WASHINGTON -- Fifty years have passed and, just as we might indulge ourselves in the idea that we have gotten over John F. Kennedy's death, here it is again, all over television and in the newspapers. And suddenly his whirlwind administration does seem, again, like a young love tragically torn from us.
We go over and over the awfulness of his death. We see the pictures from Dallas and wonder where such promise would have led our nation. We hear and read how our journalists brilliantly covered the assassination, more like a Balkans murder than anything American.
And yet, and yet ... I absorb it all again, and one question keeps assaulting my limited mind: Was Cuban President Fidel Castro involved in the assassination? Do we have any further information on this question today than we had in those 50 yesteryears?
It is not a foolish question. For many Latin Americanists -- as I was at the time, covering the hemisphere for the Chicago Daily News -- the idea that Castro at least took part in the assassination is one that will not die. In my five interviews with Castro in those years, he always praised the Kennedys, but praise from Fidel was always more like a sweet puppy trained to kill on orders. Praise from him was dangerous.
Actually, it is well-known that the Kennedy brothers -- in particular Bobby, from his perch at the Justice Department -- were avid to assassinate Castro after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and after Castro urged Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviets to attack the U.S. with Cuban-based nuclear missiles in the Missile Crisis of 1962.
The Kennedy brothers and the CIA, with its rich soil of angry Cuban exiles in Florida, tried any number of absurd attempts to kill Castro, including a poisoned wet suit, a poison pen, and the spreading of the story in Cuba that Castro was the Antichrist and the Second Coming was imminent. They had now-well-documented meetings about an assassination with the Mafia, in particular with mobster Johnny Roselli and lead mobster Sam Giancana.
One of the best sources on this crucial period is Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s "Bobby Kennedy and His Times," which goes into the most damning detail and depth on how the Mafiosi were going back and forth to Cuba again, how they were trying to regain the rich casinos that the "revolucion" had taken from them, and how they were attempting to ingratiate themselves to Fidel, while at the same time talking assassination with Bobby and the CIA in Miami.
After Kennedy's death, it came out that no one less than the new president, Lyndon Johnson, told journalist Howard K. Smith, "Well, Kennedy tried to get Fidel Castro, but Fidel Castro got Kennedy first." And Roselli told investigative columnist Jack Anderson that "Fidel Castro was directly involved." Roselli himself was killed by other Mafiosi about this time, his body found in a Miami bay.
Most interesting, one of the best biographers and analysts of Castro and Cuba, Dr. Brian Latell, for several decades the CIA's top man on the area, recently came up with new information about Castro's possible involvement. This fascinating story is revealed in his new book, "Castro's Secrets: The CIA and Cuba's Intelligence Machine."
On the day that Kennedy was assassinated, and only on this day, Latell writes, quoting an interview with Florentino Aspillaga, one of the highest-level Cuban intelligence defectors ever, Aspillaga's work was changed. At that time he was monitoring radio communications between CIA agents and infiltration teams, and, out of the blue, he was instructed to redirect his antennas from Langley and Miami toward Texas, to listen to ham radio and other transmissions. If something important occurred, he was to inform his superiors immediately!
Aspillaga's conclusion, Latell summed up, was that "They knew Kennedy would be killed ... Fidel knew."
Latell has also discovered, through the research he is now doing at the University of Miami, that on the very day of the assassination, a high-level intelligence representative of Bobby Kennedy, American aristocrat and CIA officer Desmond FitzGerald, was meeting in Paris with Rolando Cubela, a Cuban exile who apparently wanted the U.S. to back him in killing Castro.
The assassination, of course, stopped this strange union, as did the fact that Cubela turned out to be a Cuban spy anyway. That was the way it all worked in those days.
Most analysts, as does Latell, say that the whole story will not be told until the files and archives are opened in Havana, as they were in Moscow briefly after the fall of Soviet communism in 1991. Only God knows when and if that will happen, but there are lessons to be gained in the meanwhile.
As cosmopolitan and charming as JFK and his group were, they were foolish and reckless to take the risks they did with a cunning leader like Castro. As we can now see, they put the entire nation at risk. Leaders in the future might learn from these mistakes and limit their interference with leaders they think of as inferior -- until those "inferior" leaders turn around and snarl.
The story of Cuba from 1898 onward has been a disaster in terms of American interventionism, and in truth, we are also mourning it as we mourn the young prince of long ago.