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Assassination plots and schemes: Castro in the crosshairs

  • Story Highlights
  • A plot to embarrass Castro suggested chemicals to cause his beard to fall out
  • One plan included Mafia figures and poison pills
  • A booby-trapped seashell that would explode when lifted was also discussed
  • One scheme included a diving suit dusted inside with a disease-causing fungus
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By Don Bohning
Special to CNN
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Don Bohning is a former Latin America editor for The Miami Herald and author of "The Castro Obsession: U.S. Covert Operations Against Cuba 1959-1965," published by Potomac Books in 2005.

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Cuban President Fidel Castro poses for a photograph last month in Havana.

(CNN) -- Before disappearing from public life in 2006 and officially stepping down as Cuba's president Tuesday, Fidel Castro ruled the country with an iron fist, despite numerous attempts by his enemies to do away with him.

The CIA-directed April 1961 invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to U.S. government efforts to rid Cuba of Castro.

They began with his rise to power in 1959 and continued through the mid-1960s.

In many cases, those efforts were accompanied by assassination plots, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. Some were serious, others were not.

Obviously, none succeeded.

Most Americans did not learn of these efforts until 1975, when Sen. Frank Church of Idaho conducted hearings on Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders.

Greater detail became available in 1993 with the declassification of the Report on Plots to Assassinate Fidel Castro, a report ordered by President Johnson. It was prepared in 1967 by the CIA's inspector general and made available to the Church Committee but not declassified until 36 years later. Video Watch a report on the impact of Castro's resignation »

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The Church Committee concluded there were "at least eight plots involving the CIA to assassinate Castro from 1960 to 1965." Some, however, never got beyond the talking stage, as indicated by the CIA inspector general's report.

They included, before August 1960, plots aimed only at discrediting Castro.

• Aerosol attack on radio station Discussion was held on a scheme to contaminate the air of the radio station in Havana where Castro broadcast his speeches with a chemical that produces reactions similar to LSD. Nothing came of the idea.

Contaminated cigars A vague scheme involving a box of cigars treated with a chemical intended to produce temporary personality disorientation or, perhaps, cause his beard to fall out. The source was the late Jake Esterline, the CIA's project director for what became the Bay of Pigs. While vague on his recollections about the intended effect of the cigars, Esterline said he was positive they were not lethal.

Depilatory A scheme involving thallium salt, a chemical used by women as a depilatory, placed in his shoes. The idea was to cause Castro's beard to fall out, thus damaging his image.

Gambling syndicate -- Phase I (August 1960 - May 1961) A complicated assassination plot initiated by Richard Bissell, involving Mafia figures Sam Giancani, Santos Trafficante and Johnny Rosselli, who had contacts remaining in Havana from pre-Castro days. It was timed to coincide with the Bay of Pigs invasion, although Bissell, head of CIA covert operations at the time, never bothered to tell either Esterline, the Bay of Pigs project director, nor Marine Col. Jack Hawkins, the project's paramilitary officer. Poison pills were to be delivered to Havana and delivered to a contact inside a restaurant frequented by Castro. No one knows if the pills ever got to Havana. It was called off after the Bay of Pigs.

Gambling syndicate -- Phase II (Late 1961 - June 1963) The same plot involving Mafia figures and poison pills was reactivated in early 1962 as part of the period of Operation Mongoose, the post-Bay of Pigs program to unseat Castro. The pills were given to Tony Varona, a prominent Cuban exile, through Johnny Rosselli, another Mafia figure. Varona then asked for arms and ammunition as well, which were passed to him by the Miami CIA station. The inspector general's report indicates uncertainty as to whether the pills ever made it to Cuba.

Schemes in early 1963

Skin-diving suit This plot was hatched at the time New York Attorney James Donovan was negotiating with Castro for the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners. It called for Donovan to present Castro with a skin-diving suit dusted inside with a fungus that would produce a disabling and chronic skin disease and contaminating the breathing apparatus with the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. The skin-diving suit already had been bought but was abandoned when it was learned Donovan already had given Castro a skin-diving suit on his own initiative.

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Booby-trapped seashell The idea was to take an unusually spectacular seashell that would catch Castro's attention, load it with an explosive triggered to blow when the seashell was lifted, and submerge it in an area Castro was known to frequent for skin-diving. The plan progressed so far that Desmond Fitzgerald, then head of the CIA's Cuban operations, bought two books on Caribbean mollusks. It was later decided the scheme was impracticable for a variety of reasons, among them that a midget submarine to have been used in placing the seashell had too short an operating range.

Project Amlash-Rolando Cubela Cubela, whose code name was Amlash, was a member of Castro's inner circle from the beginning. He had become disenchanted and made contact with the CIA as early as 1961. Nestor Sanchez, his CIA case officer, was meeting with Cubela in Paris when President Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963. Sanchez provided Cubela that day -- at Cubela's request -- a poison pen-syringe to be used either on Castro or on himself, in case of a failed attempt. Nothing happened. As CIA covert operations against Castro began winding down, the Agency put Cubela in touch with Manuel Artime, the exiled chief of a 300-member, CIA-funded exile guerrilla army operating for Central America. The joint Artime-Cubela plan was for Cubela to assassinate Castro when he gave his annual July 26, 1965, speech at Varadero, a beach resort on Cuba's north coast. The assassination would coincide with a seaborne invasion by Artime's forces with the presumed support of several Cuban army officers in the area. The operation was canceled in late June 1965 after it became compromised. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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