In December, 1956, Fidel Castro and more than eighty armed guerrilla fighters disembarked their ship, the Granma, and landed in a swampy area of Cuba near the Sierra Maestra Mountains. Despite their subtlety, Castro’s landing did not go unnoticed—military forces loyal to Cuba’s military dictator, Gen. Fulgencio Batista, were already there to intercept the guerrillas. In the intense firefight that followed, around fifty of Castro’s men were killed. The rest of the survivors fled to the mountains, where they regrouped, reorganized and began recruiting.
After the initial bloody skirmish, the Cuban military pumped out heaps of propaganda claiming that Fidel Castro and other revolutionary leader were all dead. One United States reporter, however, would soon disprove the military’s claims after an interview with Castro, face-to-face.
On February 24, 1957, The New York Times published the first of Herbert L. Matthews’ three articles about the situation in Cuba. The first article was given huge coverage—it was the headline on the newspaper’s front page. With modern hindsight, the observations and descriptions given by the reporter about Castro are endlessly ironic and even humorous.
Before describing his meeting with Castro, Matthews gave a brief description of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary 26th of July Movement. He described the rebels as a youthful socialist and nationalist group that, while not very warm to the United Sates, was also anti-communist. Their goal, he claimed, was to topple Gen. Batista and reinstitute a constitutional democracy. At the time of Matthews’ article, this was actually a fairly accurate description for portions of the movement. Many revolutionaries were solely focused on ousting Batista and restoring democracy—only after Fidel Castro was in power would the more democratic revolutionaries be arrested, made to mysteriously disappear, forced into exile, or simply massacred. Yet, that is a digression from this particular story.
Along with his wife, Matthews worked with the Cuban revolutionary network near the Sierra Maestra Mountains to gain an audience with Fidel Castro. The rebels advised Matthews to bring his wife along for the journey, so that the military roadblocks would find the reporter less suspicious. After they passed the checkpoints, Matthew’s wife was left at the home of a warm and hospitable Castro sympathizer. From there the reporter posed as an American sugarcane plantation owner, with a rebel acting as his interpreter. Together, they trudged through flooded fields until they reached the mountains, where they searched for Castro’s scouts. Matthew’s guide repeatedly signaled with two low whistles, until two responding notes were heard in the distance. The scouts then led Matthews to an outpost where the Castro brothers soon arrived for their interview.
In his article, the reporter lavished the rebels with an abundance of praise. He appreciated their generous hospitality. He enjoyed their simple, but delicious, food and drink. Even a blanket he was given by the rebels was praised as luxurious. To top it all off, Fidel Castro brought Cuban cigars to the interview. In these accommodations, Matthews and Castro sat down for a hopeful conversation about the future of Cuba. Unfortunately, many of Castro’s responses turned out to be misleading propaganda.
In his interview with Matthews, Castro commented that he had no ill will toward the United States or its people. His only verbal attack against the U.S. in the interview was criticism over United States weapon shipments to Gen. Batista, a practice that the U.S. ended in 1958. Castro and his men went on to claim that they always paid for any materials that they commandeered from the countryside. The rebels even reported to Matthews that their policy toward captured soldiers was to simply disarm and release them.
Matthews challenged very little, if any, of Castro’s claims in his article, and the United States people, at that time, had a fairly positive attitude toward Fidel Castro—he was seen by many at as a modern Robin Hood figure, a man who used disreputable tactics to achieve honorable goals. United States respect for Castro would eventually plummet, however, as the dictator allied himself closer and closer to the Soviet Union as the Cold War continued to rise in tension.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Cuba Libre Story. Documentary series published by Netflix, 2016.