The man who gave Castro too much credit

Fidel Castro is one of the world’s most vicious “predators of press freedom,” according to Reporters Without Borders.

Fidel Castro is one of the world’s most vicious “predators of press freedom,” according to Reporters Without Borders.

“There are currently 24 (journalists) who have paid with their freedom for having founded an independent news agency, written for a dissident review or spoken to a media in the Cuban diaspora,” the Paris-based media-watch group declares.

According to that organization, only China surpasses Cuba when it comes to imprisoning journalists, and that has been true only for the past three years.

Why is Castro so hard on media workers? One reasonable response comes immediately to mind: he has much to hide.

However, the answer is more complex.

Castro actually respects the power of the press, in large measure because of one man, the late, controversial New York Times writer Herbert L. Matthews.

In 1957, 56-year-old Matthews, whom his friend Ernest Hemingway called “brave as a badger” after they covered the Spanish Civil War together, snuck through the Cuban government’s military cordon and into the Sierra Maestra. There, for three hours, he interviewed a young revolutionary bent on overthrowing Fulgencio Batista, the country’s long-time, far-right dictator and friend to the US Mafia.

Batista claimed that Castro and his small army had been eliminated in late 1956 immediately after they landed in Cuba following a harrowing trip on the small “worm-eaten” yacht Granma from training grounds in Mexico.

Matthews proved Castro was very much alive, and gave the young rebel a forum in one of the world’s great newspapers.

That hard-won interview proved to be Matthews’ greatest career accomplishment — of many — and the beginning of a decades-long ordeal. After he enjoyed brief celebrity status, his editors turned against him. His colleagues avoided him. His stories and editorials were often spiked. He received death threats and he was hounded by the FBI.

Matthews, impressed by Castro’s charisma, and trusting Castro’s promises, apparently thought he had discovered a budding democrat, in the finest sense of the term.

As the dictator changed his stripes — or appeared to change them — over the many years of his brutal reign, Matthews was made a scapegoat by conservative Americans angered by the appearance of communist stronghold only 145 kilometres from the US.

“Either Castro had manipulated a gullible Matthews, or a sympathetic Matthews had taken the rebel’s side,” writes author Anthony DePalma of the simplistic, black-and-white thinking of the Cold War era.

Of course, it was all much more complex than that. That complexity is the subject of DePalma’s The Man Who Invented Fidel, a riveting, illuminating and troubling work of reportage and history.

The author, who has served as Times bureau chief in both Mexico and Canada, and covered major stories from around the world, had been asked by the Times to write some background material for Castro’s obituary when it became obvious that the aged dictator was ill.

Matthews, whose “interview marked the beginning of Castro’s rise to power,” loomed so large in Castro’s story, that DePalma became enmeshed in Matthews’ legend.

“For me, investigating Herbert Matthews’ story became a personal exploration of the very nature of truth.”

That’s a tall order, and it is impressive that DePalma comes so close to realizing it, while revealing the strengths, responsibilities and failings of Matthews and the press in general.

Matthews was not originally predisposed to support Fidel Castro, at least not specifically.

The reporter “saw nothing impressive about his harebrained plot, which he called ‘pathetic.’ He derided Castro’s invasion and the way the rebel leader had announced in advance that he was going to invade Cuba. ‘Could anything be madder?’ he asked.”

How did a story that began with such skepticism turn the man who broke it into the subject of government investigations and collegial slander?

“Matthews built up a hero image of Castro, in which all the virtues of Robin Hood and Thomas Jefferson, of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, were contained in a single man.”

By 1961 when US Senator Thomas J. Dodd made that pronouncement, “the actual words Matthews had published were forgotten,” warns DePalma.

To understand where Matthews was coming from when he began his coverage of Castro and the revolution, DePalma searched back through the reporter’s life and career.

It became obvious that the elder Times correspondent had long displayed a controversial tendency for a journalist, “a self-confessed passion for the underdogs… That is why it was possible for him to root for the Fascist Italians in Abyssinia, and a few years later support leftist Loyalists in Spain.”

Of course, brief excerpts in a review can only make such predispositions and prejudices sound more straightforward than they were, but they must be considered as part of the baggage Matthews carried with him into the Cuban mountains in 1957.

To understand Matthews one must also try to understand Castro. That’s far more difficult.

Much of what is “true” is locked up in the dictator’s mind. And he frequently lies and contradicts himself.

Poor Matthews.

“This is not a Communist revolution in any sense of the word and there are no Communists in positions of control,” he wrote not long after the revolution.

“I am a Marxist-Leninist and I shall be to the last days of my life,” Castro is reported to have said in 1961.

It is futile to attempt to address all the arguments presented in this book in a single review. Suffice it to say, DePalma brings trust-inspiring experience and skill to

the fray.

For instance. Castro, ever perverse, once mocked Matthews during a speech in the US. He claimed that during their interview in the Sierra Maestra, he had marched the same small, ragged band of guerrillas past Matthews again and again to make it appear his force was larger.

Perhaps Castro made the damning accusation because he wanted to distance himself from a reporter who was falling into disrepute in the US.

We may never know.

Castro did once say of Matthews: “I am sick and tired of the old man who thinks he is my father. He is always giving me advice.”

While reporting in Mexico many years later, DePalma was himself the intended audience for such a ruse. A rebel leader tried to march the same band of guerilla repeatedly past him. DePalma wasn’t fooled, and realized that such an experienced war correspondent as Matthews wouldn’t have been either.

DePalma both read and witnessed evidence of Castro’s willingness to manipulate people, reputations and facts to his own ends.

Some of that evidence is subtle.

In the National Museum of the Revolution in Havana “is a small portable typewriter, a battered gray case with Kelly green keys that is identified as the one Matthews used during his famous interview with commandante Castro.”

The experienced battlefield correspondent would not have attempted to pack a typewriter past Batista’s men and into the mountains.

In fact, he didn’t even carry a notebook, only a few small note cards, which could be easily palmed.

Castro’s misleading museum proves he realizes that a new ‘reality’ can be constructed from the smallest details.

Matthews died in 1977, leaving behind many unanswered questions, admirers and detractors … and a warning by example.

He was the first of many North American intellectuals who have given some benefit of doubt to Castro and his revolution — not because liberal intellectuals are fools, but because they hunger for evidence of the perfectibility of humankind, and because Cuba was such corrupt, cruel place before Castro.

But after reading The Man Who Invented Castro, I am dogged by one big question: Aren’t Castro’s North American semi-reluctant apologists patronizing the Cubans?

Are Cubans somehow less bright, less cerebral than we are? Are they more willing to live by bread alone?

Sympathetic visitors to Cuba, while cautiously acknowledging Castro’s wrongs, vehemently praise the living conditions for the masses, as if these visitors would themselves be content with ample food and medical care back in Canada, even if they weren’t free to think, read and write without fear of imprisonment.

The Man who invented Castro had something to answer for and he came to know it: As he wrote to his brother late in life, “I doubt it will be possible to be optimistic any longer about the Revolution. The economic situation is awful. Fidel has made many mistakes….”