. He had fled with his mother-in-law on a boat to Miami two days before.
In the early spring of 1975 I found Antonio Veciana living the life of a devout family man in a cozy house on a quiet street in Miami's Little Havana. After escaping from Cuba, he had founded Alpha 66, the largest and most militant of all the anti-Castro groups. At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it had sent attack boats in Havana harbor to sink Russian ships. That action came exactly when President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev were in the most delicate stage of negotiations. They were arranging a deal for the removal of the Russian missiles from Cuba in exchange for Kennedy ending his secret war against Castro. The Alpha 66 raids could have wrecked that deal and perhaps sparked a war between the United States and Russia over Cuba ---- which is exactly what the Miami Cubans were hoping for, as were their CIA handlers who had become infected with as strong an anti-Castro passion as the exiles. Years later, I would listen to many of them spit venom at the mention of Kennedy's name, damning him as a traitor for even dealing with Khrushchev.
I wanted to speak with Veciana about that, as well as other Alpha 66 actions and the Castro assassination plot in which he was involved. At the time, the CIA was still denying it had controlled any of the Miami anti-Castro groups and it specifically denied it had anything to do with Alpha 66 or with Veciana. What Veciana told me ripped apart that fiction.
In the summer of 1960, Antonio Veciana was a rising young star in the Cuban banking business, an accountant with Banco Financiero. One day, a man came into the bank and identified himself as Maurice Bishop. Initially, Bishop said he was with a Belgium construction firm, but later admitted he was an American and said he was aware of Veciana's increasing disillusionment with Fidel's government, something Veciana had told very few people. Then Bishop made his point: He wanted to recruit Veciana as an active participant in the growing movement against Castro's communist government.
Veciana told me of the secret relationship with Maurice Bishop that stretched over a period of more than twelve years, from 1960 to 1972. It included two major Castro assassination attempts. When Veciana escaped from Cuba and came to Miami, it was Bishop who directed him to establish Alpha 66 to continue the war against Castro. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was Bishop who directed that Alpha 66 boats raid Havana harbor, then helped Veciana organize a press conference in Washington to threaten Kennedy with more such actions. And later, when it appeared that Bishop's interest widened to include combating Communism throughout Latin America -- the result, we later learned, of his rise in the CIA -- he got Veciana on the U.S. government payroll as a "consultant" with the Agency for International Development in La Paz, Bolivia.
Veciana and the mysterious Maurice Bishop had a long and very fruitful anti-Castro relationship. Their plots to kill Fidel may have failed, but many other actions were very successful. Those included a number of propaganda ploys and character assassinations of leading Latin American Communists, as well as scams to weaken the financial stability of left-leaning governments. (In Havana, Veciana successfully schemed to get Castro's top aide, Che Guevara, to sign a $200,000 check which was slipped to the underground.)
But the two Castro assassination plots that Bishop instigated with Veciana are of special interest. The one in Havana in October of 1961, as carefully planned and coordinated as it was, failed because Escalante's State Security had received information early enough to take the preventive measures that forced the plotters to abort it. However, the attempt in Chile in early 1971 was designed with such shrewd and meticulous detail it would have undoubtedly succeeded if it weren't for vagaries in the human element emerging at the last moment. In fact, it illustrates a point that Veciana himself would later make in explaining the failure of Castro plots. "There is an aura of intimidation that surrounds Castro," he recently told me. "Not only does he have a large quantity of bodyguards who look powerful, he himself creates a very intimidating force."
The Chile attempt was planned months earlier, as soon as Bishop learned that Castro would be visiting there. Two assassins, who were to pose as television cameramen and shoot Castro at a press conference with guns hidden in their camera, were given months of training. Yet at the last moment both chickened out, intimidated by Castro's very presence. One of the shooters said he had to have an emergency appendectomy but, when Veciana later checked, the doctor told him the man insisted his appendix be removed even though he had no signs of appendicitis.
For Cuban Intelligence, Antonio Veciana' s revelations confirmed what it had been claiming all along: The CIA was behind more Castro assassination plots than it had acknowledged. For the U.S. government, they would also have other implications. Initially, however, the critical issue was identifying the CIA agent who called himself Maurice Bishop.
Eventually we discovered it was David Atlee Phillips, the Havana undercover operative who had later climbed to the CIA's upper echelon as Chief of the Western Hemisphere Division. However, neither Phillips nor Veciana chose to identify one another. Phillips for obvious reasons and Veciana for more complicated reasons, including fear. He had told me about the existence of Bishop only to protect himself, he had never thought Bishop's true identify would be found. His fear of confirming Bishop's identity was not related to his telling me of Bishop directing Castro assassination plots and illegal Alpha 66 raids, it had to do with another revelation. Yet, despite Veciana's disclaimer, the amount of evidence that proved the links between Maurice Bishop and David Atlee Phillips was so overwhelming that, in its final report, the House Assassinations Committee concluded that both Phillips and Veciana lied in their sworn testimony. And now, with the information provided by Escalante linking Phillips to Veciana's Castro assassination attempt from the apartment at 29 Misiones Street, the final nail fixing Bishop's true identity is hammered tight.
That's especially significant in terms of that other revelation. Veciana had testified that down through the years he had met with Bishop in various cities in the United States and Latin America. In September, 1963, Veciana said, Bishop called him to come to Dallas, the site of a number of previous meetings. (Phillips was from nearby Fort Worth.) Veciana said he was scheduled to meet Bishop in the lobby of a large downtown office building, but he arrived early and saw Bishop talking with a slight, pale young man. Then, with Veciana's appearance, Bishop quickly ended his conversation with the young man and joined Veciana. Immediately after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Veciana recognized the young man he had seen with Bishop as Lee Harvey Oswald.
Veciana revealed that information before Bishop's identity was discovered. A later incident may indicate why, after the discovery, Veciana became less candid. One evening, after Veciana had testified in Washington and the House Assassinations Committee was wrapping up its report, I received a call from a friend in Little Havana. His voice was tense. He said Veciana had just been shot in the head. Someone ambushed him while he was driving home, firing four shots at him. I immediately called the hospital and learned that Veciana would survive. I went to see him a few weeks later, saw the monstrous holes the .45-caliber slugs had made in the door of his truck. I asked him who he thought was trying to kill him. "It was a Castro agent," he said quickly.
I pressed: Did he consider it could be anyone else?
Veciana looked at me for a moment then smiled, acknowledging what we both knew: The Castro assassination game is loaded with mirrors.
The General wiped the crumbs of breakfast toast from his thin lips. "Before I forget," he said, "I would like to remind you to do something."
We were getting an early start with breakfast in my room because I was going to be leaving that day. "What I would like you to do," he said, "is read again the first chapter of E. Howard Hunt's book, Give Us This Day, his story about the Bay of Pigs." The General's face broke into a huge smile.
Is there something funny about that? I asked.
"Well," said the General, "Hunt writes about a meeting of CIA officers in Havana in 1956. They are in the U.S. Embassy with Ambassador Arthur Gardner when an aide comes in and whispers in Gardner's ear. Gardner then announces that he has just received word from President Batista that a boatload of Cuban revolutionaries had been sunk off Oriente province and that the Cuban Army and Air Force had annihilated the survivors, including the group's leader."
The General laughed. "Yes," he said, "because of the title that Hunt gives to that chapter, He titles it, 'Castro Is Dead.'
There is not much to laugh about in Cuba these days but, for General Escalante, the fact that Castro is not dead is very funny.