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.

15. Now drive up Collins Avenue to the fabulously flamboyant Fontainebleau Hilton Hotel. At the dawn of the Sixties the Fontainebleau was more than just the biggest of the big hotels on fun-in-the-sun, cha-cha-cha Miami Beach. It was where the action was -- where headliners like Frank Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds, and Jackie Gleason could sell out two shows a night for weeks at a time; where Hollywood came to shoot movies like Goldfinger and The Bellboy, where the most beautiful women on Earth were brought every year for the Miss Universe pageant. But while celebrities, spectacle, and publicity were the lifeblood of the Fontainebleau, the giant hotel also had room for important events unsuited to the glare of the spotlight -- notably, "contract negotiations" between Mafia chieftains and representatives of the CIA meant to produce a cooperative final solution to their mutual Fidel Castro problem. According to testimony given to Sen. Frank Church's select committee a decade and a half later, in October 1960 the hotel's faux-French finery served as the backdrop for discussions of a Castro hit among CIA personnel and mobsters Sam Giancana, Santo Trafficante, and Johnny Rosselli, all of whom had been heavily involved in pre-revolutionary Havana's thriving underworld. Witnesses testified that the meeting led to a later operational rendezvous at the Fontainebleau aimed at killing Castro with poison. While carrying deadly Agency-created botulin capsules, Rosselli and CIA contract agent Bob Maheu (a private eye who did most of his work for Howard Hughes) allegedly made contact with a Cuban exile leader outside the Fontainebleau's famed basement-level Boom Boom Room. Castro, of course, dodged the botulin bullet and other CIA schemes involving poisoned cigars, hallucinogenic drugs, chemicals to make his beard fall out, and a Paper-Mate pen equipped with a poison hypodermic needle. But one has to wonder whether those dining that night on the Boom Boom's exotic cuisine didn't feel just a twinge of sympathetic indigestion.

16. From the Fontainebleau it's back to the mainland via the Julia Tuttle Causeway, site of yet another harebrained scheme. Two months before the Bay of Pigs, five soldiers of misfortune -- four Americans and a Cuban -- decided to stage their own freelance invasion of Castro's Cuba. Lacking the naval resources of the CIA, this band of would-be revolutionaries -- led by a male nurse named Kenneth Proctor, who had the words "Cut on dotted line" tattooed around his throat -- set out to steal a seaworthy vessel from the waters near the Tuttle Causeway, which was then under construction. On the night of February 5, 1961, they boarded the tugboat Gil Rocke, held its chief engineer at gunpoint, and set off on what was to be a voyage to Cuba's Escambray Province to hook up with Cuban rebels. Unfortunately for the pirates, their navigational incompetence drastically shortened their voyage. Pursued by a police boat, ducking bullets, and veering wildly around the bay, they wound up hard aground in the shallows off the exclusive Bay Point neighborhood, less than a mile north of where they had originally hijacked the tug.

17. Take Biscayne Boulevard north to 163rd Street and head east toward Sunny Isles. On the north side of the bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway lies Dumfoundling Bay, a special sort of place for Johnny Rosselli, one of the thugs who met with the CIA at the Fontainebleau. Gangster-turned-congressional informant Rosselli laughed when his lawyer told him he should hire a bodyguard. Rosselli's former mob associate and Castro assassination co-conspirator Sam Giancana had just been shot before he could testify before the Senator Church's select committee. Rosselli was scheduled to appear before the same committee in a few days, but he didn't seem concerned that somebody might try to permanently silence him. "If anybody wants to kill me at my age, what difference does it make?" the 69-year-old racketeer observed. He might have had second thoughts if he had known that he would die by asphyxiation while crammed inside a 55-gallon drum headed for the bottom of the Intracoastal. Rosselli's body was found when the drum bobbed back up in Dumfoundling Bay on August 7, 1976 -- a year after his testimony concerning CIA plots to kill Castro and ten days after he had left his sister's house in Plantation, promising he would be back for dinner.

18. For the last stop you'll need to get on the Palmetto heading west from I-95. Your destination: the Opa-locka airport. The former naval air base has a long history of Company operations, beginning in 1954 with the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz. The same two-story former barracks building used as headquarters for that successful cloak-and-dagger excursion was reactivated during preparations for the Bay of Pigs invasion, when Opa-locka served as the point of departure for Brigade 2506 recruits bound for the Agency's secret training base in Guatemala. Arriving at night by a circuitous route in canvas-covered trucks, Brigade members got only a glimpse of the blacked-out airport before being loaded on to C-54 cargo planes with painted-over windows. (Despite the elaborate security precautions, word of suspicious goings-on at Opa-locka got out; the airport's suburban neighbors knew something was up when they were awakened by late-night takeoffs from unlighted runways.) Later, as the invasion itself got under way, the CIA sequestered leaders of the cobbled-together Cuban Revolutionary Council in its Opa-locka facility under armed guard. Issued uniforms and told to be ready for a sudden departure (presumably on a flight to an airstrip near the Bay of Pigs landing area to declare a provisional government), they instead were confined in one small room for three days and given only the barest hints that the "revolution" they were purportedly leading had turned into a disaster.

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