Fidel Castro knew that the CIA was trying to kill him. There was no doubt; his sources were reliable. “For three years,” he told congressional investigators in 1978, “we had known there were plots against us.”
The most promising of them ripened in a Paris safe house 50 years ago. Rolando Cubela, known in CIA by the cryptonym AMLASH, had the starring role. A veteran of the Castro brothers’ guerrilla war, he was already an accomplished assassin. He held high military rank, knew the Castros, and frequented a beach house next to one that Fidel used. Cubela was recruited by the CIA, trained in secret communications and demolitions techniques. He insisted he wanted to kill Fidel. That was music to the ears of top CIA officials.
On Oct. 5, 1963 he met with his agency handler in a CIA safe house in a Paris suburb near Versailles. Nestor Sanchez had a stellar career in covert operations, spoke fluent Spanish, and had taken over the AMLASH case a month earlier. The Cuban told Sanchez he was not interested in “unimportant tasks;” he wanted “to undertake the big job.”
But first he needed assurances. He demanded a meeting with a senior Kennedy administration official — but not just anyone. He wanted face time with the president’s brother, attorney general Robert Kennedy. Sanchez cabled CIA headquarters that Cubela wanted to be sure of American support “for any activity he undertakes” against Castro.
“We must be prepared to face the request,” he wrote. He knew he was urging something extremely dangerous. Cubela was proposing to entangle both Kennedy brothers in a murder conspiracy targeting Castro. If the demand were rejected, Sanchez warned, Cubela might bolt.
Caution should have overwhelmed at that juncture. There were already many reasons to doubt Cubela’s bona fides. Nevertheless, it was decided at CIA headquarters, probably in consultation with Robert Kennedy, that a senior agency official would meet Cubela as the attorney general’s representative.
Desmond FitzGerald delighted in the task. A CIA nobleman, East Coast socialite, and friend of the attorney general, he would go to Paris and provide the needed assurances. He intended to impress the Cuban, cabling Paris that the rendezvous should be staged as impressively “as possible.”
Sanchez reported back to FitzGerald that the meeting with Cubela was scheduled for Oct. 29. This unlikely pair — the moody Cuban spy and the elegant FitzGerald, Bobby Kennedy’s understudy — sat side by side and talked in the safe house. Sanchez translated.
Cubela was satisfied that the man who called himself James Clark was indeed a top American official close to Robert Kennedy. Almost no record of their meeting has survived, but it is known that Cubela spoke repeatedly of his need for an assassination weapon.
CIA made good on its commitment. Sanchez returned to Paris, and on November 22, 1963 met again secretly with Cubela. He brought with him a preposterous murder weapon: a pen fitted within a syringe that could be filled with poison and used to inoculate Castro.
In one of the strangest twists of modern history, Sanchez was explaining the device as the sun was setting in Paris. He took a call from FitzGerald in Washington: President Kennedy had just been shot in Dallas.
The Warren Commission knew nothing of the Cubela plot and did not attribute a single, compelling motive for the assassination to Lee Harvey Oswald. So, it was not aware that Castro had powerful motive to retaliate.
Among the Warren commissioners, only former CIA director Allen Dulles is known to have been aware of early plots against Castro. So, they could not have known either what has come to light in recent years from Cuban sources and declassified documents. Rolando Cubela was a double agent working for Fidel Castro.
It was the Cuban leader who instructed his agent to demand the meeting with Robert Kennedy. He knew the CIA leadership had him in their crosshairs. Now he also confirmed that Robert Kennedy was at the top of the assassination chain of command. It was not unreasonable to conclude that the president was also involved.
Nearing the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, the question of possible Cuban government involvement in the president’s death has never been adequately investigated. These details of the Cubela plot have been gleaned from the half-million pages of declassified CIA documents related to the Kennedy assassination at the National Archives. But since official Cuban archives are shut tight, the rest of the story cannot be told.
Fidel Castro for decades has dissembled, falsely denying any prior knowledge of Oswald, while pumping out distracting smoke screens and casting groundless suspicions on alleged CIA and Cuban exile assassins. But it is now high time for the Cuban regime to come clean, to release relevant documents and allow former officials who may have knowledge of Oswald’s relations with Cuban intelligence officers finally to speak out.
Brian Latell is the author of “Castro’s Secrets: Cuban Intelligence, the CIA, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy.” A former National Intelligence Officer for Latin America, he is now a research associate in Cuban studies at the University of Miami.