Fidel Castro was given up for dead, and his would-be revolution written off, in the months after his disastrous invasion of the Cuban coast in late 1956. Then a New York Times editorial writer named Herbert L. Matthews published one of the great scoops of the 20th century, reporting that not only was Castro alive, but that he was backed by a large and powerful army that was waging a successful guerrilla war against dictator Fulgencio Batista. Matthews, clearly taken by the young rebel’s charms, and sympathetic to his cause, presented a skewed picture. He called Castro a defender of the Cuban constitution, a lover of democracy, and a friend of the American people: the truth as he saw it.
The image created by Matthews stuck, helping Castro consolidate his power and gain international recognition. US attitudes toward the conflict in Cuba changed, dooming Batista. But after the triumph of the revolution, US views again abruptly shifted and Matthews was blamed for having helped bring Castro to power. The perception that Washington had been hoodwinked by Matthews and State Department officials sympathetic to Castro led to the development of the hard line which still guides US– Cuban relations.
For a brief time after his Sierra interview appeared, Matthews basked in the broadest adulation of his profession. He became one of the first great print superstars, and one of the last print giants to stand center stage in the spotlight before television became the most glamorous news platform. He was a bona fide celebrity who appeared on The Tonight Show when the biggest audience most print reporters ever had was the crowd at the local saloon. His adventures in the Sierra Maestra were celebrated in song and poetry, including an elegy written by Florence Ripley Mastin of Piermont, N.Y. and submitted to a poetry editor at The New York Times:
In the earliest days of the Cuban Revolution, when Fidel Castro’s very survival was in doubt, a veteran war correspondent of The New York Times named Herbert L. Matthews — by then an office-bound writer of editorials — was drawn into an extraordinary series of events that helped bring Castro to power and set the United States and Cuba on their long decades of suspicion and antagonism. Ever since Matthews’s initial encounter with Castro in the mountains of southeastern Cuba in 1957, there has been a debate—both journalistic and political—about his motives, his biases, and his inadequacies as a neutral observer. There have been questions about how his writing may have influenced American foreign policy by creating popular, though inaccurate, images of Castro and his movement for the American public. And there has been lingering uncertainty about whether Matthews had been duped by Castro or was simply a hopeless romantic caught up in an extraordinary moment of history.
But in all that time there has been no question about the impact of Matthews’s interview with Castro in the Sierra Maestra and the strange relationship that developed between the rebel and the reporter. His reporting on Cuba proved that Matthews had become journalist who was not content to simply report events but had to interpret them and place them in context, a journalist who relied more on access to key players than access to key documents as a source for sensitive information, a journalist who wasn’t afraid to take a position that neither his editors, nor his competitors, could agree with, marking him as something of a rebel too.
In the end, the most important question to ask about Matthews’s work in Cuba at the beginning of the Castroite revolution is not why he did what he did but whether he got the story right. And now, nearly half a century after The Times printed his articles, it is clear that on the broad outlines of Castro’s aims, Matthews had, indeed, gotten it right. Ironically, given how he thought of himself as an interpreter of events, rather than a mere recorder of them, Matthews’s major failing was in incorrectly analyzing the context of what was happening in Cuba, and how it would be perceived in the United States. That in turn contributed to misguided perceptions in Washington, where poor policy decisions were being made by a cadre of officials with little or no understanding of Latin America and its deep resentment of the United States.
Source: Myths Of The Enemy: Castro, Cuba and Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times [JUL 2004].