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The Stalinist Assassin

Few knew Fidel Castro quite like the CIA's Brian Latell.

By From the February 2013 issue

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Castro’s Secrets: The CIA and Cuba’s Intelligence Machine
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.”

Mission accomplished.

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.

Here’s how Aspillaga tells the story: At around 9:30 that morning, as a young Cuban intelligence officer, he received a coded message by radio from his headquarters. There was no phone in the building where he operated. The message instructed him to go to the another buiding that he used (about 100 yards away) and place a call to headquarters via the secure phone.

When he did, Aspillaga was told to immediately stop all of his regular CIA tracking efforts. This was extremely odd. During the several weeks he had worked there, and for the next dozen years, his only target had been the CIA, namely spies on the island and incursions at sea—those were the only things that mattered. This day, November 22, 1963, would be the only exception—ever.

“The leadership wants you to stop all your CIA work,” Aspillaga was told, “all your CIA work.” He was ordered to immediately redirect his antennas away from Miami and from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. To where should he redirect his antennas? The answer was as short as it was strange: Texas.

As Aspillaga recounted: “I was told to listen to all conversations, and to call the leadership if I heard anything important occur. I put all of my equipment to listen to any small detail from Texas. They told me, ‘Texas.’ It wasn’t until two or three hours later that I began hearing broadcasts on amateur radio bands about the shooting of President Kennedy in Dallas.”

Kennedy was shot around 12:30 p.m. Dallas time, or 1:30 p.m. Cuba time. Aspillaga looked Latell in the eye and plainly claimed: “Castro knew. They knew Kennedy would be killed.”

Latell is convinced that Aspillaga is telling the truth, and that there is no reason to think otherwise. Aspillaga has nothing to gain, is not selling his story, and, in fact, remains in hiding. He wants the world to know about this astonishing crime. Latell has gone back to Aspillaga again and again, revisiting, scrutinizing. His account remains consistent and checks out.

Importantly, if true, this doesn’t mean that Castro sponsored or ordered or took part in Kennedy’s assassination. It suggests that Castro had prior knowledge, which would have stemmed from Lee Harvey Oswald’s continued outreach to Cuban officials, most dramatically during three extraordinary visits by Oswald to the Cuban consulate in Mexico City between September 27 and October 2, 1963. Those visits could have begun some sort of relationship between Oswald and the Cubans or, at a minimum, Cuban knowledge of Oswald, his adoration of Fidel, his earlier two-and-a-half-year defection to the Soviet Union (starting in 1959), his hatred of JFK, his Marine background, his love of weaponry and marksmanship, and perhaps his plans to kill the American president. “We never had any individual so persistent,” said the Cuban consular officer who claimed to have argued with Oswald—and allegedly denied Oswald a visa. He maintained that an angry, frustrated Oswald slammed the door in rage as he departed.

This alone would prove that Castro’s statement about Oswald on Cuban television the day after the assassination—“we never in our life heard of him”—was not true. “We,” meaning certain high-level Cubans, had heard of Oswald. This was just one of countless inaccuracies and blatant untruths Castro told about the assassination. He even went so far as to blame it on the CIA.

Again, this does not mean that Castro prompted Oswald. But if we believe Aspillaga’s story, then at best Castro knew of Oswald’s intentions but did not alert American authorities. The precise nuances are covered with great care by the skilled hand of Brian Latell—and which I will leave to readers to explore in detail.

Latell relates “what I now believe was Fidel Castro’s most despicable decision during his nearly five decades in power: to stand aside, build an elaborate alibi, lie and dissemble, launch decades of disinformation pointing at others, all the while maintaining a conspiracy of silence about the murder of John F. Kennedy.”

The one thing we do know is that Fidel Castro knows more than he has ever dared admit.

This year, 2013, will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. One need not be a conspiracy buff to understand there is much about the shooting still shrouded in mystery. This is a book that earns a spot in that discussion, and which generally broadens our knowledge of a crazy, destructive dictator still wreaking havoc.

There were giants in the earth in those days, and Stan Evans is still standing, a man of great wit and erudition, a fighting journalist whom several generations of young conservatives have gladly followed into ideological battle.

The wit was on full display at The American Spectator’s 2011 Robert L. Bartley Dinner, at which Evans accepted the Barbara Olson Award. He spoke of the similarities among Texas (where he was born), Indiana (where TAS was born), and Alabama, whose Sen. Jeff Sessions was in attendance. In those states, he said, unlike Washington, “Alcohol, tobacco, and firearms is not a bureau. It’s a way of life.”

Addressing his remarks to Congress, in the person of Rep. Paul Ryan, also in attendance, Evans urged repeal of Obama’s health care law, “in order to know what is not in it.” He pointed out that even Nancy Pelosi said she didn’t know what was in it (and no doubt still doesn’t). But with repeal, “whatever is in it, will not be in it.”

There were anecdotes involving Indiana state legislator Vernon Wormser, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Hillary Clinton’s vast right-wing conspiracy (of which we’re all proudly a part); an acknowledgment of Bob Tyrrell’s “persecution” of the Clintons; and an observation on the ideological aspects of aging: “I’ve always felt that anyone who has his head screwed on right should be conservative when he is young and, as he gets older, become more and more conservative.”

That, in a nutshell, is the road Stan Evans has taken. In 1955 he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale, where he’d been an editor of the Yale Daily News. He went to work at the Freeman, was named editor of the Indianapolis News (where at 26 he was the nation’s youngest editor of a metropolitan daily), and became one of the earliest contributing editors of National Review, and an ally and friend-to-the-end of Bill Buckley, Bill Rusher, and Frank Meyer. (Many conservatives were upset when, after Frank Meyer’s death, George Will rather than Stan Evans was appointed NR’s books editor.) He was a frequent contributor to Human Events and to TAS, to which he also provided valuable advice and counsel, especially during the early Indiana years. He was a columnist for the Los Angeles Times news syndicate, founder and president of the National Journalism Center, and president of the American Conservative Union and the Philadelphia Society.

He was also one of those young conservatives, along with Lee Edwards, whom Bill Buckley and Marvin Liebman recruited to help with the founding of Young Americans for Freedom. Stan Evans drafted the Sharon Statement, and Lee Edwards became the first editor of New Guard.

Evans is author of nine books, among them the magisterial Blacklisted by History, a vindication of Senator Joseph McCarthy based on an intensive analysis of now-available FBI files and material from Soviet archives. In Stalin’s Secret Agents, he continues his examination of the depth and breadth of Soviet subversion, as revealed through primary sources and formerly secret documents.

His co-author, Herbert Romerstein (The Venona Secrets), a leading Cold War expert, served on the staff of several congressional committees, among them the House Intelligence Committee, and headed the USIA’s Office to Counter Soviet Disinformation from 1983 to 1989, when the extraordinarily nightmarish Soviet alternative universe finally imploded.

That implosion occurred in no small part because of the continued pressure, despite the best liberal attempts to thwart it, applied to Washington thinkers, legislators, and policy makers by outnumbered conservative spokesman, journalists, and patriots like Evans and Romerstein. The fact is that there was indeed a genuine international communist conspiracy, and the ultimate success of this conspiracy necessarily entailed neutralizing opposition from the United States. To this end, Joseph Stalin’s agents of influence infiltrated the federal government at the highest levels, one of their primary objectives being to shape our foreign policy in a manner favorable to the Soviet Union.

With FDR’s health and mental capacity steadily diminishing, these agents of influence, among them Harry Hopkins, one of FDR’s closest advisers who came to be known as the “Deputy President” (he actually lived in the White House), increasingly steered American foreign policy in pro-Soviet directions.

Evans and Romerstein focus on the Yalta Conference of early 1945, a meeting at which the big three—FDR, Churchill, and Stalin—decided the futures of nations like Poland and Yugoslavia in the post-WWII world. Two conflicting views about that future would set the tone of the talks. Winston Churchill believed that “the West urgently needed to shore up its defenses against the expansion of Soviet power,” while among those apparently speaking for FDR (the authors convincingly document the president’s mental deterioration, witnessed by a wide variety of reputable observers and casting doubt on his ability to think clearly), “the impending dominance of Soviet power in Europe was not something to be combated, deplored, or counterbalanced, but rather an outcome to be accommodated and assisted.”

Part of this view was no doubt an extraordinary misreading of Joseph Stalin by those, who, if they weren’t agents of influence, served effectively as useful idiots. The authors quote an assessment of Stalin written by Joseph Davies, our ambassador to Moscow: “He [Stalin] gives the impression of a strong mind which is composed and gentle. A child would like to sit on his lap and a dog would sidle up to him.” And FDR himself is quoted as having said to a somewhat startled cabinet “that as Stalin early on had studied for the priesthood, ‘something entered into his nature of the way in which a Christian gentleman should behave.’”

In much the same vein, the authors quote William Bullitt on FDR’s view of aid to Stalin. Said FDR: “I have just a hunch that Stalin doesn’t want anything but security for his country, and I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work for world democracy and peace.” (Emphasis added by the authors.)

And that, at Yalta, is pretty much what happened. The authors go on to give an account of the dealings between FDR and Stalin, including FDR’s attempt to cut Winston Churchill out of the discussions so as not to upset Stalin, and some tasteless jokes told by FDR, including a highly offensive reference to the problems he and Stalin shared in dealing with Jews.

But tastelessness, bigotry, and intellectual shallowness aside, and given the obvious physical and mental deterioration, how did FDR come to so misread and misunderstand the basic and unchanging goals of Soviet policy? The answer: He had no coherent idea of what he was doing and his policies, resulting in the great concessions made to the Russians at Yalta, were in large part the result of the work of dupes and useful idiots led by a genuine traitor, Alger Hiss, who as a Russian agent played a central role in shaping the conference.

According to one report, write the authors, “The KGB lamented that Hiss was already spoken for by the rival Soviet agency GRU (military intelligence), saying that if the KGB had such a source at State ‘no one else would really be needed.’” (And thus, in the end, to the distress of liberal fellow-traveling dupes everywhere, would Whittaker Chambers be totally vindicated, as would Richard Nixon, the congressman who stood by him.)

Evans and Romerstein identify key conspirators and agents planted in high positions in the federal government, as well as the central roles played by such influential advisers as Harry Hopkins and Henry Morgenthau. They document the indifference of the bureaucracy to the threats posed by communist infiltration, as well as the orchestrated cover-ups, including rigged grand jury sessions, that prevented Congress and the American people from receiving facts about the extent of that infiltration. In a perceptive review of Anne Applebaum’s splendid new book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956, Norman Davies writes: “Perhaps the hardest thing for Eastern Europeans to bear was that no one in the outside world cared. As seen from Washington and London, Applebaum writes, ‘Russia’s behavior in Eastern Europe…was hardly worth noticing at all.’” Or worse, as the evidence mustered by Evans and Romerstein strongly suggests, noticed in some influential quarters with approval.

As Wlady Pleszczynski points out, Ms. Applebaum’s book “is getting deserved attention, in part because it focuses on something that’s either been forgotten or was never paid attention to by the dominant liberal culture, when that culture wasn’t colluding with the Stalinists and Stalinoids.”

For the same reasons—and whether it’s agents of influence, traitors, dupes, or useful idiots—Stalin’s Secret Agents merits the same critical attention. 

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About the Author

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.