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Fidel Castro casts spell on man who ‘invented’ him
As the self-styled “man who invented Fidel,” a New York Times reporter went to Cuba in 1957 to interview a man who is still in the news and still an enigma.
But Herbert Matthews got too close to Fidel Castro and botched the assignment, according to another Times reporter, Anthony DePalma.
“He allowed himself to be used,” DePalma said in a session entitled “Reporter and source: Too close?” Thursday, March 15.
Truth ‘a malleable substance’
“Truth is a malleable substance, able to be used by both sides. Matthews is idealized in Cuba for telling the truth and villainized in America for distorting it.”
DePalma said he has no sympathy for Matthews, given that he had allowed himself to be deluded by Castro.
“As a correspondent for The New York Times, Matthews should not have let himself be led on by Castro,” DePalma said.
‘Done in by his arrogance’
“He was arrogant, and he was done in by his arrogance.”
Born in New York in 1900, Matthews graduated from Columbia with a degree in Romance languages and became a secretary for Arthur Hays Sulzberger, The Times’ publisher.
Matthews later became a foreign correspondent, covering the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and writing favorably about Mussolini. He also wrote favorably about the Loyalist faction in the Spanish Civil War, DePalma said.
In 1949, having survived prison in Italy, Matthews returned to The Times.
Because of Sulzberger, he became a foreign correspondent for Latin America and also wrote editorials, which is and was taboo in most newspapers, DePalma said.
In 1956, Castro returned to Cuba from exile in Mexico, attempting to stage a coup against the dictator Fulgencio Batista.
He failed and was reported killed with his brother Raul. However, Castro was alive, having fled into the Sierra Maestra.
Castro’s troops contacted Ruby Hart Phillips, The Times correspondent for Cuba, in January, 1957, trying to arrange for the reporter to interview Castro.
Phillips declined, but suggested that Matthews could do the interview.
Secret message from Castro
Castro sent Matthews a secret message, and he flew down to conduct the interview in February.
“At the time, Castro was presenting himself as a friend of democracy, the flaming symbol of Cuban youth,” DePalma said.
“Castro was the kind of hero America was looking for in 1957,” DePalma said.
“Matthews was up in the mountains, Castro came through the bushes with an old telescopic rifle in his hand, and Matthews fell under his spell,” he said.
When Matthews returned from Cuba, he wrote a glowing article, idealizing Castro as a model leader.
Matthews’ article proclaiming Castro not only alive but also capable of leading a revolution sparked a meteoric rise in Castro’s popularity.
“There were daily demonstrations outside The Times in which Cuban-Americans supported The Times for supporting Castro,” DePalma said.
As it turned out, the article caused such a stir in Cuba that students attacked the presidential palace in Havana.
The revolution proved to be a success, and in 1959 Castro named Matthews a “best friend of the Cuban Revolution,” DePalma said.
But as Castro became more of a Communist, DePalma said, “the U.S. began to look for a scapegoat, and Matthews was it.”
Matthews’ name was “dragged before 10 Senate subcommittees,” DePalma said. Matthews retired in 1967 and never admitted guilt.
“Blaming me is like blaming a weatherman for a storm,” Matthews said.
In Cuba Matthews was hero-worshipped, DePalma said. His name is next to Mark Twain’s on the “North American hero wall” in Havana.
DePalma, the author of The Man who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba and Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times, said that Matthews did not feel betrayed by Castro’s embrace of Communism.
But Matthews said he did feel betrayed when Castro began to refuse to see him.
At the New York Press Club
And when in 1959 Castro told the New York Press Club that Matthews was “always trying to tell me what to do,” it became clear that Castro was using Matthews to serve his own purposes, DePalma said.
He showed a picture of the site of Matthews’ interview with Castro and of a marble monument commemorating the meeting.
“It was strange being almost at Ground Zero of the Cuban Revolution,” DePalma said.
Despite his belief that Matthews was too easily fooled by Castro, DePalma described Matthews’ interview as having effects almost unique in journalism.
“Journalists are often present when history is made,” he said, “but rarely do journalists make history.”
Ben Plotkin is an editor of the Newtonite at Newton North High School in Newtonville, Mass.
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CSPA is an international student press association, founded in 1925, whose goal is to unite student journalists and faculty advisers at schools and colleges through educational conferences, idea exchanges, textbooks, critiques and award programs.