The news whipped across American intelligence community networks on May 28, 1987. I remember a frenzy of interest, exclamatory phone calls, wonderment. Brigadier General Rafael del Pino – hero in Cuba of the Bay of Pigs, veteran of numerous third world conflicts, confidant of the Castro brothers – had flown into Key West. No such high-ranking military officer had defected before.
He proved an invaluable source of information about the workings of the Cuban regime and its Soviet-supplied military. And his defection inspired several veteran Cuban intelligence officers also to flee. Florentino Aspillaga, who abandoned his counterintelligence post in the former Czechoslovakia a short time later, was among them. Some Washington analysts thought the inner sanctum of the regime was beginning to hemorrhage.
Del Pino provided enormous quantities of valuable insider information. Now, with the availability of his book Inside Castro’s Bunker, many of the remarkable details he presumably shared with his American government debriefers have been put on the public record. Of greatest interest to historians are the former general’s insights into the ‘belligerent mind’ of Fidel Castro. Some of what del Pino experienced in Castro’s presence will probably appear absurd and apocryphal to anyone unfamiliar with the Cuban dictator. But they ring true.
The “bunker” of the book’s title is the one in which Fidel secured himself during the most fateful periods of the October 1962 missile crisis. As tensions mounted, he summoned Soviet military commanders. “I want to see them immediately,” he screamed hysterically, according to the author, who was present. They arrived “within minutes, breathless and sweating.” Fidel had decided to order Cuban anti-aircraft artillery to fire on American aircraft at dawn the next morning, October 27th.
That is known from a variety of other sources. But del Pino adds new details. Fidel “fixed his gaze on me,” and demanded to know, “what chance do our MIG-15s and MIG-19s have of shooting down” American planes? “Not very good,” was del Pino’s response.
“Okay,” Fidel said, “just the same, I am going to order both the anti-aircraft artillery and the pilots to open fire on any Yankee planes they spot.” Even as the American and Soviet leaders were desperately trying to resolve the crisis peacefully, Castro was stoking the fires of war.
Del Pino tells of other revealing meetings with Fidel. “On the morning of November 13, 1983, I received the order to attend a meeting at armed forces headquarters.” In the aftermath of Cuba’s humiliation following the American military intervention in Grenada a few weeks earlier, Castro was obsessed with preparing contingency plans for armed conflict with the Reagan administration.
Defense minister Raul Castro wanted to know if “we could do serious damage to Homestead [air force base] using our MIG-23s?” Del Pino responded affirmatively. But Fidel arrived soon after, and the planning took a more ominous turn: “Plan Hatuey,” an air attack on Miami’s Turkey Point nuclear generating facility.
Del Pino has written about this before but provides interesting new details. Fidel Castro was seriously plotting an attack that might have had calamitous consequences. Del Pino remembers Fidel saying, “If we hit the plant, the nuclear destruction produced in South Florida would be devastating.” Apocalyptic and suicidal to be sure but no more so than some of Castro’s well documented nuclear belligerence during the missile crisis.
Another account of Fidel’s ‘vindictiveness’ has never, to my knowledge, been told before. Del Pino writes that he was summoned again to meet with the commander-in-chief, on September 8, 1977 and ordered to prepare a squadron of MIG-21 fighters “immediately to carry out ‘Operation Pico.’” A Cuban merchant ship returning from Angola had apparently strayed into territorial waters of the Dominican Republic, where it was forced into a local port and detained.
“Fidel was acting like a madman, del Pino writes. “It’s going to cost them plenty!” The first stage of the bizarre plan was for Cuban fighter jets to make low passes over the northern Dominican city of Puerto Plata, “in order to throw the population into a panic and let the Dominican government know we were prepared to go all the way.”
Early the next morning “we were in the air,” del Pino writes, “and carried out the mission exactly as planned. We made some supersonic rooftop passes over the city.” Del Pino was later debriefed by Fidel, and told to be ready to carry out new, more aggressive sorties if the Cuban ship was not released.
“I was ordered . . . to prepare aircraft, arming them with 500 kilogram demolition and fragmentation bombs, and to be ready to continue with ‘Operation Pico.’” Fortunately, according to the author, Dominican authorities released the Cuban ship and no further actions were taken.
Former General del Pino’s unfortunately obscure book is dotted with colorful recollections like these. The antipathy he felt toward the Cuban dictator that caused him to defect is resoundingly made clear in this interesting memoir.
Brian Latell, Ph.D., is a distinguished Cuba analyst and a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami. He has informed American and foreign presidents, cabinet members, and legislators about Cuba and Fidel Castro in a number of capacities. He served in the early 1990s as National Intelligence Officer for Latin America at the Central Intelligence Agency and taught at Georgetown University for a quarter century. Dr. Latell has written, lectured, and consulted extensively. He is the author of the book, After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader. His book, Castro’s Secrets: The CIA and Cuba’s Intelligence Machine, was published in April 2012 by Palgrave-Macmillan. Dr. Latell is now a senior research associate at the Institute for Cuban & Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.