The CIA has made 638 attempts on Fidel Castro's life since the beginning of the Cuban revolution. One entailed poisoning a chocolate milkshake with a cyanide pellet.

The milkshake attempt on the Cuban leader's life is but one of the incidents that author Michael Hoerger reported in a presentation called "Edible Secrets: A Food Tour of Classified U.S. History" at Boxcar Books in Bloomington on March 7. The basis of the presentation is a book by the same name that Hoerger wrote with Mia Partlow (Bloomington, Ind.: Microcosm Press, 2010, 127 pp., $10, ediblesecrets@gmail.com).

Hoerger based his presentation and book on a collection of what he called "super top secret" U.S. government memos that the government declassified some "30, 40, 50 years later and hid away in some presidential archives somewhere," as Hoerger put it. During the presentation he showed slides from the book.

Not only did the government release some of the documents after time had elapsed, but some came from people who filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for specific information.

The FOIA process is slow and cumbersome, Hoerger said. Referring to WikiLeaks's publication of classified documents, he added, "Computer hackers can speed up the whole process, as we've been seeing lately, by dumping documents on a website and letting people figure it out later."

According to Hoerger, there are "millions and millions and millions of declassified documents."

***

Hoerger began his presentation with the story of Castro's poisoned milkshake.
"The CIA ... tried various methods to kill Castro -- sharpshooting, poison, ambush, stabbing, melting him alive in a vat of molten iron when visiting a factory."
Ten years ago he was working on a project that required reading declassified documents and started spotting the mention of food items, which seemed tangential at first. Gradually, as he collected the documents, Hoerger began to recognize that the foods were "important actors" in the events described in the documents and were connected to larger issues. From there came the book.

He stumbled upon the U.S. government's official transcript of a top secret meeting between Castro and Peter Tarnoff, the executive secretary of the U.S. Department of State. Today, he would be just under Hillary Clinton. The meeting took place in Havana in 1978, and the transcript was declassified in 2002.

It was the Cold War era, and the U.S. government was having nothing to do with Cuba, Hoerger said. It was government policy not to talk with Castro, as is the policy with "terrorists" today. It was the Communist bogeyman, which has evolved into the terrorist bogeyman today.

The meeting's purpose was to discuss the transfer of anti-Castro political prisoners from Cuba to the United States, Hoerger said. Cuba was holding about 3,600 such prisoners. The U.S. government was willing to accept them and met with Castro to negotiate their release, despite the program of disengagement.

During the meeting Castro indicated that he knew the United States had attempted to kill him and wanted assurance that he could trust the country to fulfill its part of the bargain.

"We have seen a lot of background on assassination attempts," Castro said in the transcript. "We have seen them many times, and we know the CIA and know how it operates. ... The problem with these releases is that we do not know how dangerous these people still are. Izaguirre, and Paulita Grau, who brought poison, which she gave [in 1963] to a man in a cafeteria. I went to that cafeteria and ordered a chocolate milkshake. The man had put the pellet in the refrigerator, and it froze, I think. Anyway, he got nervous and didn't drop it in. I drank that milkshake, and she is in the United States now."
"Hoerger also described an incident involving a Jello box (imitation raspberry flavor) that figured significantly in the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg."
Tarnoff replied, "We are aware of that."

This transcript is the only evidence of the milkshake incident, in which the CIA gave cyanide to an agent who met with some anti-Castro rebels in Miami.

"They snuck her into Cuba, to a hotel that served milkshakes, found a restaurant worker who was sympathetic to the cause, gave him the cyanide," Hoerger said. "At this point the stories diverge."

The U.S. says the worker placed the pellet on a tray in the freezer, and when he went to procure it, it fell apart in his hands. Castro thought the man chickened out.

Neither side wanted anyone to know that they met behind closed doors.

"By the way, no Cuban in the United States knows that you have been here," Castro told Tarnoff. Referring to what would have happened if word got out about the enemies' meeting in Cuba, he continued, "No one at all knows. You could place us in a very embarrassing position."

The following week Cuba began to slowly release the prisoners. The newspapers said an anti-Castro group in Miami negotiated their release through a secret meeting with Castro. Thus did the two countries save face.

"How did the CIA know exactly when and where Castro would be drinking a chocolate milkshake so far in advance?" Hoerger asked rhetorically. "Castro was absolutely addicted to chocolate milkshakes. During the 1960s and '70s he had one every single day at the same time and the same place. Everyone knew it."

The location was the Havana Libre Hotel, and tourists visited it frequently to snap photos of Castro drinking his milkshake. The fact that the hotel had been a Hilton before the revolution explains why it offered milkshakes, an American dessert. At this point Hoerger showed a slide of Castro in a hospital bed, drinking a milkshake with Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela.

***

The CIA, said Hoerger, tried various methods to kill Castro -- sharpshooting, poison, ambush, stabbing, melting him alive in a vat of molten iron when visiting a factory. Five of those attempts Hoerger classified as pranks.
"In 1969, when he was 21, the FBI and Chicago Police Department assassinated Hampton as he slept."

In 1960, Castro visited the United States to address the UN general assembly. "With him under their nose," according to Hoerger, "the CIA just couldn't resist [trying to kill him]." They placed thallium salt in his shoes to make him lose all his hair and ultimately die. The agency hoped that Castro would lose "his iconic beard and would be so embarrassed that he wouldn't address the UN."

The CIA knew that Castro loved to go underwater fishing, looking for beautiful seashells, so at one point the agency planted explosives in seashells. It didn't work.

The CIA also infused one of Castro's cigars with LSD and tried to slip it into his private stash. "Cuban security services claimed the plot didn't work, but Castro swears that the UN is the most beautiful, colorful place he'd ever seen," Hoerger said.

A lot of this information, according to Hoerger, comes from Cuban records. Some come from Congress's request to the CIA to let them review the records to ascertain whether the CIA had tried to assassinate Castro.

Ending the part of the talk on Castro, Hoerger showed photos of Castro in New York City being protected by the New York Police Department from the CIA's assassination attempts.

***

Hoerger also described an incident involving a Jello box (imitation raspberry flavor) that figured significantly in the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Communist Party members executed in 1953 for allegedly conspiring to commit espionage, they were the only U.S. citizens ever executed for that crime and possibly the most well-known political prisoners in U.S. history.

Hoerger also described the case of Fred Hampton, leader of the Chicago Black Panthers and head of the NAACP's youth council. The FBI had followed him from the age of 14, and at age 17 he was convicted of theft for handing out $70 worth of ice cream to children from an ice cream truck. He spent three months in prison. Years later, another man with a strong resemblance to Hampton confessed to having committed the crime.
"Though "Edible Secrets" the presentation was humorous, Edible Secrets the book is serious."
In 1969, when he was 21, the FBI and Chicago Police Department assassinated Hampton as he slept. At the time there had been talk about his becoming the head of the national Black Panthers.

***

Though "Edible Secrets" the presentation was humorous, Edible Secrets the book is serious. It features photocopies of the original government documents, essays and "infographics," as well as Powell's drawings, all illustrating the federal government's nefarious activities, commonplace but hidden from public scrutiny.

Edible Secrets covers other incidents and issues, also. There's popcorn and the CIA's mind-control experiments; Coca-Cola's liaison with the U.S. government and resistance to it; and Ronald Reagan, brownies and hydroponics.

With activists and scholars in mind, the book contains a sample FOIA request letter for those wishing to access government documents, a list of recommended reading at the end of each chapter and a thorough index.

The presentation and book come at a time when there's much public discussion of WikiLeaks's publication of secret government and corporate documents. Americans should know what their government is doing in their name, and Edible Secrets is an important contribution toward that end.

Linda Greene can be reached at lgreene@bloomington.in.us.