Kennedy's Assassination New Film Offers Strong Theory but Weak Evidence

A German TV station will broadcast a documentary on Friday that wants to clear up the murder of US President John F. Kennedy. But does the film prove its own thesis? A critical analysis.

On the morning of Sept. 27, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald stepped out of a bus in Mexico City after a long ride from the American border. The lanky southerner stayed in the Mexican capital at least four days, and if you believe film director Wilfried Huismann (Rendezvous With Death, airing on ARD on Jan. 6 at 9:45 pm), this visit is the key to the most important political murder mystery of the 20th century: The assassination of United States President John F. Kennedy by Oswald in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

The fruits of Huismann's investigation have captivated not only the German director himself, but also the heads of public broadcaster ARD: "This new information will revolutionize Kennedy research," claims regional public broadcaster WDR on its Web site (WRD helped fund the documentary). "Lee Harvey Oswald was the final pawn in a murderous feud between Fidel Castro and the Kennedy brothers." The director himself adds: "For me, the essence has been explained."

But does the movie really provide what its authors claim -- the solution to the most spectacular political murder of the 20th century? Legions of investigators, historians, and journalists have worked on this puzzle in vain since Kennedy's death. So now it's been pieced together?

Huismann argues that a 24-year-old Oswald -- an avid supporter of Fidel Castro and his revolution -- received orders in the Cuban embassy in Mexico City to assassinate Kennedy. Castro's motive: Kennedy had already tried to kill Cuba's Maximo Lider because he feared the bearded revolutionary would grant the Soviet Union a strategic opening in the Caribbean. Castro, in Huismann's theory, acted in self-defense.

The thesis isn't new. The faction of people who have long believed in Castro's involvement in the murder reaches from President Lyndon B. Johnson to former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO (and US Secretary of State) Alexander Haig.

Huismann believes he can supply missing pieces to this theory, and at first glance his collection of evidence looks overwhelming: segments of tapped phone conversations from the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City; documents from Russia's intelligence agency, the KGB; statements from several current and former Cuban intelligence agents. But under close scrutiny, the links in this chain of proof look weak.

None of Huismann's witnesses were involved in the supposed operation. It's not clear exactly how the Cubans may have helped Oswald. Many of the witnesses are recognizable figures in Kennedy-research circles -- although Huismann gives the opposite impression -- and many of their statements have been rejected by investigative committees or historians. What Huismann has freshly cobbled together raises a lot of questions -- which will have to be answered before anyone rewrites history.

In the end it's just hearsay that Cuban security services contacted the young Oswald in 1962. Huismann invokes Autulio Ramirez Ortiz. The Cuban exile has claimed for years that he once worked for Cuban intelligence. There, supposedly, a dossier for an operation called "Osvaldo-Kennedy" fell into his hands. It supposedly contained a recommendation from the KGB to their Cuban comrades that Oswald should be hired.

Oswald wasn't unknown to the Soviets. He moved to Russia out of enthusiasm for Communism in 1959, but left the country 31 months later, disappointed. In any case the CIA and FBI find Ramirez's statements unreliable. Huismann, though, allows one source to speak incognito, a man who claims to have been an agent for the Russian intelligence service FSB. He reads from a supposed KGB telegram dated July 18, 1962, that supports Ramirez's story. Believe it or not: it's up to the viewer.

Huismann produces several witnesses of this quality. There's a onetime archivist from Cuban intelligence who saw a dossier (but didn't read it); an ex-FBI man who can only speculate; a Cuban ex-diplomat who won't say how he knows his secrets. If Cuban intelligence was even half as professional as the agencies of other Eastern-bloc nations at the time -- say, the East German Stasi -- only officers directly involved in a plot on Kennedy's life would have heard a thing. Diplomats, in any case, would have been left out.

One of Huismann's finds is a memo to President Johnson by one of his employees, Martin Underwood, who before his death personally gave the handwritten note to Huismann's co-author, Gus Russo. The film doesn't say when the paper was handed over, where Underwood had learned his information, or why he withheld the document back for so long. The memo claims that Fabian Escalante, an employee of Castro's and a high-ranking Cuban intelligence officer in the 1970s, was in Dallas on the day of Kennedy's death and flew out that evening. Asked about this in the film, Escalante rightfully denies it. Underwood has a bad reputation among Kennedy experts. Many of his statements have been proved wrong in the past.

Huismann, to his credit, shows segments of interviews that contradict his thesis -- in particular those with Rolando Cubela, a surgeon and vehement Castro opponent. Cubela is known as one of those Cuban exiles contracted by the CIA in 1963 to poison the Maximo Lider. Huismann also says Oswald was contacted on purpose by Cubela -- the director, in other words, considers him a double agent, something the old man passionately denies on camera.

Even if everything happened the way Huismann suggests, there's still no clarity for the the confused mess of stories about Oswald's visit to the Cuban embassy on the morning of his arrival in Mexico City.

The following incidents have been known for a long time: The American marched into the embassy before noon, declared himself a "friend of the Cuban revolution," and demanded a visa for the island. When it wasn't given to him, he grew loud.

A secretary said he should go to the Russian embassy first and gain permission for (another) visit to the Soviet Union. This would help him get a Cuban visa. Oswald followed her advice but was put off at first by the Soviets. The next day they flatly refused to give him a visa. This much has been corroborated by several employees from both embassies -- but it never earns a mention in the film. If Oswald was a Cuban agent, he would have been handled differently.

One of the embassy workers is Silvia Duran, a Mexican Marxist who worked in the Cuban embassy at the time and later testified about Oswald in the United States. For Huismann, she's a "crowning witness" in one significant thread in an important falsification of history. She's the source of the information that Oswald had no further contact with the Cuban embassy after his visa was denied. But Huismann isn't the first person to debunk her story -- another rebuttal has been in print since 1993, when Gerald Posner published his now-standard Case Closed. This detail is important to Huismann because he believes Oswald came into contact with a Cuban agent (dark skin, red hair) during his days in Mexico City. The security chief of the Cuban embassy at the time, "Antonio," gives an anonymous interview to Huismann and claims to have seen both men together. When Huismann mentions this story to another ex-Cuban intelligence agent, Oscar Marino, he identifies the agent immediately. "The way you describe him," says Marino, "there is no doubt."

Marino is also sure that Oswald received money from this mysterious red-haired man, because "Oswald was our pawn." It's never clear how Marino has his information, since he wasn't personally involved in the operation. So the question remains for him to answer how exactly Oswald and the Cubans worked together -- if they did at all.

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