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HAVANA (Reuters) - The closest the CIA came to killing Cuba's Fidel Castro was a 1963 attempt with a poison pill delivered by American mobsters that was to be slipped into a chocolate milkshake, a former Cuban intelligence chief said.
But the capsule stuck to the freezer where it was hidden in the cafeteria of the Havana Libre (ex Hilton) Hotel and ripped open when the would-be assassin waiter went to get the poison.
"That moment was the closest the CIA got to assassinating Fidel," retired state security general Fabian Escalante told Reuters in an interview this week.
Castro, who seized power in a 1959 revolution that turned Cuba into a communist state 90 miles away from the United States, has survived hundreds of attempts on his life by his enemies, from car ambushes to grenade attacks in baseball stadiums, Escalante said.
Some of the most imaginative cloak-and-dagger plots were the brainchild of the Central Intelligence Agency, he said.
They included poisoned cigars, an exploding shell meant to be planted in his favorite underwater fishing location and a scuba diving wet suit tainted with toxins.
Among early attempts devised by the CIA to discredit Castro was a plan to place chemical powders on his boots that would cause his beard to fall out when he was in New York to speak at the United Nations in 1960.
When that failed, the CIA planned to slip him a box of cigars tainted with LSD so that he would burst into fits of laughter during a television interview, said Escalante, author of a book that documents 167 plots against Castro.
But it was the CIA's plans to poison Castro with botulinum toxins in the early 1960s that came closest to succeeding.
The agency acknowledged last week for the first time that the plot to assassinate Castro was personally approved by the Kennedy administration's CIA director Allen Dulles.
The CIA declassified nearly 700 pages of secret records detailing some of its illegal acts during 25 years of overseas assassination attempts and domestic spying.
The agency's so-called "Family Jewels" describe the initial efforts to get rid of Castro by using a go-between to convince two top mobsters, Salvatore Giancana and Santos Trafficant, the head of the Mafia's Cuban casino operations, to assassinate Castro. Giancana suggested poisoning him.
Six potent pills were provided in 1961 to Juan Orta, identified as a Cuban official who had been receiving kickback payments from gambling interests, who still had access to Castro and was in a financial bind. But Orta got cold feet.
Escalante said more poisoned pills, one batch disguised in a bottle of Bayer aspirins, were delivered through the Mafia to an opposition group that almost succeeded in March 1963 when Castro went for a milkshake.
Much of the information declassified by the CIA had been released in congressional investigations in the past.
Escalante, who detailed the poison pill plot in his book "The Secret War" published in 2005, said the agency was trying to "purify" itself but continues its skulduggery today.
While there is no evidence that the CIA has plotted to kill Castro since the Ford Administration banned assassination plots against foreign leaders in 1976, Escalante sees the hand of the CIA in more recent attempts by anti-Castro militants trained by the agency for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961.
Despite U.S. hostility, Castro remains Cuban leader at age 80, although bowel surgery forced him to hand over formal power to his brother Raul last July.
Escalante said effective Cuban security measures around Castro and the Cuban leader's intuitive "nose" for danger has kept him alive.
To this day, few Cubans know Castro's whereabouts, whether he is in a hospital or at home in a residential compound in western Havana called "Point Zero."