Fidel Castro dies: From exploding cigars to poison, assassination attempts the Cuban leader is said to have survived

'If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal'

Will Worley
Saturday 26 November 2016 20:23
Fidel Castro - from revolutionary to global figurehead

Against all odds, Fidel Castro died of natural causes at the age of 90. It is an age even the former revolutionary and soldier himself never expected to reach.

Just before his last birthday, he told communist party members: “Soon I will be 90…Never would such an idea have occurred to me. It was not the fruit of any effort, it was the whim of fate. Soon I will be like all the rest."

Indeed, Castro survived perhaps more assassination attempts than any other world leader in history.

Having the nerve to establish a socialist state on the doorstep of the US during the Cold War, he was the target of the CIA’s wrath for decades.

Cuban exiles, who fled the revolution and later the isolated country Cuba became, also lined up to take the life of 'El Commandante'.

Castro’s former bodyguard, Fabian Escalante, claimed there had been 638 attempts on the leader’s life.

A number of them were said to have been carried out under the Cuban Project, also known as Operation Mongoose, which was signed off in 1961 by President Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs incident.

Unlike the overt failed invasion by US-backed Cuban exiles, who were defeated by Castro’s forces, the Cuban Project focused on covert operations to remove the communists from power.

Perhaps the most notoriously plot is the exploding cigar. Castro was famously fond of smoking these - in many of his iconic pictures, he is seen clamping on a smouldering stub – and the CIA tried to take advantage of this.

The plot to pass on a cigar infused with explosives was widely reported but never proven. However, the CIA did attempt to use a poisoned cigar, Mr Escalante claimed, and another was spiked with LSD to humiliate the president.

Castro gave up smoking in 1985, saying it was only right he did so for the sake of Cuban public health.

Other CIA reported plots aimed to exploit Castro’s love of diving. Secret documents released in the 1990s revealed the agency did obtain a number of sea shells, the idea being to insert explosives into one that Castro might like the look of while underwater.

Another plot was to infect a diving suit intended for Castro with highly toxic fungi.

However, there were numerous more traditional attempts to kill El Commandante, ranging from grenade to gun attacks, many by anti-Castro Cuban exiles and some by the disgruntled mafia.

The mafia had many interest in Cuba in the 1940s and fifties, but were driven from their casinos and hotels when Castrol took over.

It was the mafia who closest to succeeding, Mr Escalante said, with a plan to drop a poison pill into a chocolate milkshake for Castro at the Libre Hotel.

But the capsule, hidden in a freezer in the kitchen, stuck to the internal apparatus and disintegrated when it was being retrieved.

Other attempts to poison Castro came close but also ended in failure. A lover of Castro’s was allegedly recruited by the CIA and planned to poison him. Reportedly, Castro sensed what she was up to a offered her his own pistol to do it. "I can't do it, Fidel," she said.

Surviving numerous attempts on his life became a source of pride for Castro. As he was fond of saying: "If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal."

But the constant pressure took its toll, he was constantly on the move and even late into his life, long after the end of the Cold War, his whereabouts were kept a secret.

If he had been killed, Castro wrote in an August column to mark his 90th birthday, his brother Raul would have simply replaced him anyway. “I almost laughed at the Machiavellian plans of the US Presidents," he wrote.

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