Courts & Crime

Tortured U.S. history with Castro’s Cuba includes mob ties and assassination plots

Fidel Castro, May 12, 2002
Fidel Castro, May 12, 2002 MCT

The United States government schemed for years to kill Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Senate investigators in 1975 identified “concrete evidence of at least eight plots involving the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro between 1960 and 1965,” according to a report by the so-called Church committee. Nor were these efforts trivial.

“One plot, involving underworld figures, reportedly twice progressed to the point of sending poison pills to Cuba and dispatching teams to commit the deed,” the investigators recounted, adding that other “proposed assassination devices ran the gamut from high-powered rifles to poison pills, poison pens, deadly bacterial powders and other devices which strain the imagination.”

Chaired by Idaho Sen. Frank Church, the panel formally called the Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities exposed a number of CIA plots against other foreign leaders as well.

The anti-Castro details do, in fact, boggle the mind. They also boggled the minds of presidents, who have issued executive orders banning assassination. The CIA investigated itself, with a 1967 Inspector General study.

“The vigor with which schemes were pursued within the Agency to eliminate Castro personally varied with the intensity of the U.S. government’s efforts to overthrow the Castro regime,” the CIA reported, noting the “severe pressures” exerted by the Kennedy administration in particular to “do something.”

The very day that Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963, the CIA noted that a U.S. intelligence officer passed a “ballpoint pen rigged as a hypodermic syringe” to a “Cuban asset” in Paris.

Senate investigators found that CIA plotters “impregnated a box of cigars with a chemical which produced temporary disorientation,” in hopes of making a tripped-out Castro seem foolish during a public speech. There was a plan to undermine Castro’s image by dusting his shoes with thallium salts, which would make his beard fall out. The CIA’s Office of Medical Services, more recently in the news over CIA interrogation practices, reported that a box of cigars was treated with a deadly toxin.

Mob figure John Rosselli was approached, and met with former FBI agent Robert Maheau at the Brown Derby Restaurant in Los Angeles in early September 1960. The plot then embarked on a series of semi-comic, semi-tragic, always-sordid twists and turns best read directly in the Senate report.

Maheau, according to Senate investigators, subsequently told Rosselli that he “represented international business interests which were pooling money to pay for the assassination of Castro.” Rosselli went to Florida, where he met with a CIA officer and two mobsters, including Sam Giancana.

“The Agency had first considered a ‘gangland-style’ killing in which Castro would be gunned down,” the investigators reported, but “Giancana reportedly opposed the idea because it would be difficult to recruit someone for such a dangerous operation.”

The CIA’s technical experts developed a batch of toxins, which was tested on monkeys. The monkeys died; the toxin worked. The poison pills were delivered to Cuba, but were never served to Castro.

For more direct information, see the CIA’s FOIA Electronic Reading Room and the National Security Archives,