He [Fidel Castro] has strong ideas of liberty, democracy, social justice, the
need to restore the Constitution, to hold elections.
Herbert Matthews (New York Times)
The name of Herbert L. Matthews is permanently linked to the revolution of Fidel Castro. Matthew’s rendezvous with Castro in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra in 1957 and how he came to think of him and represent him to his American readers bear remarkable resemblance to the way Edgar Snow engaged with Mao in the cave in Shaanxi province, China in 1936 and then presented an idealized version of him to his readers. The impact of Matthew’s articles on his readership: “they did not create Fidel from nothing, but they did change his image from hotheaded loser to noble rogue with broad ideals, a characterization that appealed to a large spectrum of Cubans as well as Americans.” [Anthony DePalma, The Man who Invented Fidel: Cuba, Castro, and Herbert L. Matthews of the New York Times, New York, Public Affairs, 2006, 109
Matthews was an intrepid, courageous reporter, a veteran international correspondent who had covered Mussolini’s military campaign against Haile Selassie in Ethiopia as well as the Spanish Civil War for American readers of the New York Times. With assistance from the M-26 guerillas in February 1957 Matthews smuggled himself past Batista’s troops to meet the commander, Fidel Castro, believed then by many in the outside world to be dead. A fluent Spanish speaker, Matthews interviewed Castro, and the New York Times soon after published the results of the interview in three installments, the first as a front page story. The reported interview was credited by many, including Castro himself, with turning around the fortune of his July 26th Movement to overthrow Batista by casting an international spotlight on Cuba, dramatizing the struggle with the corrupt and inept Batista government, and providing a sympathetic view of Castro and his movement. “Matthew’s articles, and the sympathetic way he described Castro,” wrote Matthews’ biographer, Anthony DePalma, “made the rebel leader seem like an American hero and put Matthews into the role of mythmaker in a postwar age when Americans were accustomed to larger-than-life figures and hadn’t yet become cynical about those they admired.” [DePalma, 106]
Matthews’s interview with Castro and subsequent efforts on his behalf have made him to this day a controversial figure, loathed by many who see him as yet another star-struck scribe under the mesmerism of a self-infatuated dictator posing as an original thinker and a liberator of the people. To get some sense of what Matthews was doing with this interview and to gage the depth and quality of insight into his initial estimation of the character of Fidel and his intentions for Cuban people, the articles he published based on his interview with Castro are a good place to start. Near the beginning of this Times front page article, the first of the three that Matthews wrote is this:
'This is the first sure news that Fidel Castro is still alive and still in Cuba. No one connected the outside world, let alone with the press has seen Señor Castro except this writer. No one in Havana, not even at the United States Embassy with all of its resources for getting information, will know until this report is published that Fidel Castro is really in the Sierra Maestra.” [NYT]
At the outset Matthews’ egotism and personal investment in this report is obvious and remarkable. He takes considerable pains to assert himself, and he continued in this overbearing manner to do so for two decades, as the individual with the most insight into and understanding of Fidel Castro. In a certain sense he seems to claim ownership of Castro. This has very much a similar ring to Snow’s boast of giving the world the “first authentic account of the Chinese Communist party.”
The personal “baggage” that Matthews was bringing to his efforts to introduce Fidel Castro to the American people through the vehicle of the New York Times is, however, highly relevant to any attempt to make a judgment of him. Matthews began his career with the New York Times in 1922, thirty-five years prior to his encounter with the future Lider Maximo in Cuba. As a reporter for the Times Matthews covered Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and was candidly open at this time in his preference for the Fascist Italians. “If you start from the premise that a lot of rascals are having a fight, it is not unnatural to want to see the victory of the rascal you like… And I liked the Italians during that scrimmage more than I did the British or the Abyssinians.” [DePalma, 51]
The following year Matthews went to Spain. He had been dispatched by the Times to report on the Spanish Civil War. In Spain Matthews seemed to have abandoned his foundational premise of quarreling rascals from the year before. The only “rascal” that Matthews observed in this particular fight was Francisco Franco. Assigned by his bosses to cover the Loyalist Republicans, they quickly became for him heroes whose victory he ardently desired over the Fascists he was previously drawn toward. Matthews’ biographer seems to suggest that Matthews was somewhat disposed to taking up the perspectives of whatever combatants he was in proximity with. “Had he [Matthews] been assigned to cover Franco’s troops so soon after documenting Mussolini’s triumph in Africa, he might have seen the war differently. In Franco, he would have found the kind of strong military man that had impressed him since boyhood.” [DePalma, 55] Matthews, however, became good friends with Ernest Hemmingway, Martha Gellhorn and others who were intensely sympathetic to the Loyalist-Republicans. [DePalma, 55] The Spanish Civil War was the perfect conflict for romantic, heroic myth-making, and Matthews seem to be forever shaped by the experience. His preference in Spain for the Loyalist-Republicans led to conflict between Matthews and the Times editors who feared that his objectivity as a reporter had become compromised by his affinity for the Republican cause. [ DePalma, 55-58]
Matthews’ reputation as a pro-Loyalist-Republican reporting in Spain followed him in the years after and made him subject to charges of being “soft on Communism,” during that period of twentieth-century America when being soft on Communism was actually considered to be a character flaw. This was a charge that Matthews denied. [FN DePalma, 97] When the opportunity to find and interview Castro arose early in 1957 Matthews, an experienced observer of Latin American politics sensed that this might be a huge scoop as an international new story and was eager to follow up. He was now a member of the Times editorial board as well as a reporter, an unusual portfolio that made Orvil Dryfoos, Times President uncomfortable. “Unlike his father-in-law, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Dryfoos had no extraordinary allegiance or personal connection to Matthews, and he could look at the unusual arrangement with more objective eyes, realizing how great a breach of policy Matthews’ double-dipping in the newsroom and on the editorial board actually was.” [DePalma, 123]
In reading the articles Matthews wrote for the Times on the basis of his interview with Castro in 1957 in their admiring, almost worshipful tone, one is struck by how much they resemble Edgar Snow’s estimations of the personality and character of Mao prior to his taking power. Both Snow and Matthews appeared to be infatuated with the men whom they had sought out and ultimately used them, and completely unable to be appropriately critical or skeptical of their subjects. This serious lacking set them up to be manipulated and caused them to overlook or rationalize away the despotic character and personalities of the men they were supposed to be scrutinizing. Matthews and Snow were both locked into ideologically tendentious perspectives and they became myth-purveyors. Against established, formidable tyrants, they each counterpoised a strong, heroic man of the people, an underdog standing up for the rights of down-trodden workers and peasants attempting to climb a tall mountain, challenge and undo the corruption. For Snow that tyrant was the chief agent of the Chinese warlords, Chaing Kai-chek; for Matthews it was the tool of Yankee imperialism, Fulgencio Batista.
Castro’s program, Matthews writes: “is vague and couched in generalities, but it amounts to a new deal for Cuba, radical, democratic and therefore anti-Communist. The real core of its strength is that is it fighting against the military dictatorship of President Batista.” [Matthews, NYT ,] So from the outset of his report Matthews sets up for his readers in the U.S. an invidious comparison – Castro the noble warrior, offering the Batista-oppressed Cubans a “new deal,” an attempt perhaps to link Castro in the minds of his readers to FDR. Though Castro’s program was vague, couched in generalities and radical, the reader is not to worry. Castro was a democrat and an anti-Communist. Perhaps with this Matthews was betraying his sensitivity to critics over the years and their suspicions of his sympathies for Communists. Matthews, however is quite emphatic with this affirmation, and there is not a hint of doubt that his impressions might be mistaken, which of course they were. Although “mistaken” is much too mild a term. What led Matthews to believe this and to be so supremely confident as to have wanted his readers to believe such a bold and far reaching judgment? He had spent a total of a day with Castro. He was a seasoned war correspondent for his country’s top newspaper and must have known, as Snow did with Mao, that Castro would be desperate to make the kind of positive impression for American readers, one that may go a long way toward influencing U.S.-Cuban policy toward his advantage and help him to dislodge the very unpopular Batista.
Fidel, he goes on to write: “has strong ideals of liberty, democracy, social justice, the need to restore the Constitution, to hold elections.” [Matthews, NYT] Clearly, Matthews was completely bamboozled by the wily Fidel. Never was there any evidence of Castro’s possession of these any of these ideals revealed in any of his subsequent actions. Soon after taking power Castro suspended Cuba’s 1940 constitution with its guarantees of basic legal rights. He governed by decree until 1976 (seventeen years), after which he put into place a constitution modeled after Stalin’s Soviet version. [Black Book of Communism, 649] Castro merely weeks after taking power moved Cuba under the heel of his own highly personalized, single-party dictatorship – fifty-plus years, never a free election. In spite of Castro’s almost immediate turn to a Stalinist-style rule, with its own cult of personality, Matthews would never relinquish the idealized Castro of the Sierra Maestra, Fidel, the freedom fighter, the democrat.
But why did Matthews succumb to Fidel’s blandishments and obstinately remain in his tow? Anyone can say how idealistic and high minded they are. Seasoned journalists are supposed to be able to separate out the poseurs and conmen. The answer, suggested by Matthews’ biographer, goes back to his deeply intense experience up close in covering the Spanish Civil War with its romanticized myth of the noble, freedom-loving Republicans, abandoned by the Western democracies, going down to defeat to the Fascist forces of Franco. "[F]or Matthews, Cuba was Spain all over again, a heroic struggle of freedom versus fascism.” [DePalma, 153] Reality is more complex than myths and the pristine goodness of Franco’s opposition was far from reality. The International Brigades were created and managed by Stalin. Stalin’s agents carried on an insidious side war against the anarchists and Trotskyists.
Castro’s guerilla operation against the corrupt Batista regime for Matthews was an opportunity for redemption by the “good guys”. Near the end of 1957, marking the anniversary of Castro’s landing in the Granma in Cuba Matthews offered this observation in a Times editorial: “A year ago today one of the strangest and most romantic episodes in Cuba’s colorful history began.” [DePalma, 124] Here it was in Matthews’s own terms, a romance. Fidel was for Matthews, pure romance, a man of destiny rising up to slay the Predator-Giant of his own people. In the same editorial he amplified on the resilience of his discovered hero. “Whatever one thinks of Fidel Castro, to have survived a whole year with a small force in jungle country against the best efforts of the whole Cuban Army and their modern armament was an extraordinary military feat. As the second year begins there can be no doubt that Fidel Castro has made history.” [DePalma, 125] With this one cannot but think again of the Spanish Civil War, but now replayed with a happy outcome. Castro – young, idealistic, resisting a far superior military force just like the Spanish Republicans against the professional army. Castro, he writes, “was an educated, dedicated, fanatic, a man of ideals, of courage, and of remarkable qualities of leadership.” [Matthews, NYT] But unlike the Spanish Republicans, Fidel had survived and would prevail. This time Matthews would be backing a winner. “After the frustration of backing the losing side of the Spanish Civil War, and his change of heart with the fading forces of fascism, he had finally chosen the winning side in an ideological battle.” [DePalma, 145] By Matthews’ account Castro was a “fanatic” but clearly in this context a good kind, one guided by ideals, informed by education and admirably courageous. Castro was Matthews’ own precious discovery and presented by him alone to the world as the savior of the Cuban people from the evil Batista.
This was the romance of Fidel, impervious to the reality of Fidel. No matter what he did after taking power, Matthews could never separate the idealized Robin Hood from the real man and could never come to grips with Fidel the tyrant. Immediately after overthrowing Batista in 1959 Castro began to act like the anti-democratic totalitarian he would unwaveringly be for the next fifty years, the exact opposite of the democrat, constitutionalist Matthews so confidently proclaimed him to be to his New York Times readers. Extra-judicial trials, summary executions were the earliest markers of his rule as a despot. Within two weeks after Batista’s departure from Cuba, a letter-writer to the Times was confessing his doubts about the “new deal” for Cuba Matthews was so exuberant about. “[I]t gives me somewhat an uneasy feeling reading in the newspapers that the victorious rebels are placing hundreds of persons – men and women – before firing squads after drumhead trials lasting a few minutes.” [FN DePalma, 150]
By June his promise to hold free elections gave way to “Elections? What for?” from the man who had told Matthews: “Power does not interest me. After victory I want to go back to my valley and just be a lawyer again.” [Black Book of Communism, 649] Matthews continued to insist that Castro was not a Communist when he met him, and the exact time frame of Castro’s conversion to Soviet-style Marxism is a continuing matter of debate. But from the experience of the Cuban people, the question is beside the point. Whenever it was that Castro decided that his inspiration came from Marx, he was always a manipulator and a highly talented liar. He had found in Matthews a man uniquely positioned to help him sell to the outside world the romantic image of a heroic freedom fighter. Moreover, what Castro actually did right after he took power clearly shows that he had no interest in, nor intentions to restore freedom and democracy to Cuba. Castro’s character and personality was from the beginning firmly located in the fraternity of Stalin and Mao, men who could wax poetic about freedom and democracy and hypnotize the intellectuals while they put the opposition against the wall and ground their people under their heels. Like Lenin and like Mao, Castro’s primary objective from the beginning was untrammeled power.
Matthew seemed to be incapable of dealing with the unfolding truth about Cuba and of acknowledging the growing evidence that Castro had used him. Instead he blamed U.S. policy makers for pushing Castro into the Soviet camp. “Even though he [Matthews] occasionally scolded Castro in his editorials, he never wavered in his judgment that what Castro was doing was for the good of Cuba. He criticized other reporters for their faulty coverage, and he blamed officials in Washington for pushing Castro into a corner where he had no choice but to turn to the Soviet Union for help.” [ [DePalma, 171] Matthews from his first encounter with Fidel was never capable of looking at him honestly or critically. He remained a Fidel loyalist and publicist until his death in 1977. “After he retired from the Times in 1967, Matthews continued to visit Cuba, where he was treated like ‘a founding father.’” [DePalma, 119]
Matthews also got involved diplomatically at high levels trying to support Castro. Again, the Spanish Civil War comes to the fore. Matthews would attempt to do for Castro what was never done for the Spanish Republicans – secure support from the Western powers. Matthews in conversations with President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, pressed for the resignation of the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, Arthur Gardner, because he thought Gardner was too pro-Batista. Gardner was forced to resign. Whether Matthews’ opinions counted in this is not known. [DePalma, 114] “His sympathetic coverage had helped pressure Washington to suspend the sale of arms to Batista. It had encouraged a number of career diplomats in the State Department to overlook festering concerns about Castro until it was too back any alternative. And, it had raised Castro, in the eyes of the Americans and the Cubans alike, to a position above all his possible rivals and made him a political superstar, the symbol of youthful rebellion and defiance of authority.” [DePalma, 146] Here Matthews was able to do for Castro what the Western powers would not do for the struggling Republicans in Spain.