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 was 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. Here is what he told me–to my great surprise–over lunch one day 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 Havana three years ago at Castro’s invitation. I had just written a cover story for The Atlantic about Israel’s threat to strike militarily at Iran’s nuclear facilities. 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 of our discussions. Castro, I found, was preoccupied with the threat of nuclear war and proliferation, as one would expect him to be: He was one of the three key players in an episode, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, that nearly brought about the destruction of the planet. John F. Kennedy was his adversary; Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, was his patron. At one point, I mentioned to him 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 at 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 of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, through an intermediary. (I wrote about Fidel’s views of Iran and Israel here.)
I brought with me on this trip a friend named Julia Sweig, who is a preeminent expert on Cuba at the Council on Foreign Relations. Julia and I wound up spending the better part of a week with Fidel. (You can read about our trip to watch a dolphin show at the Havana aquarium with Fidel and Che Guevara’s daughter here.) By the time of our meetings with Fidel, he was recovering from a serious illness, and he was already semi-retired. His brother, Raul, was running the country, although I was under the clear impression that nothing important happened in Havana without the assent of Raul’s older brother.
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 J.F.K. was seldom too far from his thoughts, but our discussion of U.S. policy actually began with other presidents. Castro spoke about a biography of 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.” Fidel reserved his animus mainly for Robert Kennedy, who was attorney general in his brother’s administration and loathed Fidel and his revolution. It was Robert Kennedy, Fidel believes, who was behind U.S. plots to have him assassinated. But he blames J.F.K. for the invasion, by a ragtag Cuban exile army, of the Bay of Pigs. “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 J.F.K.’s assassination. “It is a very sad story,” he said. “It was a very sad day when it happened.” He said 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.”