The Cold War was not only a time of deep mistrust between the east and the west, but also between the old and the new, conservatives and liberals, capitalists and socialists. The event most emblematic of this conflict was the Cuban Missile Crisis when the two sides reached the very brink of nuclear war. And, desperate to minimize Communist influence in the western hemisphere, the American CIA — by all accounts — made multiple efforts to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Today we're going to look at how real these attempts were, as various histories record radically different characterizations of what happened.
Depending on what source you trust, the CIA made as few as eight attempts on Castro's life, or as many as 638. This latest highest number was best popularized by a 2006 documentary called 638 Ways to Kill Castro, based on a book of the same name. It was expanded in 2010 into an 8-part heavily dramatized miniseries titled He Who Must Live. Is it really possible that the CIA managed such an enormous number of assassination attempts, and managed to bungle all of them? Fortunately we have excellent sources for these numbers, and we'll look at them now.
Much of what we know about the actual efforts to assassinate Castro came from the report of the Church Committee, formed by the US Senate to investigate abuses by American intelligence agencies such as COINTELPRO. The Committee's report, published in 1976, filled seven volumes of hearing transcripts plus six books of the final report plus an interim report that ran 349 pages — and it's this one that interests us. Its title is Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders.
As part of this investigation, Cuba was asked what they knew about assassination attempts against Castro. From the report:
But while the CIA denied involvement in these twenty four cases provided by Castro, they also provided thorough details on eight times that they actually did try to kill him. Here are those eight, and you can read all the details in the report:
That's it. Not one of them was ever carried all the way through. All eight of these were performed under the auspices of larger programs that had official authorization, with codenames such as ZR/RIFLE, Operation Mongoose, and Operation 40.
So how did we go from twenty four assassination attempts, to just eight, and then all the way up to 638? Experienced Skeptoid listeners might be inclined to smell a rat — a species of rat that we usually find in the person of an imaginative author. And what do you know: we have just such a person in this story too.
His name is Fabián Escalante, born in Havana in either 1940 or 1941 as Fabián Escalante Font. Everywhere he is mentioned in the Western press, it's as the former head of the Cuban intelligence service, who personally protected Castro from the CIA's attacks. Since his retirement, Escalante's business has been writing conspiracy theory books. He is best known for promoting the debunked claim that JFK was killed by Chicago mobsters on the orders of the CIA, which he claims was proven by Cuban agents who infiltrated the anti-Castro mafia in Miami. Although most of Escalante's books have focused on JFK conspiracy mongering, it is his book 638 Ways to Kill Castro that is the film's source of the incredible 600+ number. Supposedly, that should be a reliable number, as Escalante was head of the Cuban secret service. Right?
The first red flag I came across was that Escalante's name does not appear once in all those countless hundreds of pages of Church Committee reports. So I double checked his background. The Internet remains severely restricted in Cuba, so you generally won't find things like official websites for government departments. But there are plenty of Spanish language books available talking about the history of Cuba, the cold war from the Cuban perspective, and Cuban intelligence agencies. I downloaded several. On Escalante's Spanish language Wikipedia page, and also on a personal biography web page that appears to have been written by him, he is variously described as a founder of the DSE (Departamento de Seguridad del Estado, Department of State Security) or as its head beginning in 1976. It's very clear that he was never either one; the history of its top chiefs are easily found, and they don't include his name. His biography continues that he joined the MININT (Ministerio del Interior, Interior Ministry) as a "senior official" in 1982. I found nothing at all that could confirm this, however it's a huge agency, and one of its biggest activities is operating the chain of state-run retail stores throughout the country. So this could mean anything all the way down to being a retail clerk, but we can certainly say that he was never a significant enough official to ever be mentioned in any published materials. He also states that he was promoted to Major General in 1988, and retired to focus on his books in 1993. I even had a number of Spanish language researchers assist me, and we found no reference in any published material to a Major General Fabián Escalante, or of anyone by that name occupying any government position in Cuba.
The one position we can confirm that he held was head of the Cuban Security Studies Center, beginning in 1993. Turns out this is not a government agency, nor indeed is it any kind of agency. Its personnel consists of he, himself, and him. It appears to be simply what he calls himself while doing his JFK conspiracy research.
Given the difficulty of verifying information from inside Cuba, it's not a solid verdict; but I'm satisfied that Escalante's history of having worked in Cuban intelligence is either wholly fabricated or at least grossly exaggerated.
But what about those 638 assassination attempts dramatized in the movies based on Escalante's claims? Well guess what. They only show the eight known attempts, which we discussed a few moments ago. Castro gave the United States a list of twenty four attempts he was aware of; the CIA whittled it down to the eight they were actually involved with, then these were made public to the world by the Church Committee. Only after they were already public did Escalante put these events in his books, and claimed credit for revealing them, based on his claim of having been a major player in Cuban intelligence.
What about those other 630? Basically just anything and everything that ever happened in Cuba over the span of several decades, that might — with a bit of creative extrapolation — have resulted in harm to Castro. It's confirmation bias from the mind of a conspiracy theorist seeking to justify a preconceived conclusion.
It's not surprising that many Cubans embrace conspiracy theories that have the US government as the antagonist — obviously Cubans have plenty of good reasons to be suspicious of the United States. Fidel Castro himself was an open 9/11 Truther, embraced multiple JFK conspiracy theories, and wrote a famous article blaming the Bilderbergers for being the actual one-world government. And given the starting point of at least eight actual attempts by the US to assassinate Castro — which was much more than just a "theory" — it's easy to see that Cubans need not be all that far down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories to stretch that number all the way up to one sensational enough for prime time TV movies.
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