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Rafael Quintero

CIA agent sent after Castro

Rafael Quintero Ibarbia, intelligence agent: born 16 September 1940; married (two sons, one daughter); died Baltimore, Maryland 1 October 2006.

Recruited by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) after the 1959 Cuban revolution, Rafael Quintero spent years trying to get rid of the Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, preferably, in the words of the CIA, "with extreme prejudice". According to now declassified CIA documents, he was involved in many assassination attempts against Castro in the early years of the Caribbean island's Communist regime, with plots which included an exploding cigar, poisoned shampoo and a contaminated scuba diving wetsuit.

It was one of Quintero's long-time friends and partners among the CIA's Cuban field agents, Félix Rodriguez, who tracked Guevara down in Bolivia in 1967, organised his capture, interrogated him and, according to most reports, ordered his execution, before pocketing his Rolex watch as a souvenir.

In 1961, with the help of the CIA, Quintero was smuggled into Cuba as an underground vanguard for the Bay of Pigs invasion, when anti-Communist Cuban exiles, backed by the US President John F. Kennedy, attempted to take over the island but were swiftly routed by Castro's forces. Quintero was uncovered and captured by Castro's intelligence agents just before the invasion but, to his own surprise, escaped execution and was expelled.

More than two decades later, and still in the pay of the CIA, the exiled Cuban, widely known by the nickname "Chi Chi", was a key player in the so-called Iran-Contra scandal, when, during the Reagan administration, he helped Lt-Col Oliver North illegally ship weapons to the Contra guerrillas fighting the Communist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. It emerged that North had been the middle man in a three-way deal, all of it secret and illegal, to ship US arms to Ayatollah Khomeini's fundamentalist regime in Iran in return for the release of American hostages in Lebanon. The profits went to buy weapons for the Contras.

Apparently under North's orders, Quintero set up and ran the arms-for-the-Contras branch of the operation, based at airstrips in El Salvador and Costa Rica, with the protection of US military advisers legally based in the Central American nations. Recruited by Quintero to run the operation at Ilopango airport in El Salvador was another Cuban exile, his old friend Luis Posada Carriles, currently in "immigration detention" in the US and wanted as a "terrorist" in both Cuba and Venezuela for allegedly blowing up a Cuban airliner bound for Venezuela in 1976, and killing all 73 people on board.

The Iran-Contra scheme was rumbled when a US transport aircraft which had taken off from Ilopango, loaded with weapons, was shot down over Nicaragua by the Sandinistas and an American civilian crewman, Eugene Hasenfus, captured. Hasenfus named the CIA, and particularly two Cuban Americans, Quintero and Rodriguez, as being behind the operation to ship arms to the Contras in Nicaraguan border zones.

Rafael Quintero Ibarbia was born in the Camagüey province of Cuba in 1940. As a student, he joined the underground resistance to the military dictator General Fulgencia Batista and, aged 18, fought with Castro's forces in the Sierra Maestra during the last days of the revolution. After the revolution was successful in January 1959, Quintero opposed Castro's shift towards Communism, fled to the US in November 1959 and helped found the Movement for the Recovery of the Revolution (MRR), the first of many Cuban exile groups which were to become a powerful lobby in Florida.

The group, along with a CIA-trained sabotage and assassination squad known as Operation 40 (nicknamed "The Shooter Team"), found their closest political ally in the US Attorney-General Robert Kennedy, who, according to Quintero, oversaw the entire Bay of Pigs operation in 1961. The disastrous outcome of the would-be invasion shocked Quintero and proved a turning point in Castro's popularity and a major setback for US attempts to control the island.

Quintero had helped build the training camps in Guatemala, where the 1,500-strong force of Cuban exiles planned the Bay of Pigs invasion, before he slipped onto the island to prepare the ground. The rout of the invaders turned into a fiasco, both for them and for JFK, who had supported the invasion but at the last minute withdrew vital US military air support.

"We thought the Americans worked the way John Wayne worked in his movies," Quintero was later quoted as saying. "The Americans hated Communism and, like John Wayne, they never lost - ever." As it turned out, Castro's success multiplied his domestic popularity and set him on course for a lifetime of standing up to his superpower neighbour.

Between the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco and the assassination of JFK in 1963, which included the cliffhanger Soviet nuclear missile crisis of October 1962, Castro was Washington's main preoccupation and Quintero's anti- Communist exile group received endless funds and carte blanche to get rid of him one way or another.

"I had the good luck to become a friend of Bobby Kennedy," Quintero said in 1996: "Bob Kennedy was obsessed. He had to get even with Castro. He mentioned this often to me and was very clear about it. He was not going to try to eliminate Castro because he was an ideological guy. He was going to do it because the Kennedy name had been humiliated. He mentioned it clearly to me one day. We went to the circus one day and he mentioned it to me.

After the assassination of JFK, when it emerged that Lee Harvey Oswald was pro-Castro and had attempted to get to Cuba, the group known as Operation 40, and notably the name Rafael Quintero, were mentioned in several of the conspiracy theories that spread over the years. The Cubans, one theory went, never forgave JFK for withholding air support during the Bay of Pigs, effectively condemning them to defeat and, in many cases, execution.

If Quintero had any such secrets, he took them with him to his grave. But he was once quoted as saying: "If I were ever granted immunity, and compelled to testify about past actions, about Dallas and the Bay of Pigs, it would be the biggest scandal ever to rock the United States."

Phil Davison