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Castro death plots enshrined in Havana museum

Castro death plots enshrined in Havana museum

Like a James Bond of global politics, Cuban President Fidel Castro always seems miraculously to survive unscathed from the tricks and turns his ever-ingenious enemies come up with to wipe him off the planet.

Castro's most recent alleged brush with death - adding to an impressive list of assassination plots he put at 637 in 1999 - was a well-publicized and, in the event, easily thwarted plan to blow him up at a summit in Panama last November.

But had his CIA or Cuban-American exile foes got a proposed exploding cigar or seashell into the young tobacco-loving, scuba-diving Castro's hands all those years ago, he might have been just a footnote in history long before Panama.

Or what if a would-be assassin with a gun hidden in a TV camera for a news conference during Castro's 1971 visit to Chile had not aborted at the last minute?

"History cannot recall a similar witch hunt in the world against a prominent political figure as there has been against Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro," reads the tag to a Havana museum exhibition displaying the often-zany litany of plots over four decades against the bearded leader, now 74.

Despite its uninspiring name and obviously pro-Cuban bent, the Interior Ministry Museum is a fascinating monument to these plots, as well as the whole gamut of Cuban-U.S. hostilities and Cold War intrigue in general.

Although it encompasses all aspects of the ministry's work, the most interesting part is dedicated to illustrating "the ferocious, obsessive and sick persecution against the Cuban leader during nine U.S. administrations since 1959."

Among the early plots against Castro - some of which were later admitted in declassified CIA documents - were plans to ridicule him in public by pumping laughing gas into a TV studio where he was speaking, or planting a depilatory powder that would make the hair fall out of his trademark beard.

Not to mention the poisoned diving suit, cigars and pills, or the syringe hidden in a pen reportedly handed by the CIA to a would-be assassin in Paris the same day U.S. President John Kennedy was shot in 1963. (The plan was aborted after that.)PLOTS STRETCH IMAGINATION"The tools for attempted assassination went from long-range rifles to poisoned pills, to fatal bacteria in dust, and others which require a large stretch of the imagination," said a 1975 U.S. Senate report - reproduced in Spanish at the museum - on an investigation of CIA activities against Castro.

Among the lesser-known plots to kill Castro, according to the museum, was a plan in 1962 to shoot then-Foreign Minister Raul Roa and lie in wait for Castro and other senior Communist leaders as the funeral cortege went down a Havana street.

Another plan envisaged spectators at a baseball game in Havana's Latinoamericana stadium tossing a grenade at Castro as he rose in front of them to applaud a particular play.

While most of the plots either did not make it off paper, were aborted in early stages or were thwarted by Cuban state security, some did come relatively close.

Abroad, one of the closest seems to have been in Chile in 1971, when, according to the Cuban version, a gunman paid by anti-Communist Cuban American exiles was too frightened at the last minute to pull the trigger. (The exiles' version is that Castro had not entered the room before the plan was scotched).

Among a string of plots at annual Ibero-American summits, the 1994 Colombian meeting appears to have been the most perilous with a would-be assassin seeking to aim his gun at Castro as he rode through Cartagena beside friend and novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. ("I would have had the honor of dying with such an illustrious writer," Castro later said.)All that may have frustrated his foes, but for admirers it has simply added to the mythic status of a man who, even before taking power, seemed to have a cat's nine lives.

CASTRO A VETERAN SURVIVOR

The launch of his armed struggle with a 1953 attack on an army barracks resulted in the death of many of the assailants - but not Castro, of course. When he was captured later a young military guard disobeyed an order to poison him in prison.

The guard, Jesus Yanez Pelletier, became aide-de-camp to Castro before turning against him, serving 11 years in prison, becoming a well-known internal dissident and dying last year.

In another remarkable twist of fate, when Castro rode into Havana after the revolution a white dove released into the sky settled on his shoulder as he gave a speech to the masses. What clearer symbol of Castro's status could there be for believers, be they Catholics or practitioners of Afro-Caribbean Santeria?

Castro's detractors, particularly in Miami's ferociously anti-Communist Cuban American community, say he invents, exaggerates and exploits the plots to enhance his mythic status and discredit his enemies in the United States.

"Fidel Castro's like an aged rock star that needs to attract attention somehow," was the hard-line Cuban American National Foundation response to Castro's dramatic denunciation of the plot in Panama.

But the Interior Ministry Museum director, Jose Angel Saliva, insists the exhibits on the Castro plots and other U.S.-inspired actions against Cuba are 100 percent faithful to reality. "The enemy knows it's all true," he said.

The museum, in the leafy Miramar suburb, illustrates the U.S.-Cuban conflict from such early events as the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 to the latest flashpoints such as the custody dispute over young shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez.

Early exhibits try to demonstrate the U.S. government was behind attempts to subvert Castro within months of his toppling of ex-dictator Fulgencio Batista on Jan. 1, 1959.

'CUBA SI, COMMUNISMO NO!'

A section dedicated to one of the first internal counterrevolutionary movements, the Movement of Revolutionary Recovery, shows guerrilla materials from explosive soap holders to propaganda fliers saying "Cuba Si, Communismo No!"

"This group was formed by resentful elements who, upon not obtaining the privileges they aspired to, aligned themselves with enemies of the people responding to the dictates of the CIA to create internal conditions to support an intervention of U.S. troops," an explanation with the exhibit says.

At times, the museum seems like the set of a James Bond OO7 movie or an illustrated version of a John Le Carre spy novel: TV cases and shampoo bottles with hidden explosives, a Quaker oats tin with anti-Castro propaganda inside, a rock concealing listening equipment, a camera in a cigarette lighter.

And the museum has a detailed section outlining alleged U.S. "bacteriological warfare" against Cuba including diseases that have harmed sugar, tobacco, pigs, trout and potatoes.

Any doubters of the museum's findings can sit down to a couple of videos, one dedicated to Castro's personal security, the other showing U.S. activity in Cuba with remarkable footage of alleged CIA agents arranging a pickup at a rubbish dump.

"Here there is no science fiction. These are real things," museum director Saliva said. "The pretext for actions against Cuba was that we were a Russian satellite, or that we were interfering in Africa, but you can see from this museum that is not true, because the U.S. actions began immediately in 1959."

With locals paying one peso (5 U.S. cents) and foreigners $2 to enter the museum, there is a steady flow of visitors.

"Foreigners are surprised by their ignorance of all this," Saliva said as a British family went around tut-tutting disapprovingly at the plots against Castro. "For the new generations of Cubans, this demonstrates the traditions of struggle during more than 42 years of aggression."

Castro himself has repeatedly said he is not "immortal" but he cannot resist joking about the myriad plots, false rumors and unfulfilled hopes from some quarters of an early demise.

"They have already killed me about 100 times. I'm going to die from the amount of times they have killed me," he quipped recently, before adding that he was not neglecting his daily exercises - "if only to mortify them a little longer!"


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