Front Door to Cuba Front Door to Cuban History

Book Excerpt:
The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba, and Herbert L. Matthews of the New York Times

By Anthony DePalma


Chapter 7: The Best Friend Of The Cuban People - Part 1

When Che Guevara first heard a radio report about Matthews's articles, the living breath was being squeezed out of him. Chill nightly rains had brought on his asthma, and he had lost his asthma medicine somewhere in the chaos of the previous ten weeks in the Sierra. When it got so bad that he could barely walk, he decided to hole up in a coffee grove near the thatched-roof hut of a peasant, Emiliano Leyva, who had offered the rebels shelter. It was the end of February, and with the sugar harvest well advanced and the island comparatively quiet, Batista had decided to lift his forty-five-day censorship order a few days early. While Che waited for his asthma to loosen its grip on his scarred lungs, the first uncensored radio broadcasts were put on the air.

Castro told Che he had described himself as an anti-imperialist who objected in the strongest terms to the United States selling arms to Batista...

Che had not been present during the interview with Matthews. All he knew of it was what Castro had told him-that Matthews seemed to understand what they were trying to do and had not asked any tricky questions intended to trip him up. In answer to one of Matthews's questions, Castro told Che he had described himself as an anti-imperialist who objected in the strongest terms to the United States selling arms to Batista, arms that would, undoubtedly, be used against the rebels. Now, free of the censors' restrictions, the radio reported how the American reporter had made a fool of the army's chief of staff, General Francisco Tabernilla, by skirting his supposedly impenetrable security ring. And it mocked the ineptitude of the government because Batista's minister of defense claimed the whole episode was a fantasy, which it clearly was not.

In months to come, Guevara's appreciation for what the interview had contributed to the rebels' cause would grow substantially. Eventually, he would declare that for the small group, Matthews's brief visit had been worth more than a military victory.

The first few months of 1957 were a critical time for the rebels. The meeting of national leaders and Castro's interview with Matthews marked the movement's first steps out of the mountains and toward its final goal-Havana. But the same months were among the most difficult for the small band. Che considered this time "the most painful days of the war." Militarily, they were weak. Supplies were low. Morale, despite what Castro had told Matthews, was wavering. For every peasant who joined the rebels, another wandered off and quit or, worse still, betrayed the group for a few pesos by telling Batista's officers where they could be found. Che had been separated from the main group time after time, and he continually struggled with his aching lungs. He was so hobbled by asthma that he had arrived six days late for a meeting with Fidel. By the time he got there, Castro was long gone.

While Che waited at the Leyva family farm for reinforcements to come from Santiago, he also heard that a group of radical students lead by José Antonio Echeverría had attacked the Presidential Palace. At this time, Echeverría's followers outnumbered Castro's. Although the two headstrong leaders had agreed in Mexico to cooperate, they had radically different ideas about how to achieve their goal. Echeverría wanted to go after Batista himself, assassinating him and opening the door for someone else who would restore constitutional government. Castro worried that eliminating the leader of the corrupt system didn't necessarily end the system itself. He feared that killing Batista would simply provide an opportunity for another crooked politician to take over without righting any of Cuba's serious political failings.

Echeverría, as leader of the radical opposition at the University of Havana, had the students working out details of their subversive plan when they heard about Matthews's articles. He saw how quickly Castro was becoming a living legend, and he hastened to regain momentum for his own movement. The students had already worked out their strategy-a direct attack on the palace while Batista was inside. A similar attempt the previous year had been scuttled when Batista somehow got word of it in advance. Following Matthews's articles, with all Havana focused on Castro, the plotters realized that they risked losing everything to the 26th of July Movement if they waited any longer.

Just over a week after Matthews's series ended, fifty men huddled together in a Havana apartment, waiting for a telephone call to spring into action. Dozens more kept their rifles, pistols, and machine guns at their sides, prepared to start the revolution.

The students had already worked out their strategy-a direct attack on the palace while Batista was inside.

The palace sits in the center of Old Havana, facing the sea. City streets skirt it on three sides, and the grand entrance is yards behind the remnants of the ancient wall that once surrounded the city. Just after lunch on March 13, the first fifty invaders crashed through the front gates in several cars and a red and black truck with the words "Fast Delivery" in English painted on its side. Echeverría led a raid by a smaller group on the broadcast studio of Radio Reloj, a popular Havana radio station, and took it over. Batista had again been tipped off, but he did not know exactly when the attack would occur. He sat in his office, reading Jim Bishop's book The Day Lincoln Was Shot.

With guns blazing, the attackers shot their way into the palace, quickly reaching as far as Batista's second-floor office. But as they burst into the ornate room, their hearts sank as they realized the dictator was not there. He had taken refuge on the third floor, which could only be reached by a special elevator the attackers did not know about. As Echeverría, presuming the attack had succeeded, breathlessly announced the death of the tyrant from the Radio Reloj studio, the invaders fired on the third floor but were turned back by Batista's more powerful defenses. They retreated, and in the ensuing chaos many were killed. Echeverría destroyed the radio station's control panel with an explosive, then ran outside to join his triumphant co-conspirators, where he was shot dead by police. The battle between the students and Batista's presidential guard spilled out into the adjoining streets. The thick exterior walls of Ruby Phillips's office, a block away from the palace, were riddled with bullets.

In all, thirty-five young men, including Echeverría, were killed that day, along with five palace guards. One of Castro's chief competitors had been eliminated. And like Castro, Batista was reported to have been killed, only to return to play a far more important role in Cuban history. The day after the assault, a hale-looking Batista appeared at an award ceremony with Ambassador Gardner, who presented him with a ceremonial golden telephone. To many Cubans, this was a symbol that Batista had not only survived the attack, but retained the U.S. support he relied on to stay in power.

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From the book The Man Who Invented Fidel by Anthony DePalma. Copyright © 2006. Reprinted by arrangement with Public Affairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.

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