How Fidel Castro Survived Over 600 Assassination Attempts

By the time former Cuban leader Fidel Castro died in 2016 at the age of 90, he had become known as a legendary survivor. As a young revolutionary, he was reported dead multiple times, only later to be found very much alive. But it was perhaps the 638 times (per CNN) that Cuban intelligence officials claimed the CIA tried to kill Castro that would earn him that survivor status. "If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal," Castro liked to tell interviewers, according to The Independent.

It's impossible to know if that very-specific 638 number is an exaggeration or not, but we have confirmation from declassified CIA reports, as well as the testimony of some prospective assassins, that the agency did try to kill Castro plenty of times. Not all the plots were carried out, and several attempts ranged from brilliant to total bonehead moves. And the plots against Castro took into consideration killing him in various ways, including poisoning him, blowing him up in more ways than you might think possible, and even sending in a femme fatale to do the job.

The assassination attempts went on for years, but a series of media reports throughout the 1970s led to investigations of abuse of power within the CIA. Those investigations motivated President Gerald Ford to ban political assassinations in 1976, but Cuban intelligence officials say the plots against Castro continued for two more decades, including some under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

Going after Castro's cigars

As early as 1960, U.S. officials set their sights on one of Castro's most permanent fixtures: his cigars. Castro told Cigar Aficionado in a 1994 interview that he became a cigar smoker at the age of 15, when his father presented him with his first stogie. For decades, Castro was seen in photographs with cigars (later, his exclusive Cohiba brand), and the CIA took that as an opportunity. There was the instance of sneaking enough explosives into the cigars to reportedly take Castro's head clean off, as The Guardian reported (although some have dismissed that as urban legend). 

Perhaps the most famous attempt on Castro's life, however, was in 1960, toward the end of the Eisenhower administration, according to the Church Committee, which was charged with investigating abuses by the CIA and the FBI. "[A]n official was given a box of Castro's favorite cigars with instructions to treat them with lethal poison," according to the Church Committee report, posted at the Assassination Archives and Research Center. "The cigars were contaminated with a botulinum toxin so potent that a person would die after putting one in his mouth." Whether or not the cigars were delivered or intercepted remains classified.

Then the CIA tried to poison Fidel Castro's ice cream

In March 1961, the CIA targeted another one of Castro's vices. This time it was ice cream, and they turned to the mafia to carry out the mission of poisoning the Cuban leader. "They gave poison pills and thousands of dollars to one of the CIA's most prominent Cubans, Tony Varona," Tim Weiner wrote in his history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes. "Varona managed to hand off the vial of poison to a restaurant worker in Havana, who was to slip it into Castro's ice cream cone." Cuban intelligence later found the vial in an ice box. "That moment was the closest the CIA got to assassinating Fidel," retired state security general Fabian Escalante told Reuters in 2007.

Around the same time as the ice cream plot, the CIA made contact with a senior Cuban official, who would only be referred to as AM/LASH in the Church Committee report. AM/LASH was provided a cache of high-powered rifles with scopes, which he intended to use for Castro's assassination. The CIA, however, preferred a softer touch, and offered him a ball-point pen that was fitted with a poison-filled needle so fine that the victim wouldn't notice they had been pricked. AM/LASH did not "think much of the device," according to his CIA handler, and suggested the CIA should really "come up with something more sophisticated than that."

The CIA sent Fidel Castro's lover to kill him

In another attempt, the CIA tried combining love with poison pills, recruiting a lover of Castro's to deliver the poison. Marita Lorenz had met and fallen in love with Castro shortly after the revolution, she wrote in her 1993 memoir, Marita: One Woman's Extraordinary Tale of Love and Espionage from Castro to Kennedy. The CIA was successful in recruiting her during one of her trips to the US, and she returned to Cuba with the poison pills. Upon arriving in Havana, she found that the pills had dissolved in the jar of face cream where they had been hidden. 

Even worse, Castro was somehow aware of the plot when he invited her to his hotel suite. "Did you come here to kill me?" Castro asked Lorenz, she recalled in an interview with Vanity Fair. He handed her his gun and asked if she was working for the CIA, "Not really. I work for myself," she said. Castro replied: "You can't kill me. Nobody can kill me."

Getting Castro underwater

One of Castro's favorite pastimes was scuba diving, so the CIA looked into ways they could carry out an assassination attempt while he was underwater. They had two ideas. One was to place a big order for a large number of seashells, pack them with explosives, and paint them brightly to attract Castro's attention. CIA divers would then drop them in areas where Castro went diving, NBC News reported. There's no evidence the plot was ever actualized. The second diving plot involved a flesh-eating wet suit and tampering with the oxygen tank. The suit would be dusted with a fungus that caused chronic skin disease, and the breathing apparatus would have tuberculosis bacteria. That plot failed, too.

The CIA tried one last kind of assassination: character assassination. The plan was to so severely undermine Castro's public persona that he would be forced to resign, according to Vox. One way they tried to do this was by spraying broadcast studios with an LSD-like chemical, so that he would hallucinate on-air. The chemical was determined to be unreliable, the Church Committee report noted, and it was abandoned. In a plot more childish than anything else, the CIA planned to dust Castro's shoes with thallium salts that would make his beard fall out.

In the end, Castro was forced from power because of his own health issues, including a botched medical operation, Reuters reported in 2007. Or maybe the CIA finally got one right — sort of.