The Fidel Fixation

Exactly 36 years ago the Central Intelligence Agency blew it at the Bay of Pigs. For an encore it created the biggest commando operation in U.S. history -- right here in South Florida. It's time for a sentimental tour.

To get to the building the CIA used as the nerve center of its secret war against Fidel Castro, you head south on the Florida Turnpike to the Coral Reef Drive exit, just as if you were taking the kids to Metrozoo. Then you go west on Coral Reef about a mile, past the antenna fields of a Coast Guard communications station and the cookie-cutter townhouses of a development called Deerwood before you come to the zoo's main entrance.

Look carefully for the very next opportunity to turn left, onto a nameless road reached through an open gate marked with the unexplained acronym: RTAO-USAF. Ignoring the small, anonymous office buildings that appear from nowhere on your right, you follow the battered pavement south, toward a far more imposing landmark -- a bizarre, 200-foot-tall concrete monolith that looms above the hurricane-smashed pineland like a giant broken tooth, crowned with mysterious antennae. Your destination stands a few hundred yards from the base of this blimp-hangar remnant: a rambling, two-story wood-frame structure, obviously long abandoned, plastered with government-issue No Trespassing signs.

Fronted by tall white columns and topped with a gabled roof, plywood covering its windows and paint peeling from its clapboard exterior, it looks like nothing so much as the Fraternity House of Usher. More than twenty years after the last of the Agency's spooks cleared out, their old headquarters remains profoundly spooky, the passage of time having done little to dissipate the air of skullduggery that hangs over the place, hinting at ominous secrets buried just below its rotting floorboards.

Make no mistake about it -- such secrets are there in spirit if not in material fact. After all, this was the spy base the Company code-named JM/WAVE, the largest CIA field station in the world at the height of the Cold War and the dark heart of a thousand cloak-and-dagger conspiracies aimed at the communist menace to the south. This was the home office for Operation Mongoose, the global campaign of espionage, sabotage, propaganda, and assassination that the Kennedy administration launched in the wake of the Agency disaster at the Bay of Pigs, which marks its 36th anniversary today, Thursday, April 17.

Where one might expect a retreat from the covert arena after such a public embarrassment, Mongoose brazenly charged ahead. Involving thousands of people, annual budgets in excess of $50 million, more than 50 front companies in Dade County alone, and a secret navy that was estimated to be the third-largest military fleet in the hemisphere, the operation made the Company one of Florida's biggest employers. It also put an indelible stamp on the social and political landscape.

Mongoose was the culmination of a tragicomic drama that, for the space of a few years, put Dade County on the front lines of the Cold War and made Kennedy-era Miami -- like the Berlin of the Fifties or the Saigon of the late Sixties -- an international focus of intrigue and espionage. It began, as so many things have in Miami, with the rise of Fidel Castro's dictatorship, and it ended more with a whimper than a bang, overshadowed by the war in Southeast Asia.

In between, however, it featured a bumbling conspiracy between the CIA and the Mafia to poison Fidel, the even more ill-starred Bay of Pigs invasion, the sacrifice of exile volunteers on commando missions of questionable import, regular violations of American and international law, and some of the looniest paramilitary capers ever mounted.

The characters involved -- Fidel himself, the Kennedy brothers, E. Howard Hunt, Johnny Rosselli, Santo Trafficante, Tony Varona, Rolando Martinez, Ted Shackley, Orlando Bosch, Gerry Patrick Hemming, and thousands of others -- played out larger-than-life and occasionally ridiculous roles, creating a kind of mythic background for modern-day, mondo-bizarro South Florida. Then (with the notable and lamentable exception of Castro), they vanished from the stage.

The Miami they left behind was a very different place from the sleepy Southern town of 1960. Thanks in no small part to the weapons and skills provided by the Company, Miami became a far more dangerous place. Men schooled in gun running, violence, and the tradecraft of espionage found high-paying employment during the cocaine boom of the Seventies and Eighties; and exile political factions began making their points not just rhetorically on talk-radio programs, but with CIA-surplus plastic explosives as well.

The Agency's legacy wasn't entirely negative, though. Mongoose pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy at a critical period in Dade's development. The CIA's influence over the transformation of Greater Miami into a center of international business and finance can probably never be determined, but it's clear that the Company and its numerous subsidiaries had a stake in almost every type of commercial endeavor: real estate, banking, shipping, air transport -- you name it. And JM/WAVE's reach was worldwide, coordinating everything from sabotage of Cuban-bought buses in West Germany to disruptions of student meetings in Finland, collecting and collating intelligence on Cuban activities from Japan to the Congo. It was, in a sense, a true forerunner of the freebooting information age corporations that have found Miami so conducive to their prosperity.

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