A thorn in the side of the American government for decades, Fidel Castro survived numerous assassination attempts by spies, mobsters and political opponents, and he often joked that if surviving such attacks was an Olympic sport, he’d have a gold medal.
Cuban officials say Castro survived more than 600 attempts on his life, including repeated efforts by the CIA. Among the reported methods: exploding cigars, a toxic wetsuit and even a poisoned chocolate milkshake arranged by U.S. government officials with the help of the Mafia.
The U.S. government doesn’t generally discuss its assassination efforts, but records made public by the CIA explain how agents planned to poison Castro in early 1960s with a “gangster-type action.”
At the time, the mob was suffering financial losses because Castro was shutting down their casinos. CIA officials met up with two prominent Mafia members and connected with Cuban-based men who were willing to take the risk.
“(He) suggested that they not resort to firearms, but if he could be furnished with some type of potent pill that could be placed in Castro’s food or drink, it would be a much more effective operation,” the CIA documents show. “After several weeks of reported attempts, (the operative) apparently got cold feet and asked out of the assignment.” Another operative also tried and failed, and the CIA reported retrieving the botulism pills.
The scandal surrounding the assassination attempts on Castro and other foreign leaders — as revealed by newspaper reporters — prompted Congress to create the Church Committee to investigate abuses of power and led to the 1976 intelligence reforms by President Gerald Ford that included a ban on political assassinations. The Church Committee’s report offered, in stark language, clear evidence the U.S. government had repeatedly tried to kill Castro, after first attempting to weaken him politically by trying to make his beard fall out or dose him with a chemical to make him babble during a radio address.
“We have found concrete evidence of at least eight plots involving the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro from 1960 to 1965,” the committee reported. “The 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.”
Among those devices: an exploding sea shell, a wetsuit laced with a fungus that would infect Castro’s skin and a breathing mask dusted with botulism, according to the committee’s investigation. The committee said some of the efforts never made it past the planning stage.
In 1975, Castro gave the U.S. government a list of what he claimed were 24 American-sponsored assassination attempts on his life. The Church Committee investigated and decided none of those were authentic, but found eight other attempts it deemed credible.
The attempts on Castro’s life didn’t end with Ford’s order: In 2000, former CIA operative Luis Posada was arrested and charged with planting explosives beneath a podium where Castro was to speak at a summit in Panama. Castro’s security detail found the explosives, but Posada was pardoned in 2004 by then-Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso and he fled to the United States. Posada has been linked to the 1976 bombing of a Cubana flight in which 73 people were killed, including 24 members of the Cuban national fencing team.