Posted on Saturday, 04.28.12
The Cuban killer who fooled the CIA
By Brian Latell
To CIA, Rolando Cubela seemed the perfect prospect to assassinate Fidel
Castro. Young and fit, a battle-tested conspirator, he had killed in
cold blood before. Unlike most Cuban officials who toiled under the
suspicious gaze of the security services, he was allowed to travel
abroad freely where illicit meetings with his Agency handlers were easy
to arrange. He used a beach house adjacent to one reserved for Fidel at
Varadero, a resort a couple of hours east of Havana. There it could be a
simple hit, on the sand or in the surf where the Cuban leader and his
security would least expect it.
A medical doctor and wounded revolutionary hero, Cubela circulated in
the top ranks of the civilian and military hierarchies. When I met him
in Miami in the summer of 2009 to talk about his exploits, he proudly
showed me the long curving scar that ran from his right shoulder down
the length of his bicep. It was acquired in combat during one of the
watershed battles in the last months of the guerrilla war. He told me
that he had lost faith in Fidel during those days. Declassified CIA
files show that as early as March 1959 — three months after the victory
— Cubela was already confiding in friends a desire to kill Castro.
Cubela was one of the top two leaders of the Revolutionary Student
Directorate, originally a rival of the Castros' 26th of July Movement.
The two forces were integrated after Batista fell, and a few leaders of
the Directorate won important posts in the new regime, though tensions
between the groups would always fester. Cubela served as the
revolution's first university federation president but was never given a
position of greater responsibility or trust, neither commanding troops
nor managing a government agency.
He knew the Castros well, especially Raúl. The brothers respected his
heroic record but were wary of his charm, dashing good looks, and
cavalier nature. When flashing a capricious smile and swaggering, he was
for all appearances an unpredictable rogue and seducer. Cubela was "a
strange man,'' according to his first CIA case officer, temperamental
and often exasperating. Nestor Sanchez, his last handler and the one who
knew him best, remembered he was "moody, sensitive, mercurial.''
An Agency biographic and psychological profile oddly described his
"almost petulant mouth.'' A handwriting analysis characterized him as
"shrewd, clever, a role player, self-centered, and vain.'' It also held
that "he can exercise various deceptive mechanisms in the most adroit
fashion'' and "has not yet found his proper course.'' Some Agency case
officers in the 1960s and 1970s believed graphology could help in agent
assessment. This report turned out to be close to the mark.
Carlos Tepedino, a Cuban emigre jeweler and Cubela's co-conspirator with
CIA, told me in Miami that his lifelong friend never trusted Fidel but
that the Cuban leader "had great sympathy for him.'' Maybe, Tepedino
offered, it was because "Rolando always spoke directly; and Fidel liked
that.'' That may have been so, but modern Cuban history is littered with
disgraced officials more clever than Cubela who talked too candidly to
their commander in chief. Seven years younger than Castro, Cubela was
his favorite in the Student Directorate, but that could have been
because he was the most malleable, the most vulnerable to Fidel's charms
and suasion. To be sure, they shared many unfathomable affinities, not
least, similar violent pathologies.
In October 1956, Cubela carried out one of the most notorious
assassinations in Cuban history in the predawn hours on a quiet Sunday.
A group of police and army officers, some accompanied by their wives,
had been drinking and gambling at the Montmartre, an elegant Havana
nightclub. As they left the club, they were drenched in a merciless
barrage of gunfire. A colonel, Batista's military intelligence chief,
died instantly. A second colonel, his wife, and another woman were
severely wounded. Amid the mayhem, Cubela and his main accomplice fled
through the casino to safety.
In 1963, he was easily the best candidate the Agency ever had to
complete another murder mission, one that had failed many times. The
inspector general's report commissioned by CIA director Richard Helms in
1967, and now fully declassified, cataloged the sordid history of CIA
assassination plotting against Castro.
It took many years, but the truth about Rolando Cubela's true loyalties
gradually emerged. Evidence of his duplicity had been accumulating since
the mid-1960s, and now, with what I have learned from a knowledgeable
Cuban defector and a long-ignored CIA document, it can be stated
unequivocally that he conspired with Fidel.
The first hint came from Castro himself. On May 2, 1966, he met with New
York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews, whose archived notes of their
conversation were not released for public use until a number of years
later. Matthews quoted Fidel this way: "Cubela was a weak, neurotic type
that they nursed along, but he was not getting the jobs he thought he
deserved and he was in bad company.''
Matthews spoke to Interior Minister Ramiro Valdés the next day. Cubela,
the latter said, "had been reduced to supervisor of medical education in
a big Havana hospital, and his friends realized his discontent and
neurotic nature, so he was, in a sense being watched.''
Valdés spoke definitively about Cubela nineteen years later on June 5,
1985, in a meeting with another visiting journalist. "Yes, we had
information about his trip abroad, that he had contacts with the CIA,
that he had a mission to assassinate Fidel. We knew this.'' The
admission, stored at the University of Miami's Cuban Heritage
Collection, seems to have gone unnoticed by earlier researchers.
But how did Valdés know of the assassination plan, and when was it
compromised? Was there an informant close to Cubela? Could the crafty
jeweler Tepedino have been a double agent? Had Cubela himself been
reporting to Cuban intelligence, perhaps from the first meeting with a
CIA officer in Mexico City? In May 1997, Ricardo Alarcón, the
long-serving president of the rubber-stamp Cuban legislative body, the
National Assembly, was the first authoritative source to suggest the
answer. Alarcon was close to Cubela in 1960 when they served together in
the top two positions in the University of Havana student federation.
Author Richard Mahoney asked him about Cubela during a Havana interview.
He said, "Cubela may have been a Castro plant.''
It was in the spring of 2011 when I was finally convinced that Alarcon
had been right. It was then that I met Miguel Mir, another DGI (Cuban
intelligence service) defector living in the United States. He had
joined the DGI in 1973 at the age of sixteen, later serving at different
times on the personal security squads of Fidel, Raúl and Valdés. He had
worked his way up into those absolutely trusted positions, putting him
in daily proximity to the top leadership. From 1986 until 1992, Mir was
a principal bodyguard and security officer for Fidel.
It was during the first year of that assignment, as a DGI lieutenant,
that Mir also served as chief curator for sensitive military and
security archives. His title was Military Historian for Fidel Castro's
Personal Security. Mir told me that in that position, he was custodian
of the regime's records of historical memorabilia related exclusively to
the commander in chief. They were kept in a secret vault at a military
facility near Havana.
He told me, "I read documents there about Rolando Cubela, stating that
he was a double agent.'' They dated from the 1961 to 1963 period. There
were thousands of photos and records about Fidel. The archive, created
by Castro's aide and one-time paramour Cecila Sánchez, memorialized him.
"It was a record of all the attempts against his life,'' Mir told me.
"That's why these were kept and not destroyed.''
I have no reason to doubt what Mir shared with me about this and other
sensitive intelligence matters. What he saw in the archives indicates
that Cubela was dangled in March 1961 in Mexico City and that he went on
to report everything that took place in his meetings with CIA officers
to Fidel and the DGI.
Even more recently I discovered yet more convincing evidence of Cubela's
double game. Carlos Tepedino admitted during an aggressive CIA polygraph
examination in August 1965 that Cubela "had strong connections with
Cuban intelligence and was probably cooperating with them in various
ways.'' He "had daily contact with them . . . worked with them
closely...knew what was going on in intelligence circles.'' Even worse,
Tepedino said that Cubela had told "everyone'' about his CIA
relationships, "everyone knew.'' And Cubela had never tried to organize
"a conspiracy to overthrow Castro and had no plan or followers who would
work with him to achieve that.'' Tepedino said that "a group as such was
nonexistent.'' Cubela had been toying with his CIA handlers all along.
Results of the interrogation were shared with the Church committee — the
U.S. Senate committee that held hearings on the CIA in 1971 — and some
of its contents cited in the committee's final report in April 1976. But
Tepedino's startling admissions attracted no further attention. Until
now they have not been cited as a smoking gun proving Cubela's duplicity
and collaboration with Cuban intelligence, and thus with Fidel himself.
The nine-page polygraph report was not declassified until 1998, and then
filed away at the National Archives amid approximately five million
pages of records relating to the Kennedy assassination. It was
effectively lost until coming to my attention in October 2011.
But why did the CIA officers familiar with the case insist until their
deaths that Cubela had been a reliable secret agent even after the
results of Tepedino's polygraph exam were written up in September 1965?
A copy of that report is known to have been shared with headquarters
Cuba operations officers. Yet Helms and at least two other senior CIA
officials ignored it — or were never informed. They were not queried
about it during testimonies before the Church committee, nor were
several other CIA officers who testified. The polygraph results were not
mentioned in the 1967 inspector general's report on assassination plots.
An intentional cover-up? Quite possibly the information was too
incriminating, too embarrassing for those involved. If it were known
conclusively outside of CIA that Cubela had worked with the DGI all
along, grave concerns about possible Cuban government involvement in
Kennedy's death inevitably would have been raised. In any event, it
appears that Tepedino's reluctant confessions were filed away in 1965
with the hope that they would never have to be explained.