JFK & The Cuban Connection
Havana's Spies Spill the Beans at Top-Level Conference!
by Dick Russell High Times - March 1996
On a full moon early last December, a select group of around 25 people from Cuba and the USA converged in the Bahamas for an historic gathering. Wayne Smith, former head of the US diplomatic mission to Cuba and today a supporter of improved US-Cuban relations at Washington's Center for International Policy, worked for two years to arrange this first-ever meeting between Cuban officials and US researchers of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The Assassination Records Review Board (AARB), an official body in Washington established to review all documents related to the assassination for public release, also sent a representative.
Before now, the information contained in Cuban files on events leading to the tragedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963 had remained secret. But the Havana delegation to the conference included General Fabian Escalante, former chief of Cuba's G-2 intelligence agency, and his lifelong assistant, Arturo Rodriguez. Also on hand was Carlos Lechuga, Cuba's ambassador to the United Nations in 1963--with whom, it is now revealed, the Kennedy Administration had been quietly working towards an accommodation between the USA and the island nation 90 miles off the Florida coast.
Gen. Escalante, as director of Havana's Institute for National Security Studies, has headed an investigation into the JFK case since 1992. Escalante remains a close associate of Premier Fidel Castro, so clearly his project has the highest sanction. He promised a sneak preview of a new book on the assassination, authored by himself and Arturo Rodriguez, to be published by Ocean Press later this year.
Portents were in the air from the outset. The road to the Nassau conference site was called John F. Kennedy Drive. The hotel bartender's name turned out to be Oswald. And it became clear that the Cubans had definitely come with a point of view.
"We believe Kennedy became an obstacle to US military aggression against Cuba," Escalante put it. "There were two objectives to the plot--to kill Kennedy and to blame Cuba for the crime."
The Miami Puzzle
The Cubans backed up their claim with new evidence linking right-wing Cuban exiles, renegade CIA officials, organized-crime figures and possibly wealthy Texans to the conspiracy--a complex scenario in which accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was set up as (in his own words) a "patsy" whose history would implicate Havana and its Soviet allies. After the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis brought the USA and USSR to the brink of nuclear war, Kennedy's agreement with the Soviets officially barred further US attempts to overthrow Castro or invade Cuba, and US-Soviet relations began to thaw. Even though the CIA continued to plot Castro's assassination, the Kennedy Administration quietly began seeking a rapprochement with Cuba, says Escalante. But before long, wind of the President's efforts got to the CIA and its Miami-based Cuban-exile minions.
Exile militant Felipe Vidal Santiago, arrested on a 1964 sabotage mission into Cuba, told his captors that in Washington, DC in December 1962 he met with a lawyer/lobbyist connected to a "Citizen's Committee to Free Cuba." This lawyer informed Vidal Santiago of a conversation he'd had with Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, soon to be US ambassador to South Vietnam, who said he'd heard from Kennedy aide Walt Rostow of "a plan to open a dialogue with Cuba."
"Vidal told us he was very surprised," says Escalante. In fact Vidal, infuriated and betrayed, had alerted his exile cohorts, as well as a CIA contact, Colonel William Bishop. "It was almost like a bomb, an intentional message against Kennedy." Vidal was also an information conduit for General Edwin Walker, the ultra-right Texan paramilitary leader at whom Oswald had allegedly taken a shot in April 1963. And FBI files call Vidal a "very close friend" of Miami mobster John Martino, who intimated to family and associates that he had foreknowledge of the JFK assassination.
Then in April of 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald--only nine months back from a two-and-a-half year "defection" to the Soviet Union--moved to New Orleans and set up a one-man chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. By this time, the Kennedy Administration was clamping down on CIA-backed exile raids against Cuba, and the exiles were publicly accusing Kennedy of betraying their cause.
"By mid-1963, we had infiltrated a special group of exiles working with the CIA," says Escalante. "A CIA official came to a safe-house in Miami and said to a group of Cuban exiles, `You must eliminate Kennedy.'"
The Cubans did not know this CIA man's name, but they knew plenty about David Atlee Phillips, who was running the CIA's covert operations out of its Mexico City station. It has long been speculated that Phillips was really "Maurice Bishop", who was identified by exile leader Antonio Veciana, speaking to Congressional investigators in 1978, as his CIA case officer, involved in numerous assassination plots against Castro.
Veciana claimed "Bishop" introduced him to Oswald at a meeting in Dallas in September 1963. Although Phillips' physical description was a near-match for that provided by Veciana, the exile would never positively identify Phillips as "Bishop". Phillips, who died in 1988, denied using the alias or working with Veciana.
Now the Cubans say they have evidence that "Bishop" was indeed Phillips. "In 1979, Veciana told one of our informants in Miami he had been pushed to identify the CIA officer by the House Select Committee on Assassinations and had given a fake name, but that it was David Phillips," says Escalante. "A close friend of Veciana also told us Phillips had threatened Veciana so he would not reveal his true identity." Further corroboration came from another informant to the Cuban government who had delivered a written message from Phillips to Veciana in 1959, when he was still in Havana.
One of Phillips' close associates was a Miami-based CIA officer named David Morales. Escalante says Morales was identified by Rolando Cubela as "one of the officials" who spoke with him in Paris in September 1963 about assassinating Castro. Cubela, a Cuban official who was really a double-agent code-named AM/LASH by the CIA, was in Paris picking up his weaponry--a pen containing lethal poison--to kill Castro at the very moment of JFK's assassination. In the aftermath of the JFK assassination, his mission to assassinate Castro was scotched. Cubela, a crony of top Miami mobster Santos Trafficante, was finally arrested in Cuba in 1966.
Trafficante was one of several gangsters hired by the CIA to recruit Cuban exiles into assassination plots against Castro. His Havana casino operations had been shut down by Castro when the Revolution took power in 1959, and he was briefly imprisoned; Rolando Cubela is believed have helped negotiate his release. Upon arriving in Miami in 1960, Trafficante found himself among the top targets of US Attorney General Robert Kennedy--the president's kid brother.
Mob Lawyer, a recent book by the late Trafficante's attorney, Frank Ragano, contains allegations that the mobster worked with New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello and Teamsters' Union leader Jimmy Hoffa--both targets of Robert Kennedy's far-reaching corruption probes--in helping plan the JFK assassination. New information released at the Nassau conference supports these allegations.
Havana's Missing Pieces
The Cubans' information comes from Tony Cuesta, a Cuban exile leader taken prisoner in a 1966 raid. "Cuesta was blinded in an explosion and spent most of his time in the hospital," Escalante recalls. In 1978, he was among a group of imprisoned exiles released through a deal with the Carter Administration. "A few days before he was to leave," continues Escalante, "I had several conversations with him, and he wrote up a declaration. Cuesta volunteered, `I want to tell you something very important, but I do not want to make this public--because I am returning to my family in Miami, and this could be very dangerous.' I think this was a little bit of thanks on his part for the medical care he received." Cuestra died in 1994.
In his written statement, Tony Cuesta named two other exiles involved in the JFK assassination, Eladio del Valle and Herminio Diaz Garcia. "We asked, but he did not want to be questioned further about this," Escalante says.
Eladio Del Valle was murdered in Miami in 1967, on the same night that David Ferrie--Carlos Marcello's personal pilot, and an associate of both del Valle and Oswald--supposedly committed suicide in New Orleans, hours before he was to be questioned by District Attorney Jim Garrison about the assassination. According to Escalante, del Valle served in both military intelligence and the judicial police in the regime of Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator ousted by Castro. "Del Valle was in charge of narcotics in a town south of Havana, where he had business dealings with Santos Trafficante," Escalante's Cuban files show. After Castro's triumph, del Valle fled to Miami and formed the "Anti-Communist Cuban Liberation Movement."
"We managed to penetrate this organization," reveals Escalante. "We came to know a lot of plans for exile invasions, secret overflights to provide arms to internal rebel groups. David Ferrie was the pilot for some of these flights. One of our agents talked on many occasions with del Valle, who in 1962 told him that Kennedy must be killed to solve the Cuban problem."
Herminio Diaz Garcia died in Cuba during the same 1966 raid in which Tony Cuesta was arrested. Escalante says Diaz, "a hit man from the '40s, part of a gangster group in Cuba, "had been recruited in 1958 by Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo for an assassination plot against Costa Rica's President Jose Figueres. "They were arrested in Costa Rica and expelled to Mexico," says Escalante. But Diaz Garcia killed several people in the 1950s. In 1960, he was Santos Trafficante's bodyguard. He left Cuba by the end of 1962 via Mexico. We knew he was in Miami, working with Trafficante and Tony Varona"--another exile involved in CIA/Mafia plots against Castro. But until Cuesta's revelation, the Cubans had never suspected Diaz Garcia of involvement in the JFK kill.
Further substantiation was also provided this writer by Richard Case Nagell, a CIA/KGB double agent whose body was found last November 1 in Los Angeles--just as the AARB was attempting to reach him for an interview. I interviewed Nagell extensively for my book, The Man Who Knew Too Much (Carroll & Graff, NY 1992), in which he recounts penetrating several plans to assassinate Kennedy, all involving embittered Cuban exiles, during the 1962-3 period. Nagell would never reveal the identity of two exiles he claimed deceived Oswald into believing they were Castro operatives. But he did say that del Valle was in touch with one of the Oswald-linked exiles. And every time I probed him, Nagell always steered the conversation to Tony Cuesta--the man who, according to the Cubans, knew the answer to my question.
Havana-Washington Shadow Play
In September 1963, just two months before the assassination, Cuban UN Ambassador Lechuga was contacted by one of Kennedy's trusted UN delegates, William Attwood. "He told me this was a private interview," Lechuga recalls. "We spoke on three occasions, trying to break the ice between our countries. Attwood said we should begin a dialogue. He said the idea came from Kennedy, but that we should keep the conversations secret because if the Republicans found out there would be a huge scandal in Congress."
Lechuga says he was surprised by the American approach, because exile raids and efforts to destabilize Cuba were continuing. Adds Escalante: "There was a double track happening. One path was continued sabotage and isolation of Cuba, to force us to sit down at the negotiating table under very disadvantageous conditions. So the Cuban government took its time to deeply study Attwood's proposal. In our view, one strategy was coming from the Administration and another from the CIA, the exiles and the Mafia." The Cubans are convinced that word about the secret talks leaked out, and sparked a conspiracy to kill the American President and invade Cuba.
In September 1963, Rolando Cubela travelled to Brazil to meet with CIA contacts about killing Castro. Simultaneously, an American journalist, Daniel Harker, interviewed Castro at a gathering inside Havana's Brazilian Embassy. Harker's article quoted Castro saying: "United States leaders should think that if they assist in terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe." The story, widely disseminated in the US press, would be used by right-wing elements as evidence that Cuba was behind the assassination.
But Escalante says the article was a distortion. He says what Castro really stated was: "American leaders should be careful because [the anti-Castro operations] were something nobody could control." He was not threatening JFK, but warning him.
In late September that year, Oswald left New Orleans for Mexico City. On the way, he showed up in Dallas at the door of Cuban exile Silvia Odio, in the company of two Latins who identified themselves as "Angel" and "Leopoldo," who told Odio they were soliciting funds for the Revolutionary Junta (JURE), Odio's exile organization. After the visit, according to Odio, "Leopoldo" telephoned her and described their US companion as "kind of loco. He could go either way. He could do anything--like getting underground in Cuba, like killing Castro. He says we should have shot President Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs."
The Cuban hypothesis is that the Odio incident had a dual design. JURE was run by Manuel Ray, a moderate exile leader opposed by the CIA but in close touch with the Kennedy Administration. But the Cubans say "Angel" and "Leopoldo" were agents from the right-wing exile group Revolutionary Student Directorate (DRE), which operated under the CIA's direction. It was the DRE's propagandists who actively sought to tie Oswald to Cuba immediately after the assassination. Escalante offered a possible identification of "Angel" as DRE leader Isidro Borja, who closely resembled a man seen standing behind Oswald in a famous photo, helping him pass out "Fair Play for Cuba" leaflets in New Orleans.
Then on September 27, 1963, Oswald showed up three times at the Cuban consulate in Mexico City, seeking an immediate visa to visit the island. He also visited the Soviet embassy on the same day. (Some researchers believe this could have been an imposter "Oswald", but the Cubans say it was the real Oswald.) Oswald's request was turned down. He angrily stormed out, and shortly returned to Dallas. Says Escalante: "We believe Oswald was acting according to plan--to travel to Cuba for a few days, in order to appear as a Cuban agent after the assassination. Escalante further claims that when that plan failed, the CIA's David Phillips arranged to have letters addressed to Oswald from Havana. On the final day of the 1995 Nassau conference, a slide-show depicted five letters addressed to Oswald from Cuba; two dated before the assassination, three immediately after. One of these letters, intercepted by Cuban authorities, was dated November 14, 1963 and addressed to "Lee Harvey Oswald, Royalton Hotel, Miami" (where Oswald never, in fact, stayed). It was signed "Jorge". According to Arturo Rodriguez, "The text was of a conspiratorial character. It was written on the same kind of typewriter as the two others, which the FBI has concluded were composed on the same machine. We think all these letters were written by the same person--as part of a plan to blame our country for the assassination."
Felipe Vidal Santiago told Cuban intelligence that on the weekend before the assassination, he was invited to a meeting in Dallas by the CIA's Colonel William Bishop. "It was supposed to be a meeting with a few wealthy people to talk about financing anti-Castro operations," says Escalante. Bishop left on his own "for interviews" numerous times during their stay in Dallas. After approximately four days they returned to Miami.
Not long before his death in 1993, Col. Bishop confirmed to this writer that he had knowledge of the JFK plot. The Cubans indicate that the Vidal-Bishop Dallas trip concerned plans for re-taking the island once Castro's people had been implicated in the assassination.
Escalante surmises: "Oswald was an intelligence agent of the US--CIA, FBI, military, or all of these, we don't know. He was manipulated, told he was penetrating a group of Cuban agents that wanted to kill Kennedy. But from the very beginning, he was to be the element to blame Cuba."
"Not less than 15 persons took part in the assassination," Escalante theorizes. "At the same time, knowing a little about CIA operations, we see how they used the principle of decentralized operations--independent parties with a specific role, to guarantee compartmentalization and to keep it simple."
The Nassau gathering marked the inception of what is anticipated will be an ongoing exchange between Cuban and US researchers into the assassination. The hope is that access to Cuban documentation might be provided in the future--such as Tony Cuesta's written "declaration". The fact that former Cuban intelligence officials are willing to share their knowledge signifies a momentous watershed in the ongoing effort to unravel the haunting mystery of who really killed JFK.
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