The death of a Cuban spymaster
Fidel Castro’s young intelligence officers were skilled and relentless — even when they were turned against their own bosses
Fidel Castro’s young intelligence officers were skilled and relentless — even when they were turned against their own bosses. In the last of three excerpts from his new book ‘Castro’s Secrets: The CIA and Cuba’s Intelligence Machine,’ retired CIA analyst Brian Latell discloses the lethal secret behind the apparently natural death of one of Castro’s senior advisers.
When Florentino Aspillaga defected from Cuba’s General Directorate of Intelligence — the DGI, Fidel Castro’s elite force of spies — it was a double blow for Havana. Not only was he a highly decorated intelligence officer, he was a veteran, a member of one of the first classes to go through the DGI’s intelligence school. He enrolled in November 1962, a few weeks after the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis and several months shy of his 16th birthday. “It was my destiny,’’ Aspillaga told me when we first met, 20 years after his 1987 defection, “to work in intelligence.’’
All of his 50 classmates were precocious too, most also teenagers, 16 to 19 years old. The eldest was 23, and there was another boy who was even younger than he. They were malleable and learned quickly, enthusiastic acolytes in a fledgling intelligence service led by revolutionary stalwarts most of whom were only a few years older.
Ramiro Valdés, the interior minister at the top of their chain of command, was 30 that year. Manuel Piñeiro — Barbaroja, the American-educated “Redbeard’’ — who led the DGI from its inception, was 28. Fidel was 36; Raúl, 31, Che Guevara, 34. Most of the other top-tier figures were also still in their 20s or early 30s, as were the most important DGI operatives abroad. Armando Lopez Orta — the suave “Arquimides’’ — was typical. A friend of Piñeiro, he was 30 when assigned to run the DGI’s large Center in Paris. All were in the vanguard of a generational upheaval that was convulsing Cuban society.
Not surprisingly, Piñeiro’s tough young charges attracted considerable attention. Former Mexican foreign minister and author Jorge Castañeda, who knew Redbeard well, wrote about how they were initially easy to spot. The DGI chief’s “ muchachos were generally young, lower middle-class, or quite poor, uncouth but bright.’’ Castañeda also quoted a Colombian who knew some of them: “Piñeiro taught these boys how to dress and use knives and forks at the table.’’
There were no manicured playing fields in their backgrounds, no tennis whites or prom night formals. Most, including Aspillaga, had scarcely any schooling at all. Too easily dismissed, as some in the CIA did, those Cuban teenagers were rugged true believers in Fidel and his revolution. Thoroughly trained and ready for almost anything, they should not have been underestimated.
Canny and street smart, they had been toughened during the years spent as guerrilla fighters and conspirators in the revolution’s urban underground. Some survived the brutalizing ordeals of Batista’s political prisons. Quite a few were adoring acolytes of Fidel or Raúl, or of Piñeiro or another top lieutenant who treated them like adopted sons. Castañeda wrote that Piñeiro’s boys were “adoring and totally devoted to him.”
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