Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro and the ‘secret war’ waged by CIA

Manuel Artime, Cuban leader during the 1960s.
Manuel Artime, Cuban leader during the 1960s. The Miami Herald

It was known as the “secret war,” but the covert campaign the Kennedy administration waged against Fidel Castro in the years after the Bay of Pigs rivaled open warfare in time, effort and money spent.

It was a war waged largely by the Central Intelligence Agency from an informal command post at what was then the south campus of the University of Miami — home to JMWAVE, the code name for the biggest CIA station in the world outside Langley, Virginia.

From there, upward of 400 full-time CIA officers toiled, plotting the covert campaign against Cuba, ranging from sabotage to assassination. The land now houses Zoo Miami.

Its chief from 1962 to 1965, the period encompassing the most intense action, was Ted Shackley, who later went on to become CIA station chief in Vietnam. But Shackley was not the real commander of the covert war.

That role fell to Robert F. Kennedy, the U.S. attorney general and brother of the president.

In a memo to the president dated April 19, 1961, the day the Bay of Pigs invasion collapsed, Robert Kennedy told his brother that its failure “does not permit us … to return to the status quo with our policy toward Cuba being one of waiting and hoping for good luck. The events of the last few days make this inconceivable.”

By the fall of 1961, under intense prodding from Robert Kennedy, the U.S. policy had evolved into Operation Mongoose, the code name for a multiagency covert action plan designed to bring down Castro.


Reflecting the Kennedys’ distrust of the CIA after the Bay of Pigs, Brig. Gen. Edward Lansdale, then working for the Pentagon, became the Mongoose operations chief. His job: to coordinate the campaign among the CIA, State and Defense departments and other government entities that had a piece of the action, including the United States Information Agency.

The basic concept of the entire operation was to “bring about the revolt of the Cuban people … and institute a new government with which the United States can live in peace,” Lansdale concluded.

A six-step timetable to achieve that was to have culminated during the first half of October 1962 with the establishment of a new government in Cuba, not coincidentally just two weeks before mid-term congressional elections.

The overt side of Mongoose ended with President Kennedy’s secret pledge to Moscow in 1962 not to invade Cuba as part of the agreement that ended the Cuban missile crisis. But there was no such restriction on continuing the covert campaign.

A new phase began, this one strictly a CIA operation, headed at the operational level by Desmond FitzGerald. Lansdale was sent packing, but Robert Kennedy retained the real control.

Under the new program the CIA provided the intelligence, the logistical support and the cash, while Robert Kennedy provided the direction for exile organizations that plotted their own anti-Castro operations, subject to White House approval.


The beneficiaries of this policy were so-called “autonomous groups” headed by exile leaders Manuel Artime and Manuel Ray, with Artime operating from Central America and Ray mostly from Puerto Rico and the Florida Keys.

The Artime group carried out several raids on Cuba before President Kennedy’s November 1963 assassination. Ray, who was thought to have an extensive underground movement in Cuba, promised much but did little.

Another clandestine exile group was Comandos Mambises, named after the fighters of Cuba’s war of immndependence. A small elite group — perhaps a couple of dozen — specializing in underwater demolition, it was the brainchild of Shackley and Dave Morales, his paramilitary chief at JMWAVE.

The Mambises carried out at least a half-dozen actions from mid- to late 1963 and claimed another in September 1964, although that one was apparently carried out without U.S. approval.

Kennedy’s assassination signaled the beginning of the end for the Ray and Artime operations. President Johnson showed little enthusiasm for such activities and, with the Vietnam War escalating, had even less interest in the covert Cuba program.

Another blow came in September 1964 when the Artime group mistakenly attacked the Spanish freighter Sierra Aranzazu in the Windward Passage as it was carrying toys, garlic and cork to Havana. The raiders thought it was the Sierra Maestra, a Cuban freighter. The raid killed the ship’s captain, second mate and third engineer, and wounded 17 other Spanish sailors.


The budget of the Miami station has been estimated at $50 million annually during its peak years. In the most active period — roughly 1962 to 1964 — several thousand Cubans were on the payroll for a variety of tasks, ranging from sabotage and infiltration runs to Cuba to propaganda activities.

Safe houses and front companies stretched from Palm Beach to Key West — as many as 350 to 400, with ever-changing names and locations. The Zenith Corp. was the front for JMWAVE, and Gibraltar Steamship operated the CIA’s clandestine radio service to Cuba from Swan Island in the Caribbean.

There were travel agencies, air services, research firms, boat repair shops, marinas, real estate brokerages and even motels, including one in Marathon Key. The maritime unit had a fleet of nearly 200 vessels, from large “mother ships” to smaller speedboats used for clandestine missions to Cuba — some for intelligence gathering, others for sabotage.

The last hurrah for the “secret war” came in March 1965, when the last funding for the Artime operation was cut off. By June of that year, U.S.-sponsored covert activities against Cuba had whimpered to an end.