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 3

Matthews learned just how much of an impression his interview with Castro had made on ordinary Cubans when he returned to Havana in June. He had come to interview Batista and report on the growing unrest. Crowds of supporters greeted him at the airport, and there were more friendly faces waiting for him outside the Sevilla Biltmore Hotel. To them, Matthews was not just a newspaperman who had taken advantage of a lucky break. He was the bearer of a truth that others had been afraid to tell. He was a sympathetic eye on the rebellion, an active participant who had delivered a devastating blow at the most crucial time. He struggled to explain that this was not so, that he was just a newspaperman doing his job. But neither Castro's supporters nor the officials surrounding Batista believed him. Matthews had to deal with suspicion and adulation at the same time. He expected to raise the government's ire and was prepared to deal with it. But the flood of public admiration made him uncomfortable, as he wrote in a memo to managing editor Turner Catledge on his return.

He watched his own words become part of the political discourse in Cuba and the United States, shaping the debate and influencing public opinion.

"I never expected and certainly never wanted to be placed in the position of a public idol like Clark Gable or Frank Sinatra. I have discovered on this trip that there is nothing more embarrassing or more tiring than to be a hero and I find it a very painful as well as naturally gratifying experience." He watched his own words become part of the political discourse in Cuba and the United States, shaping the debate and influencing public opinion. His experiences in Argentina and other Latin countries had already shown Matthews how powerful American newspapers could be in the region. Despite lingering resentment toward the United States, and the grossly uneven balance of power within the hemisphere, Latin American governments were often more concerned about American newspapers than local ones because of their influence in Washington, whose support the Latin governments needed to stay in power.

Matthews recognized this, but he had never seen anything like what had happened in Cuba in the four months since his articles were published: "[I]t is really no exaggeration to say that the role we have been playing since February is of far greater importance to Cuba than that of the State Department. The articles on Fidel Castro and the Cuban situation which I did in February have literally altered the course of Cuban history, and the job I have done has also had a sensational impact on Cuban affairs." In public he continued to insist that all he ever did was to allow Castro to be himself, and being so was enough for him to take his place in the history of Latin America. But in these personal memos, it is evident that he was beginning to change his own perception of his role in the Cuban story, from strict impartiality to mounting hostility toward the Batista regime and open sympathy for its opponents. The hubris he had often been accused of came to the surface, and he claimed responsibility for shepherding the revolution for himself and for the Times: "I think we can feel proud of the extraordinary power which The New York Times possesses in a situation like this, but just because we have that power we also have a responsibility that must be considered at every step."

Ruby Phillips had agreed to arrange for Matthews to interview Batista during his visit, and she accompanied him to the bullet-ridden palace. Batista had stopped giving formal interviews, claiming he was always misquoted. He had insisted that Matthews submit his questions in writing the day before the interview. By the time Matthews arrived, Batista's English-speaking aide Edmund Chester had already written out the answers to his questions. Batista chatted with the reporters informally and off the record. Matthews knew that Batista hated him for what he had written and all the embarrassment he had caused. Nevertheless, he asked Batista tough questions about the growing rebellion. Matthews insisted that Batista would be making a grave mistake to underestimate the strength of the resistance. Batista finally conceded that Matthews was probably right, although he was mistaken about the character of the opposition. "Yes, it is serious," he said, but he insisted that his opponents did not represent a national groundswell against him, that they were mostly criminals, Communists, and paid followers of former president Carlos Prío Socarrás.

Following the meeting, Matthews flew to Santiago to see for himself how much the situation there had deteriorated. He found the usually vibrant city dark and morose. There were bombings almost every night. Rebel sympathizers were being shot, people were disappearing. Although he was under surveillance, he met openly with many representatives of civic and religious groups, all opposed to Batista and his regime, and all willing to risk being seen in order to tell Matthews how bad the situation had become. Over and over they compared what was happening in Cuba to Hungary in 1956, where Soviet troops had crushed the popular rebellion led by Imre Nagy. And they thanked him for bringing three days of peace. While he was in Santiago, they believed, Batista would not dare to attack them.

Matthews described the rebel movement as stronger than ever, with all of Oriente Province in open revolt. Batista, furious, ordered Havana newspapers not to reprint the article. But it was translated into Spanish and distributed by the underground anyway. Shortly afterward, Santiago was again the scene of a revolutionary turning point. Frank País, the urban coordinator of the 26th of July Movement, whose revolutionary mind and logistical skills matched Castro's, was ambushed and killed by the Santiago police. His death eliminated yet another potential rival. And in the continuing struggle between the rebels in the mountains and the opposition movement in the cities-the "Sierra" and the "Llano"-Castro's guerrillas grew significantly stronger because Frank País's impassioned voice had been silenced.

Returning to New York, Matthews again received another outpouring of support. About 400 Castro supporters showed up outside the Times Building on a sunny summer afternoon carrying signs to express their gratitude to the writer who had provided such critical assistance to their country: "Thanks Mr. Matthews for tell [sic] the world the truth about Cuba's democracy." The 26th of July Movement of New York bestowed on Matthews the honorary title of the "Best Friend of the Cuban People."

Matthews kept up his criticism of the regime in both editorials and news articles such as the one he wrote for the Times's Sunday magazine that summer called "The Shadow Falls on Cuba's Batista." Contrary to his prediction a few months earlier that Batista would probably finish out his term in office and leave after the 1958 elections, Matthews now predicted that the end was near and that few Cubans would give Batista any chance of lasting that long. In Cuba, rebel supporters translated the article into Spanish and passed it from hand to hand throughout Havana. René Zayas Bazán, a member of the civic resistance, sent Matthews a photostatic copy of the translated article, along with a congratulatory note: "I must say you have become a sort of legendary hero for the Cubans, for they give you sole credit for having kept Batista from turning the country into another Santo Domingo by publishing Fidel's pictures when you did."

As Matthews became increasingly critical of Batista, his reports contrasted significantly with those filed by Ruby Phillips, who still doubted Castro's popularity outside Oriente Province. Matthews grew suspicious of her, noting her long friendship with Ambassador Gardner and her links to the Batista government. She, on the other hand, resented Matthews and what she perceived to be his overtly sympathetic coverage of the rebels. Also, she was uncomfortable with his dual role as reporter and editorial writer, an arrangement that concerned many people at the Times. Phillips's account of the students' assault on the palace was sober and guarded: "Cuba Recovering from Brief Rising." But Matthews's own report on the same incident, written from New York, took a decidedly negative slant: "Cuba Is Still Smoldering Under the Batista Regime." The contradictions in their reporting would confuse readers, draw the scorn of media critics, and intensify the personal animosity between Phillips and Matthews.

Previous | Next

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.

Purchase this book at

Contents: Before the Revolution

Front Door | Contents | Galleries | Site Index | Timetables