Interview of Fidel Castro
[FEB 24, 1957]
by Herbert L. Matthews
Cuban rebel is visited in hideout; Castro is still alive and still fighting in mountains
Fidel Castro, the rebel leader of Cuba's youth, is alive and fighting hard and successfully in the rugged, almost impenetrable fastnesses of the Sierra Maestra, at the southern tip of the island.
President Fulgencio Batista has the cream of his Army around the area, but the Army men are fighting a thus-far losing battle to destroy the most dangerous enemy General Batista has yet faced in a long and adventurous career as a Cuban leader and dictator.
This is the first sure news that Fidel Castro is still alive and still in Cuba. No one connected with the outside world, let alone with the press, has seen Senor Castro except this writer. No one in Havana, not even at the United States Embassy with its resources for getting information, will know until this report is published that Fidel Castro is really in the Sierra Maestra.
This account, among other things, will break the tightest censorship in the history of the Cuban Republic. The Province of Oriente, with its 2,000,000 inhabitants, its flourishing cities such as Santiago, Holguin and Manzanillo, is shut off from Havana as surely as if it were another country. 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. It does not know that hundreds of highly respected citizens are helping Senor Castro, that bombs and sabotage are constant (eighteen bombs were exploded in Santiago on Feb. 15), that a fierce Government counter terrorism has aroused the populace even more against President Batista.
Throughout Cuba a formidable movement of opposition to General Batista has been developing. It has by no means reached an explosive point. The rebels in the Sierra Maestra cannot move out. The economic situation is good. President Batista has the high officers of the Army and the police behind him and he ought to be able to hang on for the nearly two years of his present term that are still left.
However, there are bad spots in the economy, especially on the fiscal side. Unemployment is heavy; corruption is rife. No one can predict anything with safety except that Cuba seems in for a very troubled period.
Fidel Castro and his 26th of July Movement are the flaming symbol of this opposition to the regime. The organization, which is apart from the university students' opposition, is formed of youths of all kinds. It is a revolutionary movement that calls itself socialistic. It is also nationalistic, which generally in Latin America means anti-Yankee.
The program is vague and couched in generalities, but it amounts to a new deal for Cuba, radical, democratic and therefore anti-Communist. The real core of its strength is that it is fighting against the military dictatorship of President Batista.
To arrange for me to penetrate the Sierra Maestra and meet Fidel Castro, dozens of men and women in Havana and Oriente Province ran a truly terrible risk. They must, of course, be protected with the utmost care in these articles for their lives would be forfeit - after the customary torture - immediately if any could be traced. Consequently, no names are used here, the places are disguised and many details of the elaborate, dangerous trail in and out of the Sierra Maestra must be omitted.
From the looks of things, General Batista cannot possibly hope to suppress the Castro revolt. His only hope is that an Army column will come upon the young rebel leader and his staff and wipe them out. This is hardly likely to happen, if at all, before March 1, when the present suspension of constitutional guarantees is supposed to end.
Fidel Castro is the son of a Spaniard from Galicia, a "Gallego" like Generalissimo Francisco Franco. The father was a pick-and-shovel laborer early in this century for the United Fruit Company, whose sugar plantations are on the northern shores of Oriente Province. A powerful build, a capacity for hard work and a shrewd mind led the father up in the world until he became a rich sugar planter himself When he died last year each of his children, including Fidel, inherited a sizeable fortune.
§Flight to U.S.
Someone who knew the family remembers Fidel as a child of 4 or 5 years, living a sturdy farm life. The father sent him to school and the University of Havana, where he studied law and became one of the student opposition leaders who rebelled against General Batista in 1952 because the General had staged a garrison revolt and prevented the presidential elections of that year.
Fidel had to flee from Cuba in 1955 and he lived for a while in New York and Miami. The year 1956, he announced, was to be the "year of decision." Before the year ended, he said, he would be
The Government knew that he had gone to Mexico and last summer was training a body of youths who had left Cuba to join him. As the end of the year approached the Cuban Army was very much on the alert, knowing that something would be tried and that Fidel Castro was coming back. He was already, in a measure, a hero of the Cuban youth, for on July 26, 1953, he had led a band of youths in a desperate attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba.
In the fighting then about 100 students and soldiers were killed but the revolt failed. The Archbishop of Santiago, Msgr. Enrique Perez Serantes, intervened to minimize the bloodshed and got Senor Castro and others to surrender on promises of a fair trial. Fidel Castro was sentenced to fifteen years in prison but there was an amnesty at the time of the Presidential elections of Nov. 1, 1954, and he was let out. It was then he crossed to the continent and began to organize the 26th of July Movement. It is under this banner that the youth of Cuba are now fighting the Batista regime.
The blow, which at the time seemed an utter failure, was struck on Dec. 2, 1956. That day a 62-foot diesel-engined yacht, the Gramma, landed eighty-two young men, trained for two months on a ranch in Mexico, on the Oriente shore below Niquero at a spot called Playa Colorada. The idea had been to land at Niquero, recruit followers and lead an open attack against the Government. However, the Gramma had been spotted by a Cuban naval patrol boat. Planes flew in to strafe and the men on the yacht decided to beach her.
Playa Colorada, unhappily for the invaders, was a treacherous swamp. The men lost their food and most of their arms and supplies and soon were being attacked by army units. They scattered and took to the hills. Many were killed. Of the eighty-two no more than fifteen or twenty were left after a few days.
President Batista and his aides were remarkably successful from then on in hiding what happened. The youths they captured were forced to sign statements saying that they had been told Fidel Castro was on the Gramma with them but that they had never seen him. Thus doubt was cast that he had ever come to Cuba.
Because of the complete censorship, Havana and the other Cuban cities crackle with the most astonishing rumors, one constantly encouraged by the Government has been that Fidel Castro is dead. Only those fighting with him and those who had faith and hope knew or thought he was alive - and those who knew were very few and in the utmost peril of their lives if their knowledge was traced.
As the story unfolded of how he had at first gathered the few remnants of the Eighty-two around him; kept the Government troops at bay while youths came in from other parts of Oriente as General Batista's counter-terrorism aroused them; got arms and supplies and then began the series of raids and counter-attacks of guerrilla warfare, one got a feeling that he is now invincible. Perhaps he isn't, but that is the faith he inspires in his followers.
They have had many fights, and inflicted many losses, Senor Castro said. Government planes came over and bombed every day; in fact, at 9 sharp a plane did fly over. The troops took up positions; a man in a white shirt was hastily covered up. But the plane went on to bomb higher in the mountains.
Castro is a great talker. His brown eyes flash; his intense face is pushed close to the listener and the whispering voice, as in a stage play lends a vivid sense of drama.
We have been fighting for seventy-nine days now and are stronger than ever,
The soldiers are fighting badly; their morale is low and ours could not be higher. We are killing many, but when we take prisoners they are never shot. We question them, talk kindly to them, take their arms and equipment, and then set them free.
I know that they are always arrested afterward and we heard some were shot as examples to the others, but they don't want to fight, and they don't know how to fight this kind of mountain warfare. We do.
The Cuban people hear on the radio all about Algeria, but they never hear a word about us or read a word, thanks to the censorship. You will be the first to tell them. I have followers all over the island. All the best elements, especially all the youth, are with us. The Cuban people will stand anything but oppression.
I asked him about the report that he was going to declare a revolutionary government in the Sierra.
The time is not ripe. I will make myself known at the opportune moment. It will have all the more effect for the delay, for now everybody is talking about us. We are sure of ourselves.
There is no hurry. Cuba is in a state of war, but Batista is hiding it. A dictatorship must show that it is omnipotent or it will fall; we are showing that it is impotent.
The Government, he said with some bitterness, is using arms furnished by the United States, not only against him but against all the Cuban people.
They have bazookas, mortars, machine guns, planes and bombs, but we are safe here in the Sierra; they must come and get us, and they cannot.
Senor Castro speaks some English, but he preferred to talk in Spanish, which he did with extraordinary eloquence. His is a political mind rather than a military one. He has strong ideas of liberty, democracy, social justice, the need to restore the Constitution, to hold elections. He has strong ideas on economy, too, but an economist would consider them weak.
The 26th of July Movement talks of nationalism, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism. I asked Senor Castro about that. He answered,
You can besure we have no animosity toward the United States and the American people.
Above all, we are fighting for a democratic Cuba and an end to the dictatorship. We are not anti-military; that is why we let the soldier prisoners go. There is no hatred of the Army as such, for we know the men are good and so are many of the officers.
Batista has 3,000 men in the field against us. I will not tell you how many we have, for obvious reasons. He works in columns of 200; we in groups of ten to forty, and we are winning. It is a battle against time and time is on our side.
To show that he deals fairly with the guajiros he asked someone to bring "the cash." A soldier brought a bundle wrapped in dark brown cloth, which Senor Castro unrolled. There was a stack of peso bills at least a foot high-about $4,000 he said, adding that he had all the money he needed and could get more.
Why should soldiers die for Batista for $72 a month? When we win, we will give them $100 a month, and they will serve a free, democratic Cuba.
I am always in the front line,
and others confirmed this fact. Such being the case, the Army might yet get him, but in present circumstances he seems almost invulnerable.
They never know where we are, but we always know where they are. You have taken quite a risk in coming here, but we have the whole area covered, and we will get you out safely.
They did. We ploughed our way back through the muddy undergrowth in broad day light, but always keeping under cover. The scout went like a homing pigeon through woods and across fields where there were no paths straight to a farmer's house on the edge of the Sierra. There we hid in a back room while someone borrowed a horse and went for the jeep, which had been under cover all night.
There was one road block to get through with an Army guard so suspicious our hearts sank, but he let us through.
After that, washed, shaved and looking once again like an American tourist, with my wife as "camouflage," we had no trouble driving back through the road blocks to safety and then on to Havana. So far as anyone knew, we had been away fishing for the week-end, and no one bothered us as we took the plane to New York.
Source: Matthews Interview of Fidel Castro [1957, Part 1], The New York Times.