Leader of the Cuban revolution Fidel Castro, the Cold War nemesis of the United States, outlasted 11 U.S. presidents and survived no fewer than 638 assassination attempts.
Over the years the CIA cooked up scores of plots to sabotage or kill the Cuban leader that ranged from disaster-prone to amusing. Perhaps it was Fidel’s cunning ability to thwart death that pushed U.S. operatives to ever-more outlandish plans that would rival the most creative stories of a James Bond flick. According to the former head of Cuban intelligence, Fabian Escalante, the more than 600 assassination attempts spanned across 40 years and the administrations of eight U.S. presidents.
Here’s a look at just a few of some of the CIA’s most elaborate and unusual assassination schemes against Fidel Castro, who, managed to celebrate his 90th birthday this year, dying of old age Friday night.
1. The Iconic Exploding Cigar
Perhaps the most famous assassination attempts against Fidel Castro were CIA efforts to tamper with his cigars, which, in the early years of his leadership of Cuba, were an almost as iconic part of his appearance as his beard and military fatigues. In 1960, a box of Fidel’s favorite cigars were laced with the bacterial toxin botulin. In an another attempt in 1966, the CIA reportedly tried to get a police officer on board to carry out a plot to sew Fidel’s cigars with explosives. Both schemes were a bust. And in 1985, the revolutionary leader gave up smoking altogether, saying it was a necessary “sacrifice” for public health.
2. The Femme Fatale Gone Wrong
The CIA recruited a lover of Fidel Castro after the victory over the dictatorship in 1959 to take out the revolutionary leader. The plan was that she would stealthily slip poison pills to her lover. But she had hidden the pills in a skin cream jar, where they melted and became unuseable, foiling the entire plot. Fidel reportedly guessed what she was up to and handed over his own loaded gun, self-assured that no one could kill him. The femme fatale couldn’t pull the trigger.
3. The Far-fetched Fungus Scuba Suit
The CIA seemed to think that if cigars and women wouldn’t be his downfall, his lover for scuba diving would be. One elaborate scheme was to create a custom wetsuit and scuba diving gear infested with a fungus that cause a serious skin disease that would kill him. The scuba suit reportedly never left the laboratory, but the plan was thwarted anyway when the man who was supposed to be the trusted one to give the suit to Fidel as a gift had already given him another set of normal, fungus-free gear.
4. The Underwater Dynamite Seashell
The underwater scuba diving plots were apparently popular ones among the CIA. Another idea was to paint a perfect and particularly attractive sea mollusc that would undoubtedly attract Fidel’s attention as he went diving in Caribbean waters. The seashell was to be filled with explosives and stashed in an area the leader often went diving. It’s likely the plot, like the skin-diseased wetsuit, sank before it got out of the CIA lab.
5. The Toxic Milkshake Mishap
It was an assassination attempt that seemed comparatively mundane and predictable alongside the elaborate underwater plans. A server was supposed to slip poison into Fidel’s ice cream or milkshake. But different accounts suggest that either the poison got stuck frozen to the inside of the freezer, or the deadly sweet treat spilled before it was served. Either way, the plan was a failure.
6. The Poisoned Needle in a Pen
The only thing the CIA loved more than James Bond-style assassination attempts were ones that were all about poisoning the communist leader, usually with botulism-inducing toxins. Another scheme involved hiding a toxic hypodermic needle inside a pen with plans for someone able to get close to Fidel to stab him with it. If the plan worked out it shouldn’t even have felt it immediately since the needle would be extremely thin. Needless to say it never got to that point.
7. The LSD-laced Political Speech
This CIA wasn’t only in the business of attempting to assassinate Fidel — after all, it never worked out. The Cuban leader’s rivals also tried to sabotage his character on various occasions. One idea was to spray an LSD-like drug into his vicinity was he was giving a national address to make him trip out mid-speech and inevitably embarrass himself. Another was to lace cigars with chemicals for a similar effect during a television broadcast. Another still went straight for his iconic beard with plans to plant slow-acting hair-removal chemicals on his shoes that would leave him bald and beardless.
But those are just a few of more than 600 assassination attempts against the former president, who governed Cuba for half a century after his successful revolution against the Batista dictatorship. In the end, he died peacefully of old age.