KGB Spy Remembers Cuba and Oswald

For MTEx-KGB agent Oleg Nechiporenko visiting NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Walking through Moscow with former counterintelligence agent Oleg Nechiporenko, old conspiracies seem to lurk around every corner.

A bus stop packed with impatient commuters on Novinsky Bulvar is the place where a Soviet double agent sent signals to the U.S. Embassy during the Cold War. A window in a Stalin-era building a few blocks away was cracked open whenever top-secret information was available.

Doors, gates, buildings -- everything reminds Nechiporenko of a time when the KGB had its agents uncovering foreign spies in Moscow and traveling the world for information to help the socialist cause.

Nechiporenko, once described by the CIA as the best KGB agent in Latin America, served for about 40 years in the KGB's counterintelligence department. Under the guise of a staffer at the Soviet Embassy in Mexico, he helped Fidel Castro set up Cuba's secret services. He saw Lee Harvey Oswald at the embassy a few months before U.S. President John F. Kennedy's assassination. When an apparent CIA frame-up led to his expulsion from Mexico, he became a globetrotting KGB agent straight out of the pages of a James Bond novel.

But the silver-haired Nechiporenko, now 76, dismisses the notion that the story of his life is akin to a spy thriller, calling the work of a spy "a routine job."

"The life of an agent differs very much from what you see in films and television," he said during a recent three-hour interview at a cafe in central Moscow. "Most operations are done thanks to intellectual work." He paused. "But it is creative work."

The KGB stationed Nechiporenko in Mexico City for two stints, from 1961 to 1965 and from 1967 to 1971, posing as a Soviet Embassy employee. His mission during these years included helping the young communist state of Cuba organize its secret services to counter the United States.

"The Cubans were good students. I shared my experience with them to help them fight against what at the time was our common enemy -- the U.S. secret services," Nechiporenko said.

"They would listen with attention, and they learned what we had to teach. Furthermore, they tailored what they had learned to the needs of their country, and they achieved excellent results in the fight against the enemy."

Nechiporenko said the Cuban secret service became so professional that in the early 1980s its members helped him train recruits for the secret service of the new Marxist Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

"The Nicaraguans shared our ideology, and the Soviet government felt that we had to help such countries. And so did the Cubans. We helped them with military advice, since in nearby Honduras and El Salvador the Americans were actively working to prepare forces to destroy the Sandinistas," he said.

Nechiporenko characterized the work of organizing a secret service as "simple."

"You teach them how to analyze the events and the actions of the enemy. We also shared information that we had about the enemy," he said.

In 1978, Nechiporenko witnessed first hand the fruits of his labor in Cuba when Havana hosted the World Festival of Youth and Students. More than 18,000 people from 145 countries attended the festival, organized under the banner "For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship." The Cuban secret services provided security for the visitors.

"They become so professional that they organized operations that were able to neutralize American military operations against the Cuban government. The Cubans counted 34 times that the Americans had tried to kill Castro," Nechiporenko said.

Nechiporenko said he did not know Castro personally but had sat on the same podium with him and listened to his trademark hours-long speeches several times. One such occasion was in Havana's Jose Marti Square during the youth festival.

"During the festival, I sat next to him on the podium. When the representative from Vietnam took the floor, Castro took notes. When his turn to speak arrived, he took off his bulletproof jacket, put his notebook aside and started to speak. He wore only a T-shirt. His long speech was held under the hot Caribbean sun, but people listened like they were hypnotized. They would not leave," Nechiporenko said.

He said CIA defector Philip Agee presented his 1975 book "Inside the Company: CIA Diary" condemning the CIA's operations during the festival.

Nechiporenko said he first met Agee in Mexico in 1968, when Agee was working undercover as part of the U.S. delegation to the Mexico City Olympics, and Agee was not the only double agent on the U.S. government payroll at the time.

"Besides Agee, there were Cuban double agents who pretended to work for the Americans," he said. "They did an excellent job. One of them showed us a watch that he got from Henry Kissinger for his good fight against Castro."

When Nechiporenko first moved to Mexico in the early 1960s, tensions between the United States and the new Castro government made times rough for KGB agents in Latin America, he said. Castro asked the Soviet Union for help after Kennedy backed an unsuccessful attempt by 1,500 Cuban exiles to overthrow the government in 1961, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided to install nuclear missiles in Cuba. On Oct. 22, 1962, Kennedy informed the world of the Soviet actions and ordered a naval blockade of Cuba. After 13 days of tension that brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war, Khrushchev ordered the missiles removed after the United States agreed to respect the territorial integrity of Cuba -- and remove U.S. missiles from Turkey.

"It was a really tough time for the [KGB] residents in Mexico. We were in the center of the United States-Moscow-Cuba triangle, since Mexico was the only channel between Cuba and the rest of the world. There were two flights a week to and from Cuba," Nechiporenko said.

"It was the hardest time of the Cold War. A nuclear conflict could have begun. Everyone was relieved when it was over."

At the time, Mexico was a key posting for Soviet agents, Nechiporenko said. From there, they could get information on Cuban counterrevolutionaries who were operating in Central America and the United States.

On Nov. 22, 1963, Nechiporenko was at work in the Soviet Embassy when he heard a woman screaming at the gates. "They killed the president," she said in Spanish, Nechiporenko recalled.

He turned on the radio in his office and learned that Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. When he turned on the television, he was surprised to see the footage of the accused killer. Only two months before, Oswald had visited the embassy in Mexico City to request a visa to enter the Soviet Union.

"We were shocked to see him," Nechiporenko said.

"Oswald behaved in a very strange way during his visit to the embassy. He took a revolver out and said he was ready to use it if anyone tried to make an attempt on his life.

"He didn't threaten anyone, but we had the impression that he was an unstable person -- neurotic, but not crazy."

Nechiporenko wrote about the incident in his book "Passport to Assassination," which was published in the United States on the 30th anniversary of Kennedy's death in 1993.

"For years I gathered information about Oswald, and I wrote the book after perestroika," Nechiporenko said. The book was later translated into Russian and Spanish.

When Nechiporenko presented the book in Dallas, he sat next to CIA and U.S. military intelligence agents who had worked in Mexico at the same time as him.

"I said in my speech that I never would have dreamed of sitting next to such people just 10 years earlier," he said.

Nechiporenko was expelled from Mexico in 1971 after being accused of trying to organize a communist coup, an allegation he said was planted by CIA agents.

His suspicions have been confirmed by Joseph Burkholder Smith, a former CIA agent assigned to Mexico in 1969. Smith wrote in his book "Portrait of a Cold Warrior: Second Thoughts of a Top CIA Agent" that the CIA, after unsuccessfully trying to recruit Nechiporenko, got him expelled through another Soviet Embassy employee, Raya Kiselnikova and a fabricated story that he was the main instigator of a Mexican student revolt in 1968.

"The CIA put information into Kiselnikova's mouth," Nechiporenko said. "I was presented as an agent who picked students to study in Moscow, where they trained as extremists. The idea was that these students would then return home and organize socialist revolutionary movements."

Kiselnikova, who defected in Mexico, told reporters on March 4, 1971, that Nechiporenko was a KGB agent.

Along with three other Soviet diplomats, Nechiporenko was expelled from Mexico on charges of plotting to overthrow the government.

"After that, I became a spy by request," Nechiporenko said. "I traveled to countries where an agent was needed. Sometimes I needed to change my appearance and passport. I worked with the secret services of friendly countries and took part in different operations organized by our services."

From 1985 to 1991, Nechiporenko taught at the KGB's Andropov Institute. A divorced father of two, he now spends his time writing his memoirs and serving as a consultant to the Russian government in its struggle against terrorism.

Looking back at his storied career, Nechiporenko said every person is born with a genetic code, and " while the person is growing there is a fight among some genes to dominate others."

"When I analyze my life," he said, "I see that the conspiracy genes have won the fight."