Thursday, March 15, 2012

Who Invented Fidel Castro?

Anthony DePalma
        Anthony DePalma, now a professor at Seton Hall University after a notable career as a foreign correspondent at the New York Times (and the only one to serve as bureau chief in both Mexico and Canada), added to the history, myths, truths, and distortions of the Cuban Revolution with a best-selling 2006 book.
        Anthony DePalma's The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba, and Herbert L. Mathews of the New York Times featured a trove of illuminating insight thanks to his access to the NYT's archives but his title primarily exudes eye-catching hyperbole.
        Herbert Lionel Mathews was born in New York City on January 10, 1900 and he died on July 30, 1977. He gained fame and notoriety as a reporter and editorialist for the New York Times. In his peak years, Mathews was the favorite reporter of both Times' publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger and the novelist Ernest Hemingway.
         The above photo depicts the absolute zenith in the life of Herbert L. Mathews and one of the milestones in the career of Fidel Castro. It was taken on February 17, 1957 in the Sierra Maestra Mountains of eastern Cuba. The historical significance of the iconic photo has been both overwhelming and over-stated but the man Mathews is interviewing above was supposed to be dead according to the Batista dictatorship in Cuba and the U. S. government in Washington, with both dominant sources claiming Fidel had been killed along with most of the other 81 rebels  as they arrived on the Cuban shoreline from Mexico in December of 1956 with the goal of overthrowing the U. S. - backed Batista dictatorship. But three front-page articles under the Herbert L. Mathews byline in the very influential New York Times, complete with the photo, proved to the world that Fidel Castro was very much alive and, in fact, leading a serious revolution against Batista. Till then, especially with the widespread reports of Fidel's death, the rebel activities in the Sierra Maestra and its foothills were routinely depicted as a nuisance but dismissed as a threat to the powerful Batista.  
         Fidel's life after his arrival from Mexico on the ill-fated old yacht Granma had been saved by a rebel unit led by Celia Sanchez and Haydee Santamaria, history's two greatest female guerrilla fighters.
            Both before and after Fidel's arrival in the Sierra Maestra, the rebel leader and prime recruiter, organizer, and decision-maker in the July 26th Revolution was Celia Sanchez. At first, she relished the mistaken reports about Fidel's supposed death. But she knew that he was the hero to the island's majority peasants who longed for an end to the brutal-thieving Batista dictatorship and that had been so since Fidel's disastrous July 26-1953 attack on Batista's Moncada Army Garrison on the edge of Santiago de Cuba. When the peasants believed Fidel was dead, Celia knew it was adversely affecting her vital recruitment of rebels and supplies. Thus, she made the decision to prove to the world that Fidel was alive and was leading the uprising in the Sierra. She got word to a female contact at the New York Times bureau in Havana and they arranged the parameters for Herbert L. Mathews, known to be very sympathetic to the rebels and fiercely anti-Batista, to interview Fidel in the Sierra. As directed, Mathews waited at a rail head in the Sierra foothills. Celia and Haydee on a daring mission met Mathews and led him to the rebel camp high up in the treacherous mountains. It was not easy. In his late fifties, Mathews was not in good physical shape and the two females had to ably assist him over the rocky, marshy, steep, and dense terrain. But, as with other major Celia Sanchez stratagems, the mission was successful. The Herbert L. Mathews revelations greatly boosted Celia's recruitment of rebels and supplies, reinvigorating the revolution.
        Fidel himself always appreciated the impact of the Herbert L. Mathews interview in the Sierra Maestra mountains, as well as Mathews' continued support of the revolution and Revolutionary Cuba. In the above photo, Fidel, as the leader of Cuba, pins a medal on Mathews' lapel.
          Herbert L. Mathews, when he died in 1977, was still Fidel's friend although by then he had taken much heat for his support of the Cuban Revolution and Revolutionary Cuba. To this day, many historians believe that the timing and the sensationalistic aspects of the three Mathews articles on  the front page of the New York Times provided the impetus for the improbable success of the Cuban Revolution.
          In New York seated beside Herbert L. Mathews in 1960 Fidel inadvertently mocked the renowned journalist when he joked that at the time of the famous interview in the Sierra he had only "18 soldiers" and he fooled Mathews by having them repeatedly march around him, giving the impression he had many more rebels than he actually had.
         Anthony DePalma, in his book about the man who invented Fidel, used that "18 soldiers" comment by Fidel to demean Mathews for being fooled into believing and reporting that there were many more rebels in the Sierra than that. Many other journalists and historians have done the same thing, some self-servingly. DePalma, in fact, credited Celia Sanchez for orchestrating the ruse about having the "18" rebels march around in a manner that would convince Mathews there were hundreds of men with Fidel. But Mathews was neither stupid nor blind, as Celia well knew, so such a ruse never happened although much ink has been devoted to saying it did.
         Years later (1972) when Celia Sanchez was the key decision-maker in Cuba (with Fidel's blessing), she happened to mention in a letter to her American friend Nora Peters that she had "312" very capable rebels in the Sierra Maestra by the time Fidel, Che, Camilo, and the other macho men arrived from Mexico. Indeed, she waited for the arrival of the Granma at a specific spot with a rebel unit capable of fighting off a strong Batista army known to be in the area. Celia, not self-serving or non-diligent journalists and historians, chronicled the revolution accurately. She, for example, had the definitive quote regarding the landing of the Granma, explaining that the 82 rebels from Mexico would have had a "walk-away" if the old yacht had not begun sinking miles from where she waited with a rebel unit that could have protected all of them and not just the 17 she managed to save.
          Beyond question, Celia Sanchez saved Fidel Castro's life after his debarkation from the Granma. Prior to hooking up with Celia Sanchez in the Sierra Maestra, Fidel's anti-Batista efforts had all been failures. After joining Celia Sanchez, Fidel went undefeated. Celia Sanchez not only arranged Herbert L. Mathews' fortuitous interview with Fidel in the Sierra, she was the one that bravely went and fetched him. Conclusion: Anthony DePalma should write another book, this time with the title Celia Sanchez: The Lady Who Invented BOTH Fidel Castro And Herbert L. Mathews.
          And then Anthony DePalma could write another book entitled The Cuban Women Who Invented Fidel Castro, honoring those who were the first to take to the streets and very courageously denounce the brutality of the Batista dictatorship, spawning the revolution that created Fidel Castro as opposed to Fidel Castro creating it.

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