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Tampa’s Lykes family is mentioned in JFK assassination records

In 1960, the CIA received a tip that a member of the Lykes family was part of a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro.
In this April 19, 2011, file photo, Fidel Castro, left, raises the hand of his brother, President Raul Castro, as they sing the international socialism anthem during the 6th Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba.
In this April 19, 2011, file photo, Fidel Castro, left, raises the hand of his brother, President Raul Castro, as they sing the international socialism anthem during the 6th Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba. [ AP /Javier Galeano ]
Published Dec. 29, 2021|Updated Jan. 3

TAMPA — Pioneers of Tampa, the Lykes family has their name splashed throughout the city as a celebration of their contributions — a road in Ballast Point and a park in downtown, for instance.

In mid-December, the Lykes name received a different sort of mention.

It was included in a two-page CIA file that was part of The National Archives and Records Administration’s 1,500 newly released documents associated with the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records.

According to the file, in January 1960, the CIA received a tip that a member of the Lykes family was part of a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara and then install a new Cuban government.

“It’s like something out of a spy novel,” said John Park Wright IV, a member of the Lykes family, after reading the file provided by the Tampa Bay Times. “But the Lykes family would not have had any involvement in something like that. This is all fiction.”

Lykes Gaslight Square Park is named for Tampa's pioneering Lykes family.
Lykes Gaslight Square Park is named for Tampa's pioneering Lykes family. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times (2019) ]

In the late 1800s, Howell Tyson Lykes, Wright’s grandfather, took over the family’s 500-acre Hernando County cattle ranch and then founded the Lykes Bros. company in Tampa. Their venture shipping cattle out of Tampa helped establish the city’s port.

Cuba was among the company’s cattle clients.

The family also owned a 15,000-acre ranch in the province of Oriente and a 1,600-acre ranch in the province of Matanzas and operated a slaughterhouse in Havana, all of which they lost when the Cuban government nationalized properties owned by U.S. citizens.

The Times found 14 files that mention Tampa in the new Kennedy documents.

Each references pro- and anti-Castro groups or organized crime, all of which have been linked to the Kennedy assassination through conspiracy theories.

Related: Read the CIA file here

The file that cites a member of the Lykes family was written by CIA officer Rudolph Gomez.

It alleges that Reed Whittel, identified only as a “prominent rancher,” contacted Rollie Atwood, director of Latin American affairs for the International Cooperation Administration, which the National Archives website says “was responsible for coordinating foreign assistance operations and conducting all non-military security programs” through 1961.

Whittel allegedly informed Atwood that he’d been in touch with Robert Kleberg, who owned the 600,000-acre King Ranch in Texas, a United Fruit Company representative and “Mr. Lykes of Lykes Steamship Company.”

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It’s unclear if Whittel had assets in Cuba, but the others did.

The file does not further identity Mr. Lykes, but news archives from that time report that John T. Lykes ran the steamship company that delivered cargo to United States ports in the Gulf of Mexico and throughout the Caribbean.

A May 1960 advertisement for Lykes Bros. Steamship Co.
A May 1960 advertisement for Lykes Bros. Steamship Co. [ Times (1960) ]

The file alleges that Whittel directly told a CIA agent that the assassination would be carried out via a partnership with the “Nunez Portuondo Cajigas group.”

That group was led by Cuban politician Emilio Nunez Portuondo and Cuban rancher Francisco Cajigas.

The file does not say how they would kill the Castros or Guevara.

Whittel allegedly said they also had the cooperation of Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo and the Somozas, who ruled Nicaragua as a family dictatorship from the 1930s through 1970s.

Elections would be held 30 months after the Cuban leaders were dead, he allegedly said.

“In order to accomplish this, the interested parties would make a contribution of $5,000,000 and would be repaid at a reasonable rate of interest by the new Cuban government,” the CIA file says Atwood told them.

It’s unclear if that means $5 million each or collectively.

“Whittel wanted to know whether he should become involved in this or not,” says the file. The CIA “cautioned Whittel as to the danger of getting involved in such revolutionary movements” and told Atwood that “in our opinion the Nunez Portuando group was not looked upon with favor” but that he should “get his guidance” from the U.S. State Department.

A portion of this file was part of a previous release of documents associated with the Kennedy assassination and cited in Joan Mellen’s book The Great Game in Cuba: How the CIA Sabotaged Its Own Plot to Unseat Fidel Castro.

“The grandiose assassination plot targeting the Castro brothers and Che Guevara never materialized,” she wrote.

Related: New JFK files feature a few surprises about intrigue in Tampa as Castro rose to power

Wright said the Lykes family would not have been connected to it in “any way.”

When that CIA file was written, the family’s Cuban ranches had not yet been seized by the Cuban government, he said. That property is still referenced in news articles in October 1960.

And “Lykes Lines was still operating a regular weekly steamship service from Tampa and New Orleans to Havana and other Cuban ports until” 1962, when Kennedy enacted the embargo on all trade with the island nation, Wright said.

What’s more, he said, even if his family thought their Cuban assets were in danger at the time of the alleged plot, “financially speaking, they were very small when compared to our bigger business.”

Still, the Lykes Bros. website says “the corporation took a blow” when their Cuban land was nationalized. The U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission certified that the property was worth $3.4 million.

Lykes Bros., still headquartered in Tampa, is no longer in the shipping business, but, according to its website, is “a diverse enterprise that includes cattle, citrus, farming, forestry, hunting, and land and water resource management.”

Wright, a former vice president of Lykes Bros. and current shareholder, is an advocate for normalized relations with Cuba and, separate from the family business, has sold cattle and cattle semen to the socialist nation in recent years.

The “Lykes family would have nothing to do with such an idea to kill someone in Cuba,” Wright said. “Lykes DNA is in commerce and friendly business.”

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