As young editor of the National Review, William Buckley ran a cartoon showing Communist dictator Fidel Castro sitting pretty on the island of Cuba and waving a gun. Underneath ran a caption made famous by an ad campaign for the paper’s classified section, “I got my job through the New York Times.”
New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews may not have thought the cartoon fair or funny, but he got the joke. As he well understood, he was almost single-handedly responsible for securing Castro his lifetime gig as el Presidente de la Rep?blica de Cuba. “I discovered,” writes Matthews in his 1971 book, “A World in Revolution,” “that a journalist can make history.”
In February 1957, only two months after landing a small force on Cuba, the beleaguered young rebel leader Fidel Castro had sent for a foreign journalist, any journalist, to counter the rumor that he had been killed upon landing. As the story goes, one almost too fortuitous to be believed, his men stumbled upon Matthews, a veteran Times reporter.
Castro biographer Georgie Ann Geyer calls Matthews “the right person at the right moment.” A hopeless romantic and a committed “liberal” – by his own description – Matthews was looking to rekindle the revolutionary spirit that seemed so much alive in the world of his youth. In Castro, he found that spirit’s embodiment. “Taking him, as one would at first, by physique and personality,” wrote Matthews in that critical first article, “this was quite a man – a powerful six-footer, olive-skinned, full-faced, with a straggly beard.”
Although he would never admit it, Matthews was serving as an audience of one in an absurdist guerilla theater. Castro had fully stage-managed this meeting. He circulated his men throughout the camp and took “reports” from other distant “columns” in Matthews’s presence. As a result, Matthews convinced himself that there were at least 40 fighters in this camp and many more deep in the mountains – “the most dangerous enemy General Batista has yet faced.”
In fact, Castro had no more than 20 fighters in his ragtag band, but not for long. His force would start growing when he made his heroic debut a week later on the front page of the New York Times. “Matthews thought he was in a jungle,” writes Geyer, “and in truth he was: a jungle of obfuscation and deliberate deceit.”
For Castro, deceiving Matthews about the scope of his ambitions proved even easier than deceiving him about the size and strength of his force. His Feb. 24, 1957, report in the Times was all Castro could hope for and more.
After much breast beating about how he alone has gotten to see this “flaming symbol” of the revolution, Matthews addresses the critical question of Castro’s intentions. “The program is vague and couched in generalities,” writes Matthews, “but it amounts to a new deal for Cuba, radical, democratic and therefore anti-Communist.”
His claim that Castro was “anti-Communist” suggests that, at best, Matthews had been hoaxed. Castro’s two closest confidantes, his brother Raul and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, were Communists from the beginning. In 1957, the same year as the Matthews interview, Guevara wrote to a friend, “My ideological training means that I am one of those people who believe that the solution to the world’s problems is to be found behind the Iron Curtain.” There could be no greater proof of Che’s love for Lenin than the fact that he named his son “Vladimir.”
It is impossible to believe that Raul Castro and Guevara did not influence Fidel in both style and substance. Guevara had been with Castro since 1955. As a commander of a detachment, he had a reputation for ruthlessness. On one occasion, he had a child shot to death without trial for stealing a little food. He was captured and executed during his futile effort to spread the Marxist-Leninist gospel to an unappreciative Bolivia. Matthews missed all of this, and not just in 1957. “Che Guevara,” he would write four years after Che’s death, “was one of those people who bolster a man’s faith in the human race.”
As Castro began his two-year march on Havana, the favored Matthews saw no sign of the Marxist revolution to come. “He has strong ideas of liberty, democracy, social justice, the need to restore the Constitution,” Matthews wrote of Castro in that pivotal 1957 article. Disarmed by Matthews’ authoritative reports, the CIA and the U.S. State Department offered no resistance.
When Castro and his men did arrive, they wasted little time disabusing their supporters of any hopes they might have had for a constitutional democracy. They summarily executed 600 Batista supporters within the first five months, often after carnival-like show trials in an open-air stadium. They radicalized the agrarian reform program and started seizing estates. They shut down the independent newspapers. They organized an extensive intelligence service with watches in every neighborhood. They savagely oppressed homosexuals. And, of course, they indefinitely canceled elections – all of this within two years of taking power.
By the end of decade, the Castro government had executed between 7,000 and 10,000 political opponents, imprisoned 30,000 more, and driven several hundred thousands into exile, many of whom drowned at sea. Regardless of these abuses, Matthews, writing at the end of that same decade, remained convinced that Castro’s “solid virtues and ideals far outweigh the weaknesses.”
In his 1964 book, “Cuba,” something of a primer on the island’s history, Matthews acknowledges that Castro may have used the “wrong means.” He balances that, however, by speaking of Castro’s eagerness “to do what is best for Cuba and the Cuban people.” Castro has, after all, made life for Cuba’s children “more exciting” and the distribution of wealth “more equal.” If his government has gone wrong, it is largely a matter of “youthful inexperience and amateurishness.” In Matthews’s eyes, when all is said and done, Castro stands as “one of the most extraordinary men of our times.”
Even the disgraced Times’ con artist Jayson Blair recognized that Matthews had dramatically misreported this story. “I was now in the same category as Herbert Matthews,” Blair laments, “the reporter who described Fidel Castro in the Times’ pages as an ‘agrarian reformer’ who supported democracy while ignoring evidence that he was torturing and murdering his own people.”
To no one’s surprise but Matthews’, the New York Times eventually yielded to public outrage and “muzzled” its ace Cuba beat reporter. “Cuba was an open book to me,” protested Matthews. If so, he fatally misread it.
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