Fidel Castro shares at least one belief with the majority of Americans: He is convinced that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was not the work of a lone gunman, but rather the culmination of a broad conspiracy. According to a recent Gallup poll, 61 percent of Americans believe Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in Dallas 50 years ago.
But Castro suspects that Oswald might not have been involved in the assassination at all. He told me -- to my great surprise -- over lunch three years ago in Havana: “I have reached the conclusion that Oswald could not have been the one who killed Kennedy.” Castro is of course a confident man, but he said this with a degree of surety that was noteworthy.
I was visiting Cuba at Castro’s invitation. I had just written a cover story for the Atlantic about Israel’s threat to strike Iran's nuclear facilities militarily. Castro read the article and sent me a message through the Cuban Interest Section in Washington: He would like me to come to Cuba as soon as possible in order to discuss my findings with him. I obliged.
Kennedy was only a peripheral subject in our discussions. Castro was preoccupied by the threat of nuclear war and proliferation, as one would expect: He was one of the three key players in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis that nearly brought about the destruction of the planet. John F. Kennedy was Castro's adversary; Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, was his patron.
At one point, I mentioned the letter he wrote to Khrushchev at the height of the crisis, in which he asked the Soviets to consider launching a nuclear strike against the U.S. if the Americans attacked Cuba. "That would be the time to think about liquidating such a danger forever through a legal right of self-defense," he wrote. In Havana, I asked him, “At a certain point it seemed logical for you to recommend that the Soviets bomb the U.S. Does what you recommended still seem logical now?"
He answered: "After I've seen what I've seen, and knowing what I know now, it wasn't worth it all.” I expressed relief that Khrushchev ignored his request.
Castro was also deeply concerned about the level of anti-Semitic rhetoric emanating from Tehran and wanted to communicate his displeasure to then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, through an intermediary. (I wrote about Fidel’s views of Iran and Israel here.)
I brought Julia Sweig -- a friend and a pre-eminent expert on Cuba at the Council on Foreign Relations -- with me on the trip. We wound up spending the better part of a week with Castro. (You can read about our journey to watch a dolphin show at the Havana aquarium with Castro and Che Guevara’s daughter here.) By the time of our meetings, Castro was recovering from a serious illness and already semi-retired. His brother Raul was running the country, although I was under the clear impression that nothing important happened in Havana without Fidel's assent.
One afternoon, after a marathon interview session, we gathered for lunch -- Castro, his wife, Dalia, his son Antonio, a couple of aides, Julia, a translator and myself -- and an expansive Castro told stories of the early days of the revolution, and entertained a series of random questions from us. I knew, from Julia, who has studied Castro for years, that JFK was seldom too far from his thoughts, but our discussion of U.S. policy actually began with other presidents. Castro spoke of a biography of Abraham Lincoln he had just read.
“Is Lincoln the most interesting American to you?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “but much more than Washington.”
“Much more than Kennedy?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, but unconvincingly. “Kennedy made many mistakes. He was young and dramatic.” Castro reserved his animus mainly for Robert Kennedy, who was attorney general in his brother’s administration and loathed Castro and his revolution. It was Robert, Castro believes, who was behind U.S. plots to have him assassinated. But he blames JFK for the invasion of the Bay of Pigs by a ragtag Cuban exile army: “Kennedy was humiliated by his defeat at the Bay of Pigs, but all that we did was to protect ourselves.”
Then Castro began talking about JFK’s assassination. “It is a very sad story,” he said. “It was a very sad day when it happened.” He remembered the moment he heard of the shooting. “I won’t forget it. As soon as we heard, we all rushed to the radio to listen.”
Self-preservation was on the Cuban leader's mind in the days after the assassination. He understood that he would be blamed for JFK’s death, especially after it was learned that Oswald had vociferously opposed American policy toward Castro’s Cuba. Castro tried hard to communicate to the Americans that he had nothing to do with JFK's death.
As Philip Shenon reports in his new book, "A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination," Castro even arranged to be interviewed by a Warren Commission staffer on a yacht off Cuba. “Immediately after the assassination, Castro very justifiably worried that he would be blamed, and he was worried that if he were blamed, there would be an American invasion of Cuba,” Shenon told me. But Castro’s denials were credible. Despite the many arguments advanced by conspiracy theorists, he said, “There is no credible evidence that Castro was involved personally in ordering the assassination.”
Whether Castro’s agents or sympathizers encouraged Oswald, on a visit to Mexico, to assassinate JFK is another question, one that Shenon explores in his book. “My question is whether people thinking that they were acting in Castro’s best interest might have provided the motivation,” he said. The second question: Whether Oswald believed that killing Kennedy was what Fidel Castro wanted him to do. “In September of 1963, Castro gives an interview to the AP in Havana in which he seems to suggest that Kennedy’s life is at risk: ‘I know the Americans are trying to kill me and if this continues there will be retribution,’ was the message. This report runs in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and Oswald reads the Times-Picayune avidly. Perhaps Oswald said, ‘Ah ha, I’m going to kill Kennedy.’ ”
This is what might be called the Jodie Foster theory of the Kennedy assassination: Oswald sought to demonstrate his loyalty to the man he admired above all others, Fidel Castro, by killing the president.
Castro told us at lunch -- as he would -- that none of his associates or officials had anything to do with the assassination and that the Cuban embassy in Mexico City, which Oswald had visited, denied him permission to visit Cuba, fearing he was a provocateur.
I asked Castro why he thought Oswald could not have acted alone. He proceeded to tell the table a long and discursive story about an experiment he staged, after the assassination, to see if it were possible for a sniper to shoot Kennedy in the manner the assassination was alleged to have happened. “We had trained our people in the mountains during the war” -- the Cuban revolution -- “on these kind of telescopic sites. So we knew about this kind of shooting. We tried to recreate the circumstances of this shooting, but it wasn’t possible for one man to do. The news I had received is that one man killed Kennedy in his car with a rifle, but I deducted that this story was manufactured to fool people.”
Castro said his suspicions grew especially pronounced after Oswald was killed. “There was the story of Jack Ruby, who was said to be so moved by the death of Kennedy that he decided to shoot Oswald on his own. That was just unbelievable to us.”
I then asked Castro what he believed actually happened. I brought up his friend Oliver Stone, who suggested that it was the Central Intelligence Agency and a group of anti-Castro Cubans (I used the term “anti-you Cubans”) that plotted the assassination.
“Quite possibly,” he said. “This is quite possibly so. There were people in the American government who thought Kennedy was a traitor because he didn’t invade Cuba when he had the chance, when they were asking him. He was never forgiven for that.”
"So that’s what you think might have happened?"
“No doubt about it,” Castro answered.
We talked a bit more about Kennedy and his legacy. Castro told us about his subsequent contact with members of Kennedy’s family, including Maria Shriver. “She’s the one who married Schwarzenegger,” he said. “The world is a very small place.”
We turned to other subjects, but Castro came back to Kennedy once more, the next day, when he said to me, apropos of nothing, “Kennedy was very young.”
I later asked Julia what this might have meant. For Castro, who was a very old man, she said, Kennedy may forever stand for something out of reach. “He’ll never know what would have happened had JFK. lived. He may have reserved for Kennedy in his own mind the possibility of greatness. It’s completely fascinating and frustrating to him.”