8 Bizarre Ways the CIA Tried to Kill Fidel Castro

8 Bizarre Ways the CIA Tried to Kill Fidel Castro

Stephanie Schoppert - March 15, 2017

When Fidel Castro took control of Cuba it was supposed to be a turning point for the country. The people loved him and they wanted peace for Cuba. But as time went on, the charismatic leader proved that he wasn’t the benevolent leader that people hoped he would be. When it became obvious that Castro was not going to be an ally to the United States and was in fact a communist, it was decided that action had to be taken.

The CIA was given the task of eliminating Castro, but with explicit instructions that the United States should never be tied to it in any way. As a world leader, the United States did not want to be caught plotting the assassination of another world leader.

Explosive Shell

One of the more bizarre ways that the CIA plotted to kill Castro was with an explosive shell. This is not referring to an artillery shell, but rather a seashell. Fidel Castro enjoyed diving and there were certain spots where the world leader was known to dive.

8 Bizarre Ways the CIA Tried to Kill Fidel Castro

The CIA thought that one way to kill Castro and not have it traced back to the U.S. was to plant a colorful shell filled with explosives in the path of Castro’s dive. To that end they purchased multiple books on ocean shells in the hopes of finding one that would be suitable to stuff with explosives. They needed a shell that was beautiful, one that would catch Castro’s eye and that he might want to pick up and take with him.

Finding a pretty shell for inspiration was not the hard part. As it turned out, the shells that were found in the region that Castro liked to dive were not large enough to hold the amount of explosives the CIA believed they would need in order to ensure Castro’s death. They needed something that could be easily hidden within the shell and not be detectable in terms of weight or size.

The shell assassination was never attempted, but it remains one of the most bizarre attempts to ever be planned by the CIA. It was also a plan that may have been known by Castro’s intelligence operatives because he had spies everywhere. The former leader of his intelligence agency documented 638 separate attempts on Castro’s life, many of which involved the CIA directly.

8 Bizarre Ways the CIA Tried to Kill Fidel Castro
The cafeteria of the Havana Libre Hotel. Destinia.co.uk

Poisoned Milkshake

Fidel Castro took power in 1959 and by 1963 the CIA was getting so desperate to end the life of the Cuban leader that they were willing to go to the Mafia. They contacted American mobsters and offered to pay them a substantial sum if they managed to kill Castro. The Mafia took the job and headed to Cuba.

The Mafia came up with a plan that involved poisoning, believing that it would be the best way to kill Castro without getting caught. They told the CIA that they wanted a pill that would be odorless and tasteless that would be strong enough to quickly kill Castro. The CIA complied and delivered a pill that met the demands of the Mafia.

The Mafia decided that they would do the job at the cafeteria of the Havana Libre Hotel. Castro came to get a chocolate milkshake and the hired assassin waiter was to retrieve the pill from where it had been hidden in the freezer. However, when the waiter attempted to retrieve the pill, it stuck to the side of the freezer. It so frozen to the side that as the waiter pulled on the pill to remove it, the pill ripped open.

Fabian Escalante was the intelligence chief for Castro and he recounts that this milkshake attempt was the closest that anyone got to kill Castro. Over the course of several decades, Escalante managed to save Castro from hundreds of assassination attempts through his network of spies in Cuba and around the world. Escalante developed such a reputation protecting Castro and Cuba that a television series was produced that dramatized his life.

8 Bizarre Ways the CIA Tried to Kill Fidel Castro
Mad Magazine cover from October 1963 depicting Castro with an exploding cigar. Ranker.com

Exploding Cigar

The exploding cigar attempt is under much debate as to whether or not it really happened. The attempt, if it happened, was during Castro’s visit to the United Nations in 1960. It was reported by the Saturday Evening Post that a CIA agent approached Michael J. Murphy, the New York City police chief inspector, to let him know about a plan to kill Castro with an exploding cigar.

There are several sources that cite the exploding cigar as truth, and the attempt became part of popular discourse and something of a running joke. It was even featured on the cover of Mad Magazine with Castro smoking a cigar that was about to blow up. Despite the popularity and the reporting of the plan, there are many who believe there never was such a plot.

One source says that it is simply a myth, another that it was just something for the tabloids. One source even says that while it was an idea that was floated by the CIA, it was never one that they took seriously or acted upon. The source claimed that it became something to tell anyone that questioned them about whether or not they were plotting to kill Castro. It was supposed to be a funny way to deflect the questioning.

There are some who claim that it was a real plot but if it was, there were some problems with implementation. A cigar is relatively small and therefore it would be hard to fit enough explosives into it that would be certain to kill Castro. The timed fuse and knowing when and where Castro would light up the cigar would also have been problematic to the plot. Despite this, Fabian Escalante, Castro’s head of intelligence, has stated that the exploding cigar was one of hundreds of attempts on the communist leader’s life.

8 Bizarre Ways the CIA Tried to Kill Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro coming up from a dive. Mirrorspectrum.com/

Poisoned Wet Suit

It seemed that among those that wanted to kill Castro, taking advantage of his love of diving was one way to do it. The exploding shell did not not pan out, but another attempt involved Castro’s wet suit. According to this plot, the CIA wanted to give Castro a wet suit that would slowly kill or at least severely incapacitate him.

The plan was to infect the wet suit with tubercle bacilli which would then infect the leader and either kill him or cause him to contract tuberculosis. Tuberculosis kills over 1 million people each year, and most of those deaths are in developing countries, such as Cuba. It is possible that the leader would have died from the disease, but he may have been able to get access to the medical care he needed through his wealth. However, the disease might have affected his charisma and influence on the Cuban people.

The plan failed and there are a few reasons why. As one story goes, when Castro received the wet suit as a gift he refused to use it since he had just gotten a new wet suit that he preferred. Another story goes that he was very particular about his wet suit and refused to wear a different one.

It is also very likely that Fabian Escalante uncovered the plot, and if a wet suit had ever been given to Castro by someone that was not entirely trustworthy or that had not been cleared by the Cuban intelligence, Castro would have been told not to wear it. It is not exactly clear how Escalante knew about so many plots against Castro, but it was said that you could not even light a cigar in Cuba without Escalante knowing about it. Escalante ran a network of spies, doing whatever it took to keep Castro alive.

8 Bizarre Ways the CIA Tried to Kill Fidel Castro
Example of a poisoned pen. Huffingtonpost.com

Poisoned Pen

The CIA was happy to use other people to do their dirty work for them and just supply the means to get the job done. This was evidenced by the willingness to hire the mob. But the mob was not the only group that they worked with. They had a number of different informants, insurgents, and operatives working in Cuba whose ties to the CIA were somewhat dubious. In most cases the CIA wanted to be able to deny any association with anyone working in Cuba if things failed or if they were successful.

In the early 1960s, there was a senior Cuban official known as AM/LASH that was in communication with the CIA. Every person in the CIA that ever talked to AM/LASH explicitly stated that they did not ask this person to assassinate the foreign leader. The records and evidence tell a much different story.

The CIA gave AM/LASH an arsenal full of high-powered rifles and scopes that were meant to take out Castro from afar. But just in case AM/LASH got close to him, they also provided a ball-point pen that was rigged with a hypodermic needle. According to the CIA the needle was so fine that it could be inserted into someone and they would never feel it or notice they had been injected.

AM/LASH was not impressed by the pen. According to his case officer, he complained that the CIA should create something a little more sophisticated than the poison pen. Considering the other attempts by the CIA had including an exploding cigar and a poisoned wet suit… AM/LASH might have been expecting a little too much from the 1960s CIA.

8 Bizarre Ways the CIA Tried to Kill Fidel Castro
Castro cleaning his mouth with a handkerchief in Havana in 2003. Gettyimages.com

Deadly Handkerchief

The poisoned wet suit idea may have been a bit of a bust, but the CIA was not willing to give up on the idea of making Castro deathly ill. They knew that if they could just get something close to the leader’s mouth then he could inhale it and they would have one dead dictator. However, there was much debate on just what they could get close to his mouth.

Cigars were the obvious choice and the CIA did try to poison Castro’s prized cigars, but that plan failed just like all the others. This led the CIA to begin thinking about something else that they could use that would not draw suspicion. That was when the idea of the handkerchief came into play.

The CIA knew that Castro always carried a white handkerchief with him to wipe his mouth or clean his face. The CIA hatched a plot to contaminate the handkerchief with a deadly bacterium. This attempt, like all the others, never really planned out.

It isn’t clear how far in the planning the CIA got with the deadly handkerchief. Apparently far enough that Fabian Escalante knew about it. He may have played a hand in preventing the handkerchief from getting to Castro, but it is unclear if the plot ever progressed that far.

8 Bizarre Ways the CIA Tried to Kill Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro giving a television speech in 1962. Nbcnews.com

Character Assassination

Initially the CIA wasn’t exactly trying to kill Castro, but they definitely wanted him to lose power and credibility with the people of Cuba, so they decided that maybe all they would need to is a little bit of character assassination. They figured maybe if they brought the charismatic leader down a few pegs, the people of Cuba might just do the job for them.

One way that they thought might work to destroy Castro’s reputation was to get rid of the beard. Castro became known for his beard as he came to power and he was even known as “The Beard.” They hatched the plan to put a power in his shoes that would cause the hair in his beard to fall out. They had operatives at his hotel and in position to put power in Castro’s shoes but for some reason the operatives did not follow through with the plan.

The other idea that the CIA had to destroy Castro’s character was to pump a television studio full of LSD at a time when Castro was doing a live broadcast. The figured large amounts of LSD would cause the leader to say plenty of ridiculous things or even talk about some of the bad things he had done, and as a result the Cuban people would no longer follow him. The plan was scrapped because of the obvious issues involved.

Given the political climate of Cuba and the devotion of his followers, it is unlikely that either of these attempts at character assassination would have been enough to accomplish the ultimate goal of the CIA: a Cuba without Castro. The lack of success with character assassination and Castro’s turn toward communism were the tipping points for the U.S., and the CIA was then given the authorization to try and assassinate Castro.

8 Bizarre Ways the CIA Tried to Kill Fidel Castro
Marita Lorenz with Castro and her father. Jezebel.com

Woman Scorned

The CIA was not above using people that were close to Castro to kill him. One of his old lovers knew the type of man that Castro could be. So when the CIA approached her and asked if she would be willing to help them kill Castro, she agreed. Even though they were no longer a couple, she still had a key to the place where he stayed and she knew her way around. The plan was to go there while he was away and find something that she could put poison pills into that he would ingest, either food or water.

There was also the idea that she might be able to trick him into eating the pills outright, but that was highly unlikely. The woman, Marita Lorenz, hid the poison pills given to her by the CIA in her cold cream so that no one would suspect anything when she went to the house. She used her key and let herself in, she then opened the jar of cold cream to extract the pills. It was then that she realized her mistake.

The pills had melted in the jar of cold cream. There was no way that she would be able to get him to ingest an entire jar of cold cream so she decided to abandon the mission and just leave. It was when she was heading toward the door that Castro returned home. He asked her if she was there to kill him and she replied that she was.

Castro then offered her his gun and told her to just shoot him if she wanted to kill him. She pointed the gun at him but realized that she couldn’t kill him. Castro told her that no one could kill him. She may have come the closest of anyone to killing the Cuban leader, but she too failed.