Providence is on his side
Leopoldina Grau Alsina (Pola) received the mission from the CIA to assassinate the Commander in Chief in the 1960s
By LUIS BÁEZ
August 13, 2007
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
Considered one of the main agents of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Cuba, Leopoldina Grau Alsina (Pola), was the person who received the death capsules to assassinate Fidel Castro in the 1960s.
LEOPOLDINA GRAU ALSINA.
Arrested in June 1965, she was sentenced by the courts to 30 years in prison.
In the interrogations she revealed how close they had been to carrying out the assassination of the maximum Cuban leader during a visit that he made to the cafeteria of the Habana Libre Hotel, a fact unknown until that moment by the leadership of the Revolution.
In 1978, in the course of the revolutionary government’s dialogue with the Cuban community abroad, she was released. She served 14 years in prison.
Pola, 63, granted me this interview before traveling to the United States. In it, she narrates not only the famous plan of the capsules to assassinate the Commander in Chief, but other aspects of her activity such as the campaign for the Parental Power. A woman of high stature and aristocratic appearance, she unfolded with ease and responded extensively during the course of the conversation, which was recorded with her authorization.
Why did you conspire against the Revolution?
I was anti-Batista. I worked with Carlos Prío. I also worked with Raúl Rodríguez Santos. That led to my having to go into exile in the United States in 1958. When I arrived in Miami I went to live in the house of José Braulio Alemán (Neneíto).
When Fulgencio Batista escaped, I was ready to return to Cuba, but Prío asked me to stay because a coup was being prepared for January 4. With that objective in mind, Tony Varona was already in Havana and Aureliano Sánchez Arango was traveling in a boat to the island with weapons. But Castro beat us to it.
My daughter was studying. I waited for her to finish the course before returning to Cuba.
When did she return?
At the end of May. The news that arrived in Miami stated that the Revolution was red. What I was able to verify upon my return.
I have never been a communist. I was always against the communists. I never sympathized with the communists. I found out that they had taken away my friends’ property, my family’s property. That made me feel bad. I got into a rush, a delusion to overthrow the government. My son had to take me to a psychiatrist.
He found me delirious with guilt. He cured me, but I made him counter-revolutionary and he ended up leaving for the United States.
Already a master of my way of being and thinking, I wanted to find someone with whom to start working against the situation, since I could not do anything on my own. I contacted the person who represented Tony Varona in Cuba, since he had returned to Miami. I’m talking about the second semester of 1960.
Who was that person?
Albertico Cruz, an old friend from Machado’s time, a real front-runner who was acting as the Rescue Coordinator.
I also made contact with former Colonel Manuel Alvarez Margolles, who was the military head of that organization, and we started working together.
What influence did Margolles have on you?
A lot. I was extraordinarily subdued by his way of being. Honestly, anything he told me to do, I would have done.
Were you given any responsibility?
I was appointed as the female coordinator, with Albertina O’Farrill as the person responsible for the asylum.
At that time Tony Varona asked me to send a trusted person to Miami.
Who was chosen?
Rodolfo León Curbelo.
What year was that?
February 1961. Two months before the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Did you know about the invasion?
Leon Curbelo already had instructions about it.
Who informed him?
Tony Varona. He was a member of the Democratic Revolutionary Council. He sent me a letter giving me instructions. The failure of the invasion came and I had to take Mario del Cañal and others into custody.
In which embassy did you isolate them?
In the Venezuelan Embassy.
Did you promote the campaign for the Parental Power?
I spread the rumor that the communist government would put into effect on January 1, 1962 a law whereby all children between the ages of three and ten would be placed in Children’s Circles and would only be allowed to see their parents twice a month.
Those over ten years of age would be transferred to other circles in the provinces and no minor would be allowed to leave Cuba without special permission.
According to this law, the State would be the absolute owner of the children and the parents would lose their rights over the children and many would be sent to Russia. We came to write and print a false law of the revolutionary government in this sense.
Why did you do this?
As a way to destabilize the government and for the people to begin to lose faith in the Revolution.
Quite a cynical attitude.
We were at war with the government. In war everything is allowed.
Who were your collaborators?
My brother Mongo, some sectors of the church and various friends.
Who was involved in sending the children to Miami?
My brother Mongo and I.
What name did you give to that operation?
Pedro Pan (Peter Pan). A fairy tale in which Pedro Pan took the children on a flight to achieve a better way of life.
When did the operation begin?
In the first months of 1961. My brother Mongo received a letter from the Catholic Welfare Bureau in Miami in which they proposed a plan to get children out of Cuba by providing passports and special visa waivers, taking them on commercial airplanes to the United States.
Who supported her?
Beatriz (Betty) Pérez López, Hilda Feo, Alicia Thomas, Marie Boisssevant, wife of the Dutch ambassador; Father Raúl Martínez, parish priest of Santa María del Rosario Church; Wanda Foschini, assistant to the Italian ambassador; the German ambassador, Karl Von Spretti. In the airlines we had Ulises de la Vega from KLM and Julio Bravo from the Pan American. The person in charge of stamping the false visas in the passports was Borico Padilla. The most important of all the collaborators was Penny Powers.
Who was Penny?
A British intelligence agent who served as our liaison with the British Embassy. Through her we sent and received communications with Monsignor Walsh through the diplomatic bag of the British. It had the code name “Kilito”.
What was the mechanism like?
In order to leave Cuba, children needed passports with valid visas or special visas. Since there were no diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, it was practically impossible to obtain visas.
The State Department contacted my brother Mongo and told him that they had appointed Irish Catholic priest Bryan O. Walsh, director of the Catholic Diocese of Miami, as the coordinator of the program in the United States and he was authorized to sign the visa waivers.
How did the visas enter Cuba?
Through diplomatic contacts.
How did they know their numbers?
We received all the passport and visa numbers from the United States by radio. We would tune the radio on the modulated frequency and listen to a coded song.
If they played Granada, it meant that there was no message, but if we listened to Jascha Heifetz’s violin solo, it meant that a voice was coming up counting from one to ten, then it gave a long series of number combinations that we decoded the same Mongo as I did from a secret book containing the keys. Ivan Ledo, a person we trusted, sometimes intervened in this operation.
With the visas in his possession, what did they do?
Once we received them, we attached them to the passport. This work was done between noon and three o’clock in the afternoon on the porch of the residence of my uncle -Ramón Grau San Martín- on Fifth Avenue and 14th Street, in Miramar.
Through individuals we trusted, we sent the passports to another person in the distribution chain who in turn passed them on to another intermediary. There were five or six steps for distributing the passports. You could only meet one person at each level.
Did the Americans have any records?
When people arrived in Miami they would ask, “did they charge you or didn’t they? If they said that the visa had cost them some money, they would inform us. We confirmed. The person who had applied for the visa the most would never have the problem solved again. We would close the doors on them.
What other contact did you have in the United States?
For the mail, it was Margarita de la Riva, on Calatrava Street and Coral Gables, a suburb of Miami.
Did they receive financial assistance?
Father Walsh sent us funds through money orders that were wrapped in cellophane to look like a package of playing cards.
How long did it last?
Until 1962. When the Rocket Crisis occurred in October, the US government cancelled all flights from Cuba.
How many children were taken out of the country?
How old were they?
All of them under 18 years old.
Did the parents leave with the children?
They were sent out alone.
Most had no relatives in the United States.
Under what protection?
They were placed in foster homes and camps throughout the United States, under the sponsorship of the American Catholic community.
How did the CIA recruit you?
Through Norberto Martinez. Not only me, but also my brother Mongo. This happened in the first weeks of 1962.
Who is this gentleman?
A doctor. He had been the director of the Mazorra hospital in my uncle Grau’s government. He had worked in Pinar del Río during the electoral campaigns. He was married to a relative of Juan Antonio Rubio Padilla, who were like my brothers.
Norberto entered Cuba clandestinely from the United States. He was in trouble. His brother Israel, who was in prison and left recently, told me about Norberto’s presence and the need to hide him. And I hid him.
In what place?
In the back of the house, where Mongo had the dairy business. In that place we had silverware and other valuable belongings that my friends left behind when they left Cuba to be kept until the Revolution fell.
Was Norberto’s mission successful?
It failed. They arrested two of his companions and occupied the weapons they had brought into the country. Then we took him out clandestinely.
What activities did the CIA entrust him with?
To send information.
What kind of information?
All kinds. Especially military and economic. For example, if Cuba bought some buses from England, we would tell the Americans and they would prevent the sale of spare parts.
POLA GRAU AND HER BROTHER RAMÓN, BOTH AGENTS OF THE CIA.
Did you work alone?
I created a network of women in most provinces that collected information. We also hid hunted people, gave them asylum, collected money and transported them in a van. Some did not know of my existence. Much less that I was the boss. I handled myself with the necessary discretion.
Do you remember any names?
Queta Meoqui, María Dolores Núñez, a lady named Aurelia, over the years I have forgotten her last name. A good friend of mine. She was the wife of a real senator from Camagüey. As well as Mario del Cañal.
The person I trusted the most was Maria Horta. She was able to leave the country. I don’t know why State Security didn’t arrest her. When I fell prey, she was here, but she left in a quiet plane. However, other women who were not so important fell.
I recognize that Security is one of the best organized things the government has, but they had a failure there. They didn’t catch the woman who was precisely the key.
Has it ever occurred to you that State Security has intentionally let Maria Horta go?
I never thought about it.
By what name were you known?
My old friends used to call me Polita. The others, Hilda or Isabel.
Did you think that the Americans would achieve their freedom?
At first, yes. Then I became disappointed in them. We served them so well and none of us were taken away.
Were they ungrateful?
I’m sure they were. Although they said that we worked at our own risk.
Did you intervene in the preparation of Fidel Castro’s assassination?
They were instructions I received from the CIA.
How would the attack be carried out?
By poisoning with some aspirin-type pills that they sent me from Miami.
How did they reach you?
Tony Varona sent them to me with Leon Curbelo.
What were they for?
In an ordinary Bayer aspirin knob.
What color were they?
What did he do with them?
I gave the knob to Herminia Suárez to keep it.
Why to her?
Her house was the one that served as contact with the Rescue people and with the group of Carlos Guerrero, an old friend of mine.
What did she do with the “aspirins”?
Cruz, Margolles and I agreed to distribute them among collaborators we had in the gastronomic network. Not much time had passed when a diplomatic friend asked to see me.
From which embassy?
What was his name?
What did he want?
He gave me a letter from Tony Varona and some capsules sent to me by the CIA.
What did the letter say?
He explained that these capsules were more effective for Castro’s assassination and how to use them.
What did they contain?
A deadly poison prepared in the CIA laboratories. They were flavorless liquid capsules. They had an effect on the body between 12 and 24 hours after being swallowed, and they left no trace.
How did you distribute them?
I gave several to Manuel de Jesús Campanioni, who had been a dealer at the San Souci cabaret, and he distributed them to gastronomic workers he trusted.
We were fascinated by the capsules. When we saw that time was passing and nothing was happening, someone – I think it was Matamoros – thought that we could also try to poison some leader, a “peje gordo”, so that Castro would go to the funeral and make an attempt on him. We had people and weapons to carry out the action. We requested authorization from the CIA to apply this variant. They answered in the affirmative.
With this intention, I took a capsule to a young man who worked in the El Recodo cafeteria. But I did not find it. The boy had left the country.
In the midst of all this, Margolles was arrested. They put him on trial and shot him. He was the soul of Rescate. Cruz was the coordinator but the man of action, the military man, was Margolles, and when he died, everything fell apart.
What did he do with the capsules?
I also gave them to Herminia Suárez to hide them in her residence. Until Dr. Carlos Guerrero asked me for them.
What was the final destination of the capsules?
In those years I was working in the cafeteria of the Habana Libre Hotel, one of the places Castro used to visit, a clerk called Santos de la Caridad Pérez Núñez, who received from Campanioni two capsules with the precise instructions to use them against the Prime Minister.
Where did Pérez Núñez take them?
He kept them in his employee locker at the hotel. Later he placed one in the ice cream fridge in the cafeteria.
Where in the fridge?
Inside the middle door, between some tubes that serve as a conduit for Freon gas.
One night in March 1963, Castro arrived at the cafeteria. As was his custom, he asked for a chocolate shake. Santos de la Caridad was working. He went to the freezer to get the capsule and pour it into Castro’s shake.
When he went to remove the capsule, the one that had stuck to the cold, burst. When they told me that for me it was a real miracle. I don’t know if I should talk about this. I’ve never discussed it with anyone.
What haven’t you told anyone?
Well, we had studied all the variations for years. The CIA had even analyzed any unforeseen event. But no one, absolutely no one, thought that the capsule would harden in the cold and that it would burst when you took it.
What I am about to tell you does not diminish the professionalism with which Cuban security worked against us. It is not because I have been defeated that I am now going to deny my enemies.
In prison I learned of other cases, of other attempts at assassination attempts that also failed, sometimes even because of changes in timetables, because of insignificance, because of inspirations from Castro himself that no one has ever been able to explain. Apparently, providence is on his side.