In 1957, Fidel Castro was believed to be dead -- until New York Times writer Herbert L. Matthews conducted an interview with Castro in the Cuban jungle. Matthews' portrayal of a romantic figure and a promising leader was trusted, until Castro revealed himself and his planned revolution as communist. Brooke speaks with Anthony DePalma, author of The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba, and Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times, about the infamous coverage of Cuba's infamous leader.
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So, Padgett says that Cuba won't see real change until the Castro generation of leadership comes to an end. Raul Castro, Cuba's current president, says he'll step down in 2018. His older brother, Fidel himself, resigned from office in 2008 at the age of 81, spawning rumors that he might already be dead. But we've heard that before. He was rumored to be dead a couple of years before he assumed power. That is until a crucial interview in the jungle. The story goes like this. It's February 1957. Ruby Phillips, longtime Cuba correspondent for the New York Times, is approached by Castro's comrades. He wants to give an interview. Philips declines. Cuba had become her home and she knew she'd be deported. At the very least she'd hurt her access to the increasingly repressive government of Fulgencio Batista . But she cabled the times and urged Herbert L Matthews, former war reporter turned editorial writer, to do it. He'd been there before and he was eager for adventure, so he went. That's essentially where NY Times reporter Anthony Depalma's story takes off, as he relates in his book called The Man Who Invented Fidel Castro, Cuba and Herbert L. Matthews of the NY Times. Depalma told us a few years back that Matthews was both the best and the worst person for the job. He wrote vividly, but he had a dangerous tendency to fall in love with the causes and the characters he covered.
Anthony Depalma: When he was covering the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, Abyssinia then in the early 1930's, he believed that Mussolini was doing a great thing. He later on retracted that. When he covered the Spanish civil war, he believed that the side that he was covering, which were the loyalists, were the side of righteousness. And then in 1957 he shows up in Cuba and interviews Fidel. It's 6 o'clock in the morning, he's been up all night, he's muddy and cold. Dawn is just breaking in the Sierra and Fidel comes through the foliage like some apparition.
Brooke: What was the kind of stage management that Castro applied to the scene?
AD: They're basically sitting on a log for three hours, and he lays down an image of himself as a young democracy loving defender of the Cuban constitution. He says that he's got a number of men with him, armed with telescopic rifles (and) they've got Batista on the run. The truth is he had 18 men at most. He had one telescopic rifle. He had his brother Raul send over someone to say "commander, we're getting a report from the second column". Of course, with 18 men there was no second column. But in defense of Matthews, he had checked with the US embassy of Havana and they had told him hundreds of men. We had run a story citing the rebel representative in New York saying they had hundreds of men and our resident correspondent Ruby Philips, who had lived in Cuba for 30 years, said "we believe he's up there and has several hundred men behind him".
Brooke: Matthews returns to New York, he writes a three part series. Batista was famously censoring the press and those papers, when they arrived, literally had the stories clipped out of them. But an anti-Batista character was dispatched to New York to buy up the papers, clip those stories out, and send them to thousands of very important people in Cuba.
AD: I spoke to that man, Mario Llerena is the man's name, he's now in his 90's. He was a supporter of Fidel's. He was called in by another one of his supporters and said we need you to go to New York. He handed him the money for the ticket and a copy of the social registry of Havana.
Brooke: So they went to a great deal of trouble to get this story to Cuban people. What was the impact?
AD: Just last week I spoke to someone who was there at the time, he's now an academic in New York, and he said it was electric. Here was the first real news that he was alive (and) it was coming from a source outside of Cuba so it was trusted. Castro's image in Cuba at that time was a little bit of a rough neck. He had gone through a couple of other attempts at overthrowing the government that had failed utterly, but here he was being presented as a leader, as a romantic figure, remember he was only thirty years old, he was young, he had a beard, he had these men up in the mountains.
Brooke: So he was made a hero by Matthews but wasn't Matthews made into something of a hero by Castro as well?
AD: Absolutely. Matthews, remember, 57 year old editorial writer at the newspaper one day had to go through the doors of the New York times on 43rd street in Manhattan and pass by a demonstration supporting the articles that he wrote. Probably made it pretty embarrassing for him to deal with his colleagues.
Brooke: And in fact you write that he was already in a peculiar position of writing both for the news pages and the editorial pages. He kept saying "trust me, I'm a great asset to your paper", but by dint of writing his opinion in one section of the paper and what was ostensibly objective news in another part of the paper, he couldn't be trusted in either section.
AD: It was a dangerous precedent that was never repeated. The NY Times didn't back away from it, in fact they used his position as editorial writer and correspondent in advertisement and they were very proud of what he did. When Castro turned and showed that his revolution was intent on becoming a communist revolution, people looked for someone to blame and Matthews was the target. Blamed by Cubans who didn't like Fidel, blamed by our United States senate in congressional hearings, blamed by the journalistic community.
Brooke: Do you think he deserved that blame?
AD: A professor at Stanford said that blaming Matthews for Castro is like blaming the meteorologist for a storm. Even today, 50 years later, people are writing biographies of Castro and they still can't say, with any real authority, whether or not Castro was a communist at the time, in 1957, that he did the interview. We still don't know. Did he make mistakes? Absolutely. Did he do things the newspaper, the NY times, shouldn't have allowed through? Absolutely. Do I, as a long time staff member of the NY times, feel proud about everything that he did? Absolutely not. What I was simply trying to do was to look at the story behind the myth, and I found that there was far more myth than there was truth to it.
Brooke: Alright, thank you very much.
AD: Thank you.
Brooke: New York Times reporter Anthony Depalma is author of the man who invented Fidel Castro, Cuba and Herbert L. Matthews of the NY Times.