20. “A Gun Camouflaged Into a Television Camera”

Title Quote: Fidel Castro's "Black Book"

Another chapter of the Veciana story involving Zabala is the alleged 1971 assassination plot against Castro in Chile. As is the case with other aspects of Veciana’s Maurice Bishop story, his version of events surrounding the alleged scheme evolved significantly over the course of forty years. The truth about the abortive plot against Castro, if it existed in any meaningful form, will probably never be known. Regrettably, the early evidence of the plot comes from an ambiguous source.

Carlos Rivero Collado worked for and against the Castro government as a double, triple or possibly even quadruple agent. Rivero’s father, Andres Rivero Aguero, was elected President of Cuba in 1958 but never took office because of the revolution. The Rivero family fled to America and Carlos joined Brigade 2506. After the failure at the Bay of Pigs, the younger Rivero was imprisoned in Cuba until the release of the brigade members was brokered through the “prisoners for tractors” deal. Rivero worked as an anti-Castro activist throughout the sixties before becoming frustrated with US policy that “ended all aid” to exile groups. He then decided to return to Cuba, ostensibly to carry out his own assassination plot against Castro.1

After contacts with Cubans at the mission to the United Nations, Rivero returned to the island nation in 1974. There, he gave unflattering interviews about the exiles and published a book titled The Nephews of Uncle Sam.2 At a press conference broadcast over Radio Havana in November of 1974, Rivero provided the first version of the Chilean plot. It is unknown whether this information was obtained from his contacts within the anti-Castro community, or if it was provided to him by Castro through the latter’s extensive intelligence network. Either way, it is likely that the information originated with Miami exile community sources since Rivero stated that the plot was “well-known by the counterrevolutionary individuals of the fascist current operating on American territory.”

Rivero said that “the counterrevolution sponsored by the CIA” schemed to assassinate both Castro and Chilean President Salvador Allende in October of 1971. The leader of the operation, according to Rivero, was Jesus Domínguez Benitez, also known by the nickname “the islander.” Domínguez was working with “Cuban counterrevolutionaries” in Caracas who helped him obtain forged documents so that he could pose as a Venezuelan journalist. Armed with the falsified documents, Domínguez made his way to Santiago where he enjoyed the cooperation of individuals in the Chilean military who had been conspiring against Allende since September of 1970.

Castro’s 1975 “Black Book” report to Senator George McGovern filled in some missing details. “The plan would be carried out using a gun camouflaged into a television camera,” Castro’s account maintained. But Domínguez and his unnamed conspirators abandoned the plan when they realized that there were “no guarantees for the preservation of their lives.” Hence, this first incarnation of the 1971 plot as described by Castro and Rivero contained the basic elements of the story Veciana told Fonzi: a gun hidden in a camera; an assassin using forged documents posing as a Venezuelan journalist; the assistance of individuals in the Chilean military; the shooter losing his nerve. However, the differences between what Castro and Rivero first described and what Veciana supposedly told Fonzi are significant. Also noteworthy are versions of the story told by Veciana’s friend Zabala in 1976 and by Veciana himself in 2007. But these variations are nothing compared to the startling version that Veciana would relate in his 2017 autobiography.

Fonzi’s most detailed version of the story comes from his book The Last Investigation. Fonzi writes that Veciana stated that early in 1971 Bishop informed him of Castro’s pending visit and suggested that he organize an assassination plot. Veciana set up headquarters in Caracas Venezuela, a hotbed of anti-Castro sentiment.3 Veciana was able to recruit two (unnamed) skilled terrorists to do the shooting which was indeed to be accomplished by hiding a weapon inside of a television camera. The opportunity for the assassination would come near the end of Castro’s visit during a packed press conference. The shooters would gain access to the event using press credentials obtained from a Venezuelan television station.4

In this version of the story, Bishop once again played a major role. The unseen mentor obtained the weapons and arranged for the assassins to be captured by the Chilean military immediately after the killing. The wily Bishop would then ensure that the killers were safely relocated at a convenient time. The plot failed when the shooters realized at the last minute that they would likely never leave the room alive. The shooters doubted that Veciana would be able to arrange their capture and did not know, of course, about Bishop.5 But it is difficult to understand how the assassins, who allegedly spent months working on the plot, would not immediately question this aspect of the scheme since Castro’s bodyguards were beyond any control.

According to Fonzi, two other plotters that Veciana recruited were just as skeptical about his ability to guarantee the capture of the shooters. They were Luis Posada and Lucilo Pena, both veterans of the war on Castro and known associates of the infamous terrorist Orlando Bosch. Posada had worked for the CIA in the sixties and in 1971 was associated with DISIP, the Venezuelan intelligence and counterintelligence service. Posada and Pena allegedly obtained the necessary credentials to enable the assassins to enter Chile and establish false identities. But unbeknownst to Veciana, the duo hedged their bets by planting phony documents that would implicate two Russian agents in Caracas if the assassins were killed. This complex scheme involved fake surveillance reports, documents and photographs being inserted into the files of the DISIP.6

After the nameless shooters lost their nerve and the plot failed, Bishop learned of the subplot developed by Posada and Pena. Convinced that Veciana was aware of this subplot, Bishop became furious with Veciana who denied any knowledge of the secondary scheme. Even though Bishop subsequently investigated and found that Veciana was telling the truth, a rift had developed that was never fully healed. This resulted in the severance of their relationship two years later (or one year later—it varies in different versions of the story) and the infamous $253,000 payoff at the Flagler Dog Track. Fonzi found the tale of the 1971 assassination scheme compelling and theorized that the initial motive for Veciana to approach him with the Bishop story was his suspicion that Bishop had set him up for his drug conviction both as a warning to keep quiet about their relationship and to prevent Veciana from unauthorized anti-Castro scheming.7

To his credit, Fonzi traveled to Venezuela and interviewed both Posada and Pena. However, both men denied being involved in the 1971 plot.8 One again undaunted by contradictions in the Veciana story, Fonzi went on to include the allegations in his book presumably under the assumption that Posada and Pena were lying based on their nefarious credentials. But that was not the only problem with Veciana’s story regarding the 1971 plot that Fonzi chose to ignore early on.

In August of 1977 while Fonzi was still conducting his investigation, Veciana was interviewed by Vic Walters of WCKT-TV in Miami. Veciana, who often pushed conspiracy theories to a supportive audience, told Walters that “Castro’s planned assassination in Chile had the same pattern of the Kennedy plot. The killer would die and everybody would believe that the killer was the communist.”9 But Veciana’s statement contradicts what he told Fonzi— the sub-plot blaming the Soviets was engineered against Bishop’s wishes, not at his behest. Fonzi and his assistant Gonzales asked Veciana why he had participated in the Walters program. Veciana told them he had “several reasons” but one was to “lure” Bishop so he could reconnect with the unseen mentor. Veciana admitted that another motivation was the $10,000 worth of advertising for his sports promotions that Walters promised him but allegedly reneged on.10

Next up is Zabala’s version of events. According to Zabala’s 1976 statement to the FBI, he was in on the plot with Veciana although the latter curiously never mentioned Zabala’s participation. Zabala identified the assassins as Domínguez (even though he said his first name was Juan) and Marco Rodriguez.11 Zabala brought Domínguez and Rodriguez to Venezuela where they enrolled in courses so they could plausibly function as journalists. The would-be assassins arrived in Chile in July and took over an apartment that Zabala had obtained the previous February which already contained weapons from Bolivia.

According to Zabala it was not Posada (who along with Pena is notably missing from this version of the story) who obtained the necessary documents for the plotters. The fake passports were created by Veciana himself using documents obtained by Zabala from “indigent Venezuelan and Dominican nationals.” These false passports, according to Zabala, were the same ones that federal agents later found in Veciana’s possession after his narcotics arrest. Zabala, who never met Bishop and knew of him only through Veciana’s assertions, also said that Chilean Senator Rene Parades was in on the plot.

In a 2007 interview with Edmundo García on WQBA-AM radio in Miami, Veciana provided new details. Veciana said that ten months before Castro’s visit, Bishop phoned him from Lima, Peru,12 with the news that Castro was to visit Chile and suggested that he organize an assassination plan. Two unnamed men from the Chilean police subsequently visited Veciana to fill him in on the details of the Castro trip. These policemen did not want to be directly involved in the plot and agreed to provide information only. Veciana turned to his old friend Andres Nazario, who was then head of Alpha 66, for help in recruiting action men for the project. After some false starts, Domínguez and Rodríguez were brought into the plan as Zabala had maintained. In this version of the story, the training of the shooters was administered under the auspices of Venevisión, a prominent Venezuelan Television network.

Implausibly, Veciana told García that Domínguez and Rodríguez took over the apartment in Santiago and “started doing interviews with government officials from Chile, as if they were Venezuelan journalists.” Most significantly, Veciana stated that Posada “was not in the picture of the attack on Fidel in Chile. Why? Because I learned to [compartmentalize] my anti-Castro activities.” Most remarkably, after maintaining for decades that he was unaware of the Russian subplot, Veciana told García that “[the subplot] seemed like a good idea to me, [but not] when [the CIA] found out.”13

Veciana reserved the most detailed, fanciful and contradictory version of the 1971 escapade for his autobiography. In this final version of the story the scheme had a new name—Operation Condor. This is a thinly veiled attempt to link it to an existing campaign utilized by several South American countries that was created in November of 1975.14 Some believe that Operation Condor was a CIA-backed campaign of assassination and terror.15 In this retelling, Veciana was not phoned by Bishop but rather met him at the Hotel Bolivar in Lima.16

As in the 2007 version, Veciana phoned Nazario for help in finding suitable assassins for the project. Domínguez and Rodríguez17 were recruited for the plan, but this time the training was not done through the “facilities” of Venevisión as Veciana had told García. A man named Cuzco at the TV station merely referred Veciana to another unnamed individual. This man took on the responsibility of training the assassins and it was he who suggested placing a pistol in a TV camera. Also new to this version of the story is the assistance of the Caracas chapter of Alpha 66 which helped with passports and training. In this retelling, Veciana himself forged Venevisión credentials for the shooters.18

Bishop half-heartedly promised to talk to Chilean state security to ensure that the assassins would not be killed immediately following the event. Shortly after receiving this assurance, two men who said they were anti-communists from the Chilean government approached Veciana. These individuals assessed the chances of the shooters getting out alive to be “very good,” but admitted that there was a possibility that Castro’s bodyguards would kill them. The men conceded that a best-case scenario for Domínguez and Rodríguez involved a prison stretch.19

In this telling of the story, it was not Zabala but Veciana and a husband and wife named Napoles who obtained the apartment for the shooters. Now, Veciana told Bishop that he needed a small pistol, two revolvers and a rifle with a telescopic sight.20 Veciana ordered one of the assassins to rent a room overlooking the Presidential Palace. In case there were problems with the original plan, the rifle was to be used to kill Fidel during one of his anticipated speeches.21 Improbably, the weapons took a convoluted journey from Lima to Arequipa, Peru, where they were transported by Veciana and Napoles to Santiago in Veciana’s embassy car.

In this adaptation, Veciana again reversed himself regarding the Russian subplot secretly implemented by Posada and Pena that infuriated Bishop and led to the dissolution of their relationship. Now, Veciana claimed that he knew Bishop was lying all along about providing safety for the shooters and he decided to take it upon himself to implicate the Soviets in the assassination. Veciana claimed that he sent Domínguez to meet with a Soviet professor in Caracas while a photographer he had hired surreptitiously filmed the pair. Veciana then created a fake dossier containing details of the professor’s espionage activities complete with a fake order from the Kremlin to kill Castro. Veciana retained the dossier in the event that Domínguez and Rodriguez were killed by the Castro bodyguards in which case he could console himself with the knowledge that the Soviets would be blamed.22

The remainder of Veciana’s Trained to Kill account includes dubious details such as the appendectomy he bought for one of the assassins even after he backed out of the plot, and dialog of complete conversations with the plotters. But his most remarkable claim concerned the conversation he had with Bishop following the failure of the plot. The CIA man flew into a rage and cursed the Cubans as “cowards.” Then, the murderous mentor ordered Veciana to kill Domínguez and Rodriguez for their ineptitude and revealed that he had intended for the pair to die all along. Being the humanitarian that he was, Veciana naturally refused this unthinkable request. This denial of Bishop’s murderous order was the reason for the dissolution of the relationship.23 If one is to believe Veciana’s final version of the tale, it would mean the story he told Fonzi was pure poppycock.


Notes

1. “Double Agent Tries to Come in From the Cold.” The San Francisco Examiner, December 31, 1977, 5.
2. “Double Agent Tries to Come in From the Cold.” The San Francisco Examiner, December 31, 1977, 5.
3. How Veciana was able to leave his job in La Paz for extended periods is not explained.
4. Fonzi, The Last Investigation, 137.
5. Fonzi, The Last Investigation, 137.
6. Fonzi, The Last Investigation, 137-138.
7. Fonzi, The Last Investigation, 138-139.
8. HSCA X, paragraphs 155-159.
9. “Statements by Veciana on WCKT-TV (Miami) Week of August 19, 1977.” RIF 180-10097-10138.
10. HSCA Memo from Al Gonzales to Cliff Fenton, August 25, 1977 (retrieved from the website of Larry Hancock).
11. Rodriguez’s name is variously spelled as both “Marco” and “Marcos.”
12. As of 2007, Veciana was not yet maintaining that Phillips was Bishop. In 1971 David Phillips was stationed in Brazil and it is difficult to imagine why he would be phoning from Peru or would meet Veciana in that country as was claimed in yet another version of the story.
13. In yet another version of the plot, Veciana’s friend and member of Menoyo’s “McAllen thirteen” Max Lesnik was the mastermind of the plot and Veciana and everyone else worked for him.
14. Kornbluh, The Pinochet File, 331.
15. Three takes on Condor: The CIA called the operation, “a cooperative effort by the intelligence/security services of several South American countries to combat terrorism and subversion.” In his book The Condor Years, author John Dinges says the project involved “international Dirty Wars by U.S. allies in South America.” In The Pinochet File, CIA critic Peter Kornbluh writes that the project was, “the most sinister state-sponsored terrorist network in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world.” In any case, Operation Condor did not commence until 1975-long after Veciana’s alleged 1971 Castro plot.
16. Veciana with Harrison, Trained to Kill, 158.
17. Veciana wrote that Domínguez’s first name was “Antonio.” However, it is clear he is talking about Jesus Domínguez since he mentions his known nickname “the islander.” Using the name “Antonio” could have been done for legal reasons so Veciana and the publisher could plausibly say they were referring to a different individual than Jesus Domínguez. The only other explanation is that Veciana really did not know Domínguez and those helping him with the book did not care enough to notice the discrepancy.
18. Veciana with Harrison, Trained to Kill, 160-164.
19. Veciana with Harrison, Trained to Kill, 165-166.
20. Veciana opens the chapter with a dramatic description of the rifle which he says was a FAL 7.62 mm.
21. Veciana with Harrison, Trained to Kill, 166-167.
22. Veciana with Harrison, Trained to Kill, 167-168.
23. Veciana with Harrison, Trained to Kill, 172-174.

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