The orders surprised the Cuban intelligence officer. Most days in his tiny communications hut, just outside Fidel Castro’s isolated family compound on the west side of Havana, were spent huddled over his radio gear, trolling the island’s airwaves for the rapid-fire bursts of signals that were the trademark of CIA spies and saboteurs, pinpointing their location for security forces.
But now his assignment had abruptly been changed, at least for the day. “The leadership wants you to stop your CIA work, all your CIA work,” his boss said. Instead, the officer was told he had a new target: Texas, “any little detail small detail from Texas.” And about three hours later, shortly after mid-day on Nov. 22, 1963, the shocked intelligence officer had something to report that was much more than a small detail: the assassination in Dallas of President John F. Kennedy.
“Castro knew,” the intelligence officer would tell a CIA debriefer years later, after defecting to the United States. “They knew Kennedy would be killed.”
The defector’s tale is reported in a book to be published next month by retired CIA analyst Brian Latell, the agency’s former national intelligence officer for Latin America and now a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies.
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The book, Castro’s Secrets: The CIA and Cuba’s Intelligence Machine, is the first substantial study of Fidel Castro’s intelligence operations. Based on interviews with Cuban spies who defected as well as declassified documents from the CIA, the FBI, the Pentagon and other national security organs, it contains a good deal of material likely to stir controversy, including accounts of how Castro’s spies have carried out political murders, penetrated the U.S. government and generally outwitted their American counterparts.
But nothing is more potentially explosive than Latell’s claim that Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, warned Cuban intelligence officers in advance of his plans to kill the president. Latell writes that Oswald, a belligerent Castro supporter, grew frustrated when officials at the Cuban embassy in Mexico City refused to give him a visa to travel to the island, and promised to shoot Kennedy to prove his revolutionary credentials.
“Fidel knew of Oswald’s intentions — and did nothing to deter the act,” the book declares.
Even so, Latell maintains his work is sober and even reserved. “Everything I write is backed up by documents and on-the-record sources,” he told The Miami Herald. “There’s virtually no speculation. I don’t say Fidel Castro ordered the assassination, I don’t say Oswald was under his control. He might have been, but I don’t argue that, because I was unable to find any evidence for that.
“But did Fidel want Kennedy dead? Yes. He feared Kennedy. And he knew Kennedy was gunning for him. In Fidel’s mind, he was probably acting in self-defense.”
If Latell’s prose is sober, the events it describes are anything but. Castro’s Secrets, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan, explores a confusing and deadly chapter of the 1960s when the Cold War nearly turned hot. The United States, fearful that Castro’s revolution would provide the Soviet Union a toehold in the Western Hemisphere, backed a bloody invasion of anti-communist Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs. The Soviets put nuclear missiles in Cuba, which left the entire world teetering on the brink of war for two weeks.
And even when everyone took a step back, U.S.-supported raids and sabotage continued in Cuba. The CIA hatched several plots to kill Castro, using everything from poisoned cigars to exploding sea shells, and Castro offered chilling hints that he might be planning to respond in kind. “U.S. leaders should think that if they are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe,” he told an American reporter in September 1963.
Against that backdrop, suspicions of a Cuban connection to the Kennedy assassination were only natural. And they were heightened by the erratic activities of Oswald, a lifelong Marxist who left the Marine Corps in 1959 to defect to the Soviet Union, where he attempted to renounce his U.S. citizenship and married a Russian woman whose uncle was a colonel in military intelligence.
By 1963, Oswald had returned to the United States. But just a few months before Kennedy’s death, at a time when tensions between Havana and Washington simmered only slightly below war temperature, Oswald’s outspoken public support for Cuba — he had staged several one-man demonstrations and even scuffled with members of an anti-Castro group — had come to the attention of the news media in New Orleans, where he was living at the time.
And he had also attracted the attention of the CIA, which had the Mexico City embassies of Cuba and the Soviet Union under tight surveillance. The agency spotted Oswald at both embassies on multiple visits between Sept. 27 and Oct. 2, 1963, as he sought visas to travel to either country.
Those visits — particularly to the Cuban embassy, where Oswald took a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and other documents to demonstrate his support for Castro’s revolution in hopes of winning a visa — were among evidence considered by three major federal investigations of the Kennedy assassination in the 1960s and ’70s. All ultimately rejected (though sometimes only after fierce internal debate) the idea of any causal link between Castro and the crime.
But Latell’s book makes some new revelations and adds detail to older ones in making the argument that Castro played at least an indirect role in the assassination. Among them:
The disclosure by Florentino Aspillaga, the most valuable defector ever to flee Cuba’s DGI intelligence service, that the DGI had asked him to drop radio surveillance of the CIA hours before the assassination to focus on signals from Texas. Aspillaga told his CIA debriefers about the change in surveillance when he defected in 1987, but that information remained secret until he repeated the story to Latell in interviews for the book.
The report of a deeply embedded FBI spy who worked as top-level international courier for the Communist Party USA that Castro, during a meeting five months after the assassination, admitted that Oswald had threatened Kennedy’s life during his visit to the Cuban embassy in Mexico.
The spy, Jack Childs, who was awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom for his quarter-century of spying against Moscow and Havana, reported to the FBI that Castro told him Oswald “stormed into the embassy, demanded the visa, and when it was refused to him headed out saying, “I’m going to kill Kennedy for this!”
The CIA’s now-declassified report of its 1964 debriefing of another DGI defector, Vladimir Rodriguez Ladera. At the time, Castro was claiming that Oswald’s visit to the Cuban embassy in Mexico had been a minor matter that didn’t come to the attention of senior officials in Havana. “We never in our life heard of him,” Castro said in a speech strongly denying that the Cuban government knew anything about Oswald beyond what was in the newspapers.
But Rodriguez Ladera, the defector, told the CIA that Castro was surely lying, because the news of Oswald’s arrest set DGI headquarters instantly abuzz. “It caused much comment concerning the fact that Oswald had been in the Cuban embassy,” he said. And because the embassy in Mexico City was a major staging ground for Cuban espionage against the United States as well as the rest of Latin America, Rodriguez Ladera added, even the most routine matters there were regularly reported directly to Castro.
CIA wiretaps and microphones honeycombing the Cuban embassy in Mexico City captured conversations between DGI officers that showed a surprisingly detailed knowledge of Oswald’s background in the first hours after the assassination, when relatively little of it had been reported in the press.
At the center of the chatter was Luisa Calderon, a pretty, English-speaking DGI officer in her early 20s who had lived in Miami with her parents throughout the 1950s. Barely four hours after the assassination, she got a phone call from a man, also apparently a DGI spy. He asked if she knew what had happened in Dallas. “Yes, of course,” she answered. “I knew of it almost before Kennedy did.” Her caller continued to chatter away, noting correctly that Oswald spoke Russian and had written to Castro offering to join his fighting forces in 1959. Latell believes the speed and depth of those comments show that the DGI maintained a file on Oswald and was well acquainted with him.
The wiretaps also demonstrate something about the way Cuban intelligence officers regarded Kennedy. “Wonderful! What good news!” Calderon said to another caller who mentioned the assassination, before breaking into laughter at the news — untrue, as it would turn out — that Kennedy’s wife and brother had also been wounded. “He was a family man, yes, but also a degenerate aggressor,” Calderon added, to which her caller exclaimed, “Three shots in the face!” Replied Calderon: “Perfect!”
In what may be the most intriguing element of his book, Latell concludes that Rolando Cubela, a high-ranking Cuban official recruited by the CIA to assassinate Castro — an act the agency hoped would trigger a military rebellion — was actually a double agent, feeding every detail of U.S. plans back to Havana. Castro’s knowledge that his own murder was being plotted by the highest level of the American government, Latell writes, is what led to his “conspiracy of silence” about Oswald’s assassination plan.
“Fidel Castro was running the most important double agent operation in the history of intelligence,” Latell said. “He wanted definitive proof that Kennedy was trying to kill him. And he got it.” In a brutal irony, the CIA was delivering to Cubela a poison-tipped ballpoint pen with which to kill Castro at the very moment that Oswald was shooting Kennedy.
Two major pieces of evidence implicate Cubela as a double agent, Latell writes. One was a recently declassified lie-detector test administered to Cubela’s best friend and frequent co-conspirator in CIA adventures, the late Coral Gables jeweler Carlos Tepedino. Tepedino, during a confrontational interrogation by CIA handlers in 1965, confessed that Cubela was still “cooperating’’ with Cuban intelligence and had never tried to organize a military revolt against Castro.
Tepedino’s story was more than confirmed, Latell writes, by conversations with another DGI defector: Miguel Mir, a high official in Castro’s personal security office from 1986 to 1992. Mir said he had read files identifying Cubela as a double agent under DGI control.
Mercurial and enigmatic, Cubela was one of the military heroes of the Cuban revolution, the man who actually captured the presidential palace in Havana. But soon afterward he began talking loosely about his dissatisfaction with Castro’s political direction. By 1961 he was meeting clandestinely with the CIA; by 1962 he was a trusted recruit, regarded by the CIA as its best agent inside Castro’s government.
But, Latell writes, Cubela’s recruitment by the CIA practically dripped with question marks right from the beginning. He seemed to have unlimited time and money to travel, meeting with CIA officers on four different continents. He refused to take a lie-detector test — a standard procedure for new recruits — or report any significant information about what was going on inside Castro’s government. Instead, he constantly proposed “violent action,” as one of his CIA handlers noted in a report, including the assassination of Castro.
That did not exactly clash with the CIA’s own plans. By early 1963, the agency was under serious pressure from the Kennedy administration to “come up with some ideas to kill Castro,” as one CIA official would later testify in a congressional hearing. In October, the agency began circulating a document to the top national security officials in Washington stamped TOP SECRET-SENSITIVE with the title A Contingency Plan for a Coup in Cuba. It said Cubela and his military co-conspirators would “neutralize” Castro and “the top echelon of the Cuban leadership,” then proclaim a new pro-American government that would — if necessary — ask for U.S. military assistance to put down any resistance. “Nothing in the plan allowed for Fidel’s capture alive,” Latell writes.
When Cubela heard of the plan and his role in it, he was enthusiastic. But he insisted on a meeting with Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother and point-man on Cuba, for assurances that the plan had presidential blessing. Desmond FitzGerald, a top CIA official and close friend of Robert Kennedy, flew to Paris to meet Cubela and reassure him. The CIA also got President Kennedy to insert a chunk of extraordinarily militant rhetoric — a virtual endorsement of a military coup — into a speech on Cuba delivered in Miami Beach just four days before the president’s death.
The CIA called off its plan for the Cuban coup after Kennedy’s assassination, and new President Lyndon Johnson rapidly de-escalated the covert U.S. war against Castro — though Cubela, for another two years, continued pressing both the CIA and militant Cuban exile groups in Miami for help in killing Castro. Most of the CIA officials who oversaw Cubela’s involvement with their agency insisted until they died that he had genuinely turned against Castro.
Cubela was arrested in Havana in 1966 and tried for plotting to murder Castro. But during his trial, prosecutors never mentioned the CIA or the poison-tipped pen, accusing him instead of collaborating with Miami exiles. He was convicted and sentenced to death — but the sentence was commuted to a prison term at Castro’s request. He served 12 years as the prison’s doctor, living in comfortable quarters, and was often seen outside, driving the streets. Nearly 80, Cubela reportedly divides his time between Spain and South Florida. Attempts by the Miami Herald to reach him through family members were unsuccessful.
To read more, visit www.miamiherald.com.