Havana, Cuba — Fidel Castro died on November 25, 2016, at the ripe old age of 90 after governing Cuba for decades. He came to power in 1959 after a bloody Communist revolution, resulting in the mass migration of 500,000 Cubans to Florida.
Castro lived most of his life with a target on his back, and he survived numerous murder plots by foreign governments — most notably the United States. But in the end, it would be his failing health, due to old age, that would cause his demise.
Here are 5 Fast Facts about the assassination attempts on Castro:
1Castro Survived More Than 600 Assassination Attempts
Fabian Escalante, head of the Cuban Intelligence Directorate, claims Castro survived 600 murder plots. Many were launched by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the 1960s. Escalante sorted the number of conspiracies according to the US President at the time of the murder attempt, as follows:
Dwight D. Eisenhower, 38; John F. Kennedy, 42; Lyndon B. Johnson, 72; Richard Nixon, 184; Jimmy Carter, 64; Ronald Reagan, 197; George Bush Sr., 16; Bill Clinton, 21.
Castro was well aware of the many plots against him, and he often bragged to reporters,
“If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal.”
2The CIA Hired American Gangsters to Kill Castro
Not wanting to do it themselves, the CIA called upon U.S. Mafia leaders to kill Castro for them. These included legendary Chicaco Mob boss Sam Giancana and Florida’s Santo Trafficante. Both were on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list at the time, which was not long after Castro came to power. The Mafiosi had good reason to hate the new Cuban leader. The Mob had had extensive gambling operations in Havana that were shut down when Castro took over.
The CIA was willing to pay $150,000 ($1.2 million in today’s money) for an assassination. But Giancana not only offered to help the government kill Castro, he said the Mafia would waive its hit fee. A CIA document released in 2007 claims, “Sam suggested they not resort to firearms,” but suggested that an operative could use “some type of potent pill, that could be placed in Castro’s food or drink.”
Cyanide capsules were made by the CIA’s Technical Services Division and given to Giancana’s contact in Havana. But before the contact could poison Castro’s chocolate milkshake, he accidentally broke the capsule, and the leader survived.
3The Exploding Cigar Plot Didn’t Happen
Another legendary attempt on Castro’s life involved what came to be known as the “Exploding Cigar Plot.” But it didn’t really involve explosives. Instead it used Giancana’s preferred method: Poison.
In 1960 a CIA operative poisoned a box of the Cuban leader’s favorite cigars. The toxin was botulinum — the same ingredient found in tiny doses in Botox Cosmetic. In Castro’s case, however, the poison was lethal enough to kill anybody whose mouth touched one of the cigars. Because the dictator survived, however, it’s assumed the cigars never reached Castro.
4One Plot Involved LSD; Another Would Have Made Castro’s Beard Fall Out
Rather than kill Castro, sometimes the CIA plotted to discredit and embarrass him. Castro was legendary as a charismatic public speaker, and the CIA wanted to undermine this image. He holds two records for the longest speeches ever given. On Sept. 29, 1960 at the United Nations, he gave a speech that was 4 hours and 29 minutes long. Then in 1986 at the III Communist Party Congress in Havana, he broke his previous record by speaking for 7 hours and 10 minutes.
A plot in 1960 involved an operative sneaking into a Cuban broadcasting studio to spray it with a hallucinogen prior to a planned Castro speech. The spray had effects similar to LSD and would have reduced Castro to a babbling imbecile. But the CIA decided the chemical was unreliable, and the plot was abandoned.
In another attempt, the CIA tried to undermine Castro’s image by eliminating his iconic beard. Operatives planned to dust his shoes with toxic thallium salts during a trip overseas. A side effect of thallium poisoning is hair loss, so the dose would have made the beard fall out. But the plan failed because Castro canceled the scheduled trip.
5One Plot Involved a Beautiful Femme Fatale
Castro spent 25 years as a single man with a series of lovers. One was Marita Lorenz, an American citizen, who confessed all to Vanity Fair magazine in 1993. In 1959 Castro moved her into his enormous Havana hotel suite. A few months later she met Frank Sturgis, a CIA double agent, and he recruited Lorenz to kill Castro. Sturgis was quoted in Vanity Fair as saying,
“Fidel would lay a snake if it wriggled . . . and she was one of the snakes…I tried to get her to poison Fidel.”
Again the poison of choice was botulinum, probably part of the same batch made for Sam Giancana. When Lorenz arrived at Castro’s suite, she checked the poison capsules she’d hidden in a jar of cold cream. But “they were all gunked up,” she said. So she flushed them away. Fidel appeared and after a short chat he said,
“Did you come here to kill me?”
She claims he “pulled out his .45, and handed it to me. . . . He didn’t even flinch. And he said, ‘You can’t kill me. Nobody can kill me.’” Then “We made love,” she added.
Lorenz took the next flight to Miami where she admitted her failure. A CIA operative scolded her: “Now we’ve gotta go to war. Because of you!” A few months later military training for the Bay of Pigs invasion was underway. Sturgis bluntly described Lorenz’s failed assassination this way:
“She backed off because she was in love with the son of a bitch.”