British Ballerina Plotted Overthrow of Panamanian Government

The great British ballerina Margot Fonteyn was also a revolutionary, involved "up to her neck" in a 1959 plot to overthrow the government of Panama with the support of Fidel Castro.

Dame Margot played many famous roles as Prima Ballerina with the Royal Ballet, but the full details of her role in one of the strangest episodes of the Cold War has only now been revealed by the declassification of government files.

Her involvement in this "plot of vast ramifications" caused deep embarrassment to British officials, who had to bail her out of a Panamanian jail, after an extraordinary escapade involving gun-running, an army of Cuban mercenaries, John Wayne and a woman better known for the pirouette than the coup d'état.

The failed coup was led by Fonteyn's husband, a journalist, diplomat and dissolute playboy named Roberto Arias, the scion of a prominent Panamanian political family. Arias, a former envoy to Britain whose father had been president of Panama, divorced his first wife and married Fonteyn in 1955.

Soon after, Arias fell out with the ruling regime and began fomenting rebellion against President Ernesto de la Guardia. In January 1959, according to the documents, Fonteyn and her husband sailed to Cuba in their yacht to meet Castro, who "promised to help her husband in his aims to overthrow the existing regime," according to officials in the foreign ministry.

Although the Cuban leader would later disclaim all knowledge of the coup, the Foreign Office was certain that "Castro was behind this coup" and had agreed to provide "both arms and men."

Three months later Fonteyn, her husband and several accomplices sailed for Panama on their yacht, carrying large amounts of guns and ammunition. The coup plotters planned to join the other insurrectionists waiting in fishing boats offshore, then take to the hills to mount a guerrilla war. But the plan began to unravel almost immediately, like a "slapdash comedy," according to the Foreign Office.

Click here for more on this story from the Times of London.