Castro made a career out of befuddling US/Soviet Un

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Fidel Castro made a career out of befuddling U.S., Soviet Union

BY DAVID WOOD, The Baltimore Sun

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Javier Galeano/Associated Press

Fidel Castro resigned as Cuba's president Tuesday, Feb. 19,2008,after nearly a half-century in power.

WASHINGTON — What the CIA couldn’t do with exploding seashells, poison cigars and chemicals to make his beard fall off, Fidel Castro has done alone. He removed himself from a world stage that he seemed to dominate for nearly 50 years.

So compelling was this Jesuit-trained lawyer that he inspired and drove revolutionary movements across Central America and Africa.

He twisted American policymakers into such awkward knots that the United States has maintained severe economic sanctions against Cuba and, at the same time, a naval station on the island’s southeastern tip, housing the most notorious alleged terrorists in captivity at Guantanamo Bay.

“He survived paramilitary invasions, assassination attempts, trade embargoes, travel bans, diplomatic isolation. He stood up to 10 American presidents, all of whom to some degree were dedicated to doing him in,” said Peter Kornbluh, a Cuba specialist with the nonpartisan National Security Archive in Washington.

Castro has been at the center of some of the most notable U.S. adventures and misadventures of the past half-century: the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco and the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the world to the edge of nuclear war in 1962; proxy wars in Central America and Africa; the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada against Cuban defenders; the Iran-Contra affair and the CIA’s long and unsuccessful obsession with using underworld gangsters to assassinate him.

“Few issues have challenged our nation longer than the situation in Cuba,” President Bush said in a speech last fall.

If there is an emblematic image of the Cold War, it might well be the beard, military cap and jaunty cigar of Castro.

“And the ego!” said Vicki Huddleston, a retired ambassador who led the U.S. interest section in Havana from 1999 to 2002. Castro, she said, “is driven by ego and power. Everything he does is very calculated.”

Seizing power from the tottering dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Castro, sworn in as the prime minister of Cuba, initially was seen as a Robin Hood figure who sought to eradicate Cuba’s extremes of wealth and poverty. But his socialist goals clashed with powerful American economic interests in Cuba and the Caribbean Sea region.

“The American government became an obstacle to some of the changes he wanted to make,” said Warren Cohen, professor of U.S. foreign relations at the University of Maryland.

When Castro turned to Moscow for economic and military support, the Russians were at first suspicious. But Castro, who was master only of a small Caribbean island, played his hand well.

“Sure, Cuba’s only a little island, but it’s 90 miles off the Florida coast, a very important strategic position for the Soviets and a very dangerous position for the United States,” said Mircea Munteanu, a Cold War scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.

The Kremlin wasn’t looking to stir things up in the early 1960s, but “they were dragged into it by Castro,” Munteanu said. “The Russians were not necessarily looking for trouble, but the Cubans were saying, ‘If you don’t want to help us, the Chinese will.’ ”

When it became clear that Castro was joining the Soviet orbit — and soliciting Soviet military support — the U.S. response “was pretty close to hysterical,” Cohen said.

According to investigations led by the late Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, in 1975, the CIA launched at least eight plots between 1960 and 1965 to assassinate Castro.

Working through reputed mobsters Johnny Rosselli, Salvatore Giancana and Santo Trafficante, the CIA struck out on each attempt. These included the inventive use of poison cigars; dusting Castro’s shoes during a U.N. visit with a chemical that would cause his beard to fall out; sending a sniper with a high-powered rifle to Havana, and contaminating Castro’s diving gear with tuberculosis germs.

The CIA also schemed to rig an exotic seashell with explosives and place it on the sea floor where Castro was fond of diving, an idea that proved impractical, according to the 1975 report of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Undaunted, Castro launched an unprecedented series of foreign interventions in the 1970s and 1980s with major Soviet economic and military support.

Pressing the “people’s revolution” agenda across the Third World, Castro dispatched Cuban tank battalions to Ethiopia and tens of thousands of troops, along with squadrons of doctors and teachers to Angola and across Latin America.

In the mid-1980s, with the Reagan administration warning of major Soviet and Cuban inroads into Central America, Cuban support for Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinista government prompted a series of American missteps, including an ill-fated CIA effort to mine Nicaraguan harbors and the scheme to sell weapons to Iran to raise money for the anti-Sandinista insurgents known as the Contras.

Although Castro is often portrayed as being a major Cold War problem for the United States, research in diplomatic archives opened up after the collapse of the Soviet Union suggest he was as much of a headache for Moscow.

“Castro ended up being more of a revolutionary than anyone in Moscow,” Cohen said. “He really knew how to push buttons.”

At no point was that more true than in 1962, when a U.S. spy plane discovered construction of launch facilities for Russian missiles in Cuba. The United States protested and imposed a naval quarantine on Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from carrying the missiles to Cuba.

U.S. Marine Col. Anthony Caputo, now retired, commanded one of the regiments assembled for a task force designed to invade Cuba that fall and topple Castro. U.S. intelligence did not know at the time that Russia had supplied its troops in Cuba with tactical nuclear weapons.

“We stayed down there a month and a half floating off the coast, waiting to go in,” Caputo said. “Our mission was to rendezvous with the 82nd Airborne and sweep into Havana. It would have been a little bit difficult, but that was the mission.”

Eventually, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev backed down and the Russian ships turned back.

“It was quite a relief but also a letdown because we were really loaded and ready,” Caputo said. “It would have been a little struggle. We could have overrun ’em. Maybe if we had taken over, we wouldn’t have had all these problems.”

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