How the CIA Attempted to Assassinate Fidel Castro

The CIA conducted a series of covert operations to overthrow the Castro regime, which included assassination attempts on Fidel Castro.

Mar 29, 2023By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor

how the cia attempted to assassinate fidel castro


After Fidel Castro took over the Cuban government, a communist state was induced that severed any economic and political ties with the US that previously existed. When the Castro regime established a relationship with the Soviet Union, it created deep concerns among US government officials and agencies. The Castro regime was seen as a communist and anti-Americanism threat to national security and the US as a whole. A series of plans were created to help determine the best course of action in dealing with the Castro regime. One of the considerations within the plans was to execute Castro in hopes that the Castro-Cuban government would cripple, allowing the US to take further action to dissolve the threat.


Fidel Castro Severs Peaceful Ties Between Cuba & the US

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Fidel Castro speaking in the United States, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Prior to the Castro regime, the US government had relatively peaceful economic and political ties with Cuba. Following the Spanish-American War, the US gained control over Cuba in 1898 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Cuba had an elected government system prior to the Cuban Revolution. In 1902, Cuba gained independence from the US and became known as the Republic of Cuba. However, the US was still allowed to be involved in Cuban affairs according to the Platt Amendment.


Gerardo Machado y Morales was the fifth president of Cuba, but he was also considered Cuba’s first dictator because of his repressive administration. Fulgencio Batista was elected as president in 1940 and served for four years. Between 1952 and 1959, Batista served as a military dictator of Cuba. The US government backed Batista’s dictatorship. However, Fidel Castro led the Cuban Revolution, which ultimately overthrew the Cuban government and pushed Batista out of his position. This began the downfall of peaceful relations between the US government and Cuba.


A year following the successful overthrow of the Cuban government, Fidel Castro began to establish relations with the USSR. In March 1960, President Eisenhower approved an anti-Castro plan that led to the elimination of Cuba’s remaining sugar quota, and American-owned oil companies in Cuba refused to refine the oil that the Soviet Union had sent. These series of events, paired with the high tensions of the Cold War, as the Soviet Union and the US government competed to become the most influential world power, caused the US government to conjure up plans to end the Castro regime.

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Soviet Influences on Cuba Cause Concerns

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Fidel Castro (center left) and Nikita Khrushchev (center right) smiling in the street of Harlem, New York, 1960, via National Security Archive


The Soviet Union and Cuba established formal diplomatic relations in May 1960. Fidel Castro began to flaunt his peaceful relations with Joseph Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev. This caused the US government to become warier of their relations since Cuba was in close proximity to the nation. One of the biggest concerns of the US government was the spread of communism into the Western world. The USSR rapidly spread communist influences upon various countries in Eastern Europe and Asia following World War II. Membership in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union expanded exponentially under Joseph Stalin’s rule.


The growing hostility between the Soviet Union and Cuba against the US government during the Cold War had the nations on the brink of a third World War. The Cuban Communist Party, formally named the Partido Socialista Popular (PSP), was established in 1925. It became a political party in 1939 and later the Communist Party of Cuba after a number of reorganizations in October 1965 under the Castro regime.


The Eisenhower administration decided that Fidel Castro was a danger to the US government and the nation as a whole. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) proposed the anti-Castro plan to President Eisenhower to approve an anti-Castro plan. When John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, he was made aware of the plan and approved its continuation. The early phases of the plan started with cutting ties with Cuba, followed by the Bay of Pigs invasion that was launched in April 1961.


The Bay of Pigs Invasion

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Bay of Pigs Invasion plan routes, via National Security Archive


The Bay of Pigs invasion was launched by the CIA to overthrow the Castro regime because it posed a threat to Latin America and the United States. Cuban exile forces were trained and organized as Brigade 2506. The invasion began in Guatemala when Brigade 2506, consisting of 1,400 exiles, touched down on April 17, 1961. Under Castro’s command, Cuban armed forces quickly defeated the brigade. The Cuban exiles could not take refuge in time due to the landing points’ remote location and 80-mile distance from a refuge site. The defeat marked the first of a series of failures that caused the invasion to be highly unsuccessful.


The invasion lasted for two days. Fidel Castro was also made aware of the invasion through news outlets of a failed air bombing mission two days prior. Eight bombers disguised by the CIA as Cuban air force planes missed several targets, which led to their reveal as American WWII B-26 bombers. A second air strike planned was canceled after the failed bombing. Fidel Castro ordered a counterattack on the invasion and sent out about 20,000 troops. Most Cuban exiles surrendered by the last day of the invasion on April 19, and more than 100 were executed. Some of the brigade was captured and kept in captivity for more than a year. After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the Kennedy administration looked for other options to take down the Castro regime.


Operation Mongoose

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Top secret address from General Edward Lansdale expressing the importance of confidentiality for the Cuba Project, 1962, via John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum


The Bay of Pigs invasion failure was an embarrassment for the Kennedy administration, and JFK was determined to take down Castro. In an effort to make up for the loss of the invasion, Operation Mongoose was created to destabilize the Castro regime. The program included plans to cripple the Cuban economy and government, and it included discussions about assassinating Fidel Castro. The Directorate of Plans covert operations branch of the CIA took on a large portion of responsibilities for a Cuba Task Force that President Kennedy set up. Another unit, known as the Special Group (Augmented), was put in place to command Operation Mongoose.


General Edward Lansdale led the Special Group, and General Maxwell D. Taylor acted as the chairman. A set of 32 tasks were proposed by Lansdale for Operation Mongoose in January 1962, which included psychological warfare and sabotage. Most of the tasks were assigned to the CIA. The operation was divided into six phases, with hopes to complete the final phase by October. After the six phases were established in February 1962, the program was modified just one month later.


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President John F. Kennedy delivering a national radio and television broadcast informing the public of the Soviet’s military presence and missile sites in Cuba, 1962, via John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum


Decisions on how Operation Mongoose should be carried out turned more toward US military support, rather than direct involvement. US government officials hoped that a revolt against the Castro regime with the support of US military resources would be enough to weaken the regime so the US could fully intervene and establish an approved government. Although not as unsuccessful as the Bay of Pigs invasion, Operation Mongoose wasn’t solid enough to complete its main objective of taking down the regime.


The US found out that the Soviet Union was building nuclear missile sites in the summer of 1962. Premier Castro made an agreement in secrecy with Khrushchev to set up nuclear missiles in Cuba to discourage the US from making any additional invasion plans. The event, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, took place in mid-October 1962 and caused the US to come very close to nuclear conflict with Cuba and the Soviet Union. After learning of the missile sites, President Kennedy decided to cease the Operation Mongoose program. An agreement was made between Kennedy and Khrushchev to remove the nuclear missile sites in exchange for the US to remove Jupiter missiles located in Turkey.


Early CIA Assassination Attempts on Fidel Castro

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Fidel Castro’s arrival in Washington DC, 1959, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Early CIA discussions about the assassination of Fidel Castro began as early as the Bay of Pigs invasion. A June 1961 report to President Kennedy from General Taylor discussed possible actions the US government could take to destabilize the Castro regime, highlighting that Castro was “a dangerously effective exponent of Communism and anti-Americanism.” The National Security Council members weighed out the advantages and disadvantages of taking direct action and assassinating Castro. It was ultimately determined that the disadvantages outweighed the advantages.


Discussions about assassinating Castro were kept top secret, with only a handful of individuals aware of the covert operations. Although assassinating Castro was ruled out during initial discussions, several assassination attempts on Fidel Castro organized by the CIA ensued. A portion of Phase II in Operation Mongoose called Stepped Up Course B considered assassinating Castro along with other high-ranking members of the regime, but it was never made an official record.


One of the earliest plans to assassinate Castro, codenamed “Family Jewels,” included syndicate engagement. In September 1960, the CIA approached American businessman and CIA source Robert Maheu to carry out engagements with the Mafia and recruit someone to help with the assassination. Maheu met with mobster Johnny Roselli numerous times to discuss getting rid of Castro. However, Roselli wasn’t made aware that it was an assassination scheme coordinated by the CIA. Roselli was informed that the Castro regime was causing significant financial losses to international businesses of one of Maheu’s clients.


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CIA-hired hitman Momo Salvatore (Sam) Giancana, via The Mob Museum


Roselli recruited Momo Salvatore Giancana, known as Sam Gold, and Santos Trafficante. Both mobsters were on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list at the time. Giancana recommended a lethal pill that could be added to Castro’s food or drink. Giancana recruited Juan Orta to carry out the assassination, as he was a Cuban official who had access to Fidel Castro.


The CIA Technical Services Division produced six botulism pills, which were potent enough to kill Castro upon consumption. Half of the pills were delivered to Orta around late February or early March 1961, but he ultimately backed out of the plan after several failed attempts. The second set of pills was given to another candidate who worked at a restaurant that Castro frequented. However, Castro never visited the restaurant after the pills were received by the second asset and were returned to the CIA.


Following the Cuban Missile Crisis and the termination of Operation Mongoose, two Castro assassination plots were considered, which included using poison pills and rifle fire. In the summer of 1962, money for the guns and pills was delivered to a Mafia asset. However, the case officer directing the plan decided there was a slim chance the assassination would be successful and called it off by the spring of 1963.


Additional CIA Plots to Assassinate Fidel Castro

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Fidel Castro sitting and holding a cigar, 1978, via Encyclopedia Britannica


A third phase of attempting to shut down the Castro regime in 1963 included further discussions about assassination plans. These schemes were talked about, but they were never put into action. The CIA proposed that General Donovan, responsible for negotiating a deal with Castro on the release of Bay of Pigs captives, give Castro a scuba diving suit contaminated with a madura foot-producing fungus. The CIA also considered infecting the breathing apparatus of the suit with tuberculosis bacilli. General Donovan did give Castro a scuba diving suit because it was a known hobby of his, but the suit wasn’t contaminated.


The CIA contemplated using a “spectacular” seashell that would attract Castro’s eye while scuba diving in the Caribbean Sea. The shell would’ve been booby-trapped with explosives so it would blow up when Castro picked it up. However, the plan seemed impractical as there wasn’t a shell that the CIA thought would be spectacular enough to fit the number of explosives needed. Fidel Castro was known to smoke a lot of cigars until he quit in 1985. Another plan that didn’t advance past the discussion stage was contaminating his cigars with botulinum toxin.


fidel castro united nations speech
Fidel Castro speaking at a United Nations meeting in New York, 1979, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


From the time Fidel Castro assumed control of the Cuban government in 1959 to the end of his leadership in 2008, there were more than 600 assassination attempts made on his life. Less than ten of these attempts were made by the CIA. However, additional discussions about assassinating Castro in an effort to end the regime took place. Until a series of records were declassified, the CIA and other government agencies and officials involved in assassination plans were kept hidden from the public.


CIA assassination attempts were previously denied because they went against some of the major principles of the United Nations Charter, to which the US government is bound. Diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba weren’t reestablished until years after Castro stepped down from his position. Official diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba were established during the Obama administration on July 20, 2015.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.