CIA Assassin in Castro Plots Dies Safely in Bed
Cold War plot to kill Castro with poison pen disrupted by Cuban intelligence
Rolando Cubela, a Cuban revolutionary who plotted with the CIA to kill Fidel Castro, died in Miami in August, his passing unnoticed in the English-language U.S. press. While the U.K. Telegraph ran a (paywalled) obituary, neither the New York Times or the Washington Post has reported the death of a man whose rise and fall once convulsed the governments of Cuba and the United States and generated headlines worldwide. Rolando Cubela Secades was 89 years old.
I heard about Cubela’s death independently from three friends in Miami who heard the news from his family. He was living in a Miami nursing home until he passed, they said. Cubacute, a Spanish language news site in Miami, quoted Cubela’s sister saying he had died of a respiratory infection.
The son of a tailor from the provincial city of Cardenas, Cubela enrolled as a medical student at the University of Havana where he emerged as a leader of the rebellion against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. In October 1956 he gained notoriety for assassinating Col. Antonio Blanco Rico, a top military officer, in a Havana nightclub. Cubela won glory in December 1958 when his Revolutionary Directorate forces joined with Fidel Castro’s July 26 movement to win the decisive battle of Santa Clara, which toppled the Batista regime and brought Castro to power.
Amid a struggle for control of the University of Havana campus, Cubela was elected president of the student federation, a politically powerful position. At first he was a revolutionary firebrand, celebrating the closing of a pro-American newspaper and the defeat of the CIA-trained brigade at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. But as Cubela became disenchanted with Castro’s hard left turn to one-party socialism, he turned on his former comrades.
In August 1962, he met with two CIA men in a Helsinki nightclub. “He said he was not interested in risking his life for any small undertaking,” the CIA reported “but if that he could be given a really large part to play, he would use himself and several others whom he could rely upon.” Known by the code name AMLASH, Cubela subsequently underwent secret training at a CIA safe house in France.
In a series of meetings in Paris in the fall of 1963, Cubela said he was ready to act against Castro himself. “If you can’t get rid of the rabies,” he told one of his CIA handlers, “just get rid of the dog.” He only needed a weapon. Deputy director Richard Helms approved sending a pen, fitted with a poisoning mechanism, to Cubela. On November 22, 1963, an undercover officer was showing the pen to Cubela about the same time President John F. Kennedy was struck down by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas.
When Cubela learned of JFK’s death, his CIA handler reported that “Cubela was visibly moved and asked ‘Why do such things happen to good people?”
Cubela continued to plot with CIA agents through 1965. Although Helms would always deny the AMLASH operation was an assassination plot, Carl Jenkins, a CIA military trainer, said in a 2021 interview that he supplied the rifle that was sent to Cubela in Cuba.
Thanks to an undercover agent in Miami, Cuba’s intelligence service got wind of Cubela’s intentions and Cubela and a co-conspirator were arrested in February 1966, and charged with plotting with the CIA. Cubela’s trial attracted reporters from all over the world, drawn by a story rife with betrayal and intrigue.
On the stand, Cubela was contrite, admitted that he had planned the “physical elimination” of Castro while personally falling apart.
“I was carrying around a series of preoccupations and contradictions, the product of long struggle after the triumph of the Revolution,” he said, perhaps referring to his recurring nightmares about Col.Blanco Rico, the man he assassinated in 1956. Cubela said he fell into “a disorderly life, a life of parties, cabarets, a completely insane life. I was decomposing and deteriorating.”
Sentenced to death, Cubela was spared when Castro let it be known he didn’t favor the death penalty for his former comrade. “Among revolutionary men,” Castro said, “nothing can replace the bond of the beginning. Cubela’s sentence was commuted to 25 years, which he served in La Cabana, the fortress overlooking Havana Bay while serving as a doctor for his fellow inmates.
Cubela was still in jail a decade later, when U.S. congressional investigators first learned about CIA plots to kill foreign leaders. The disclosure of the AMLASH conspiracy roiled Capitol Hill and the CIA, leading to the creation of a Senate select committee, led by Sen. Frank Church, which investigated the CIA for the first time.
Cubela’s revolutionary background and Castro’s leniency bred suspicion that Cubela had been a double agent informing the Cuba leader of the CIA’s plans to kill him. “Was AMLASH actually a conscious double agent for Castro?” asked a Washington Post report in 1976, “or was he perhaps so transparent and emotionally exploitable that he unwittingly provided an equivalent service?”
Castro denied that Cubela was a double agent and CIA director Helms said the same thing, about the only subject the Latin revolutionary and the urbane spy chief ever agreed on.
Cubela didn’t like to talk about his past, according to Santiago Morales, a fellow prisoner. When Morales came down with tonsillitis, Cubela arranged for an operation and the two men became friends.
“Everybody liked him,” Morales, who now lives in Miami, recalled in an interview. “He had no special privileges. We talked a lot but, as a rule never got into details of our reasons for being there…He told me…about being interviewed by Raul Castro in prison.”
Morales says he got the impression that Cubela believed Raul Castro had intervened with his brother to spare his life.
Cubela and Morales were released in August 1979 along with several thousand political prisoners as part of an agreement between the Carter administration and the Castro government. Cubela moved to Madrid where he married and worked as a cardiologist. In 2005, he participated in two demonstrations organized by the Democracia Ya Platform, one of them in front of the Cuban Embassy in Madrid.
He later moved to Miami to be closer to his children.
“He was done with politics. He didn’t want to go back,” Morales said. “He had a good life. He was a great guy. But he never got rid of his past. Cubela spoke only in passing about his execution of Colonel Rico, Morales said, but it remained painful.
“It’s one thing to kill not knowing who you’re killing, but when there’s a name and a family and a pleasant human being—and they say he [Colonel Rico] was a pleasant human being—it hurts. And it didn’t lead to a happy ending,” Castro, not Cubela, prevailed in the struggle for power.
“In the end, I think he had been beaten by the events,” Morales said. “It was a miracle he was alive.”
Jefferson Morley is the author, most recently, of Scorpion’s Dance: The President, the Spymaster, and Watergate.