Front Door to Cuba

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 2

Matthews was quickly developing a strong network of sources in Cuba who told him what was happening and what was yet to come. He had established himself as the primary contact with the rebels and their anti-Batista sympathizers. As Batista's government fumbled its response, looking increasingly inept and powerless, moderate Cubans were encouraged to become involved in efforts to oust him. One of them was the conservative anti-Batista economist Rufo Lopez-Fresquet who, in early April, told Matthews that his series of articles had created an expectation that Castro was planning a spectacular attack that would clear up any doubts about his presence or the strength of his troops. Lopez-Fresquet believed the articles had made Castro a hero, greatly helping him to recruit reinforcements.

At the same time, Matthews was deepening his contacts with the Washington establishment. Because he had uniquely shaped the Cuban story and had created an image of Castro and his young rebels fighting heroically, and successfully, in the mountains, he influenced the way the story played out. And because he also wrote editorials for the Times, diplomats and Washington officials sought his opinions. Matthews freely offered his views on the Cuban situation and outlined steps to resolve the crisis. He acted as a kind of special ambassador, hoping to improve relations with Havana. It was not an unfamiliar role for a foreign correspondent in the mid-twentieth century. By involving himself in the diplomatic process, Matthews followed in the footsteps of other correspondents, including Walter Duranty, who helped bring about U.S. recognition of the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

Matthews believed that Gardner's closeness to Batista, and his sympathy for the dictator, blinded him to the atrocities taking place all over the island.

Matthews traveled to Washington in May for talks with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. The second Eisenhower administration has just begun, and Matthews encouraged Dulles to accept the pro forma resignation of Arthur Gardner as ambassador to Cuba, even though Gardner had gone directly to President Eisenhower to ask to stay on. Matthews believed that Gardner's closeness to Batista, and his sympathy for the dictator, blinded him to the atrocities taking place all over the island. Gardner had become a liability, Matthews insisted, and his continuing as ambassador would stand in the way of improving relations between the countries during the transition that Matthews believed was coming.

Although it is not clear that Matthews's recommendation tipped the scales against him, Gardner was forced to resign. In his place, Eisenhower named another one of his friends. Earl E.T. Smith was a successful businessman and fund-raiser who had never held a diplomatic position and who did not speak Spanish. But Smith had been finance chairman of the Florida Republican Committee during Eisenhower's campaign, and the posting was his reward. On the recommendation of several officials at the State Department, Smith made time during his briefing schedule to travel to New York for an off-the-record lunch with Matthews.

The two met at a midtown Manhattan restaurant for a two-and-a-half hour lunch, during which Matthews freely gave his views on Cuba, Castro, and the inevitable fall of the Batista regime, toward which he now showed obvious disdain. Matthews made it clear to the new ambassador that he felt it would be in the best interest of the United States for the dictator, the latest in a long line of corrupt Cuban rulers, to be replaced-a view he had already expressed in editorials for the Times.

Smith felt the strong views Matthews expressed during their New York lunch were similar to those of the nonpolitical career professionals who operated on the fourth floor of the State Department. Smith believed they had been influenced by the Robin Hood image of Castro created by Matthews's articles. Such views clashed with the message he was getting from the White House, which continued to back Batista, as it supported other right-wing, anti-Communist strongmen throughout Latin America, because he represented the lesser of two evils during the Cold War.

Although Matthews had not actually compared Castro to Robin Hood, he had made him seem like an impassioned outlaw dedicated to aiding his suffering people. Smith didn't know what was in store for him in Cuba, but he knew, after the briefing with Matthews and the fourth floor, that the Castro rebellion-in either its attempt to gain power or its violent failure to do so-would be one of his primary responsibilities as ambassador.

He also believed he would eventually be forced to counter Castro's growing legend. The revolution was young, and the rebel army small, with few military victories. Castro's most successful thrust by far had been the coup he scored with the Matthews interview. Following the debacle of the student assault on the palace, Castro came to a greater appreciation of the power of propaganda, and he, along with core leaders of the insurrection, wanted to organize another show of force to which they would invite American newsmen. Rebel leader Armando Hart came to Havana to discuss the idea with Mario Llerena and other leaders of the civic resistance.

Llerena, who had the most experience with journalists, suggested they contact Matthews and invite him to defy Batista's soldiers again by returning to the Sierra. Hart rejected the idea, saying Castro had made it clear that they should find someone else. The reason, he told Llerena, was that Castro considered Matthews and the Times to be sympathetic and already solidly on the rebels' side. By showing support so openly, Hart argued, Matthews had diminished his value to the movement. Better, it was decided, to try someone else now, and turn again to Matthews in the future.

Llerena suggested that an American television crew be brought in to see Castro. Such a project had already been tried once but had failed. Robert Taber of CBS had flown to Cuba shortly after he met Llerena in New York and spent several weeks waiting to see Castro. He went back empty-handed, but Llerena promised to call when another opportunity arose. Now Llerena flew to New York to make arrangements. It didn't take much to convince the television crew to return to Cuba, and the following day he, Taber, and a cameraman, Wendell Hoffman, boarded a nonstop National Airlines flight to Havana, pretending to be missionaries on a research trip to film Presbyterian schools in Cuba.

Taber and Hoffman easily evaded Batista's security at the airport. They were rushed to the Sierra, where Hart's wife, Haydée Santamaria, along with Celia Sánchez and other rebels, led them to Castro. By then, he was camped much higher in the Sierra than when he had talked to Matthews. Carrying bulky camera and sound equipment slowed them down, and Hoffman filmed the arduous climb to Castro's camp near Pico Turquino, the highest summit in Cuba. Like Matthews, they highlighted the danger of crossing the army's security line, and they put themselves squarely in the center of the story. It was a theme that was later repeated in many of the succeeding news reports-despite the fact that the very numbers of reporters making it through Batista's "ring of steel" showed how ineffective the blockade truly was.

Taber and Hoffman spent several days with Castro. When the program Rebels of the Sierra Madre: The Story of Cuba's Jungle Fighters was broadcast on a Sunday evening in May, it left no doubt that Castro was alive and still in the Sierra Maestra. In the half-hour program, Taber repeated some of the same sympathetic and heroic myths about Castro that Matthews had told. He showed the rebels paying local campesinos for supplies, and he allowed the fighters to boast about the deadly accuracy of their telescopic rifles. Taber knew that Matthews had stolen all the glory of finding Castro, so the black-and-white documentary focused in part on a long interview with three young Americans who, after reading Matthews's reports, had left their homes on the American military base at Guantanamo Bay and joined Castro. The Cubans were fighting for freedom, like the heroes of their own American Revolution, they said. Taber would eventually convince Castro to allow the youngest two of them to leave the mountains and return to the city with him. The third, Charles Ryan, who was twenty, stayed behind.

Throughout the program, the rebels were always shown in sympathetic poses, drawing water ingeniously from hanging vines, peering through dense undergrowth with their rifles poking through the foliage, cooking over open fires, even raiding a beehive in a tree stump for its honey. Critical commentary was limited to Taber's concerns about the careless way the men handled their firearms, which resulted in one of them accidentally shooting himself in the hand while Taber was there. Taber ended the program by handing his microphone to Castro and allowing him to speak directly to the American public in halting English. Castro demanded the end of arms shipments to the Cuban government, and he criticized Batista's clumsy efforts to hide the truth of what was happening in the Sierra.

"As Herbert Matthews, the reporter of The New York Times, said, the truth will always be known, with or without censorship, because there are always brave reporters, like you two, that will always be risking your lives for seeking things out," Castro told Taber, adding, "When the tirano [tyrant] Batista learns that two more Americans have made him a fool, he will become furious." Castro claimed again, as he had in the Matthews interview, that all the people of the Sierra Maestra were with him and that the cream of Batista's army was incapable of containing rebel forces. "We always know where he is," he said, speaking of Batista's army, "but he never knows where we are."

The program was edited by Don Hewitt, who would later go on to create 60 Minutes for CBS. It was not shown in Cuba, but parts of the interview and still photographs taken during Taber's journey were made into an article in Life magazine, which did get distributed in Cuba. As Batista fumed, the myth of Castro-and the American reporter who invented that myth-grew.

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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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