Few knew Fidel Castro quite like the CIA’s Brian Latell.
Castro’s Secrets: The CIA and Cuba’s Intelligence
By Brian Latell
(Palgrave Macmillan, 272 pages, $27)
Fidel Castro has been a menace for over 50 years—a veritable damned nuisance to Cuba, to America, to the Western Hemisphere, and to the wider world. None of that, of course, is news to readers of this publication. Yet even TAS readers will be surprised by the news in Brian Latell’s eye-opening work, Castro’s Secrets: The CIA and Cuba’s Intelligence Machine.
Few know Fidel Castro quite like Brian Latell. Or, to be more precise, few know those who know Fidel Castro quite like Brian Latell. This book is as close to an insider’s account as one can get without being inside. Latell began tracking Castro for the CIA in the 1960s. The documents he has seen and contacts he has made—especially defectors who trust him—are woven together in this book. They provide some disturbing information on Castro, unknown even to those of us who have long suspected the worst.
Latell opens the door to this communist police state, which, tragically, for 54 years has operated less than 100 miles from our shores, the shores of the freest nation on the planet, the one that took down Communism elsewhere but has been helpless and hopeless in aiding the helpless and hopeless Cuban people. Latell lays bare Castro’s crimes and pathological hatred of the United States.
For that matter, Latell lays bare Castro’s hatred of anyone who stands in his way. When Fidel finds leaders he doesn’t like, who oppose his communist ambitions, he becomes hell-bent on eliminating them. Latell describes four remarkable cases of Latin-American anti-communist authoritarians: Nicaragua’s Somoza, Chile’s Pinochet, the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo, and Fidel’s Cuban predecessor, Batista. Castro launched a personal jihad against all four caudillos. It appears that Castro had Somoza killed, tried to kill Pinochet, and wanted but failed to capture Trujillo and Batista alive. All were subjects of what Latell calls Castro’s “wrath” and “demonology.”
As for Somoza, Latell writes that his executioner “knelt in the middle of the street” and steadied his aim: “His shot hit the mark dead center, but the projectile was a dud. And then, amid the ensuing crossfire…he calmly reloaded and made the second shot that killed Somoza.”
As for Castro’s own men who naturally came to despise him, there, too, Fidel has been ruthless—actually, Stalinist. Latell recounts the late 1980s, when Cuba’s leading sponsor, the Soviet Union, was so broke that it ended the annual $6 billion subsidy that was Castro’s lifeline. With glasnost shedding a ray of hope on the Evil Empire, and with the Berlin Wall collapsing, Fidel’s boys were frustrated with the prospects of yet another decade of dark, dank, broken, oppressive Marxist orthodoxy. Castro cracked down hard. Latell remarked on Castro’s actions of 1989, which he called “an even more devastating, top-to-bottom purging of the Ministry of Interior….The Stalinist-style crackdown was preemptive, meant to snuff out every trace of support within the secret services for the liberalizing reforms that led in 1989 to the toppling of the Berlin Wall.”
Among those executed was Arnaldo Ochoa, Cuba’s most decorated and beloved general, on trumped-up charges of drug trafficking.
Defectors fled when they could. One eventual defector, Juan Rodriguez Menier, was among roughly 200 intelligence professionals thrown into prison. He says that everyone he knew in the Interior Ministry, “without exception,” was “executed, locked up, or retired from power.” Thousands of officers were purged.
The most interesting of the defectors is Florentino “Tiny” Aspillaga, who provides the heart and soul—and thread—of Latell’s story: a report that suggests Castro had prior knowledge of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Aspillaga defected in June 1987, handing himself over to the U.S. embassy in Vienna. He would become what Latell called “the most informed and highly decorated officer ever to defect from Cuban intelligence.” Highly respected and barely 40 when he switched sides, there were many factors that influenced Aspillaga’s decision, but a powerful one was the lasting effect of his first face-to-face encounter with Fidel’s narcissism. It occurred 10 years earlier, in 1977, when Aspillaga stood present for a Castro appearance at a Cuban military base in Angola. Fidel arrived as usual, “strutting and preening like a conquering Roman legionnaire” (Latell’s words).
Aspillaga and hundreds of other Cuban military and intelligence officials stood before Castro in uniform and at attention. Fidel’s speech was totally self-congratulatory, all about himself, his braveness, valor, exceptional leadership abilities, his triumphs, all expressed with the “most heinous extreme” hubris—and without a word for the efforts of his men. He actually compared himself to chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. “Castro said he could lead the multitudes better than Goebbels,” recalled Aspillaga. “That’s how he said it…how to guide people to do what you need them to do.” Aspillaga concluded then and there: “I knew he was evil. I told myself, ‘This man is crazy.’”
(Latell shares another account from another defector, one of Fidel’s bodyguards, who described standing next to Castro as the insane dictator spoke, incredibly, for 14 straight hours. “My feet were swollen and sore,” the defector told Latell. “I was standing near Castro the whole time, guarding him.”)
ASPILLAGA’S FATHER had been close to Fidel and the revolution from the outset, and was considered a faithful aide. This brought a very young Aspillaga into the bosom of Fidel’s intelligence circles. He began serving the cause as a boy in the 1950s. Nothing, however, compares to what he heard the morning of November 22, 1963.
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