It was Feb. 1957, and the situation was bleak for outmanned revolutionary Fidel Castro.
Two months earlier, Castro, Che Guevara and an intrepid band of 80 landed in Cuba to incite a revolt against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Within weeks, scores of Castro’s followers were captured or killed, and few more than a dozen disheveled fighters remained, “fortified” in the lofty ridges of Sierra Maestra on the island’s southeastern coast. They slept in the dirt, wanted for food, and had a Batista army 40,000 strong to reckon with.
Enter Herbert Matthews of The New York Times, whose survey of the situation concluded that Castro and his band of starving jungle rats were on the verge of victory.
Matthews’ report, published Feb 24, 1957, was the first confirmation that Castro was still alive — the Batista government had claimed theretofore that he had been killed months earlier. In this respect, the report was one of the biggest scoops of the decade. It was also a propaganda coup for Castro and his fledgling cadre of fighters who, at the moment, had no reasonable hope of victory.
When Matthews arrived at the Sierra Maestra camp, Castro fooled him into reporting that his ranks had swelled in the intervening months. He marched the same group of fighters (indeed, his only group of fighters) past Matthews several times to give the impression that his army was growing. He also staged the arrival of several messengers, ostensibly to relay reports about other columns of guerrilla fighters. In reality, no other units existed. (RELATED: Justin Trudeau Mocked After Praising Oppressive Dictator Fidel Castro)
“Havana does not and cannot know that thousands of men and women are heart and soul with Fidel Castro and the new deal for which they think he stands,” Matthews wrote. “It does not know that hundreds of highly respected citizens are helping Senor Castro, thats bombs and sabotage are constant, that a fierce Government counterterrorism has aroused the populace even more against General Batista.”
“From the look of things, General Batista cannot possibly hope to suppress the Castro revolt,” he continued, writing that the men under Castro’s command “adored” him.
The report was perhaps the most important triumph of those hard months. Writing for the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies, Anthony DePalma wrote that Castro’s interview with Matthews was one of the most important developments of the Cuban revolution:
Castro’s group used the articles as proof of their growing strength, and in time both fundraising and recruitment benefited substantially from them. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who was already with Castro in the Sierra when the interview took place, said that Matthews’s work was more important to the rebels than a victory on the battlefield.
He also writes:
His heroic portrayal of Castro as a scruffy mountain rebel leading an insurrection of Cuban youths against Batista was the image on which American perceptions of the revolution would be widely based for several years. By highlighting Castro’s promises to restore Cuba’s constitution and hold free elections, his articles and their prominent display in The Times (two of them on the front page, a third inside, and all three heavily promoted within the paper) increased pressure on Washington to stop shipping arms to Batista.
DePalma published a book on the subject in 2007 called “The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba, and Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times.” Matthews, today viewed in the academic literature as something of a Castro apologist (long denying, for example that Castro was a Marxist, even after he explicitly embraced Marxism-Leninism), went on to an ignominious retirement.
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