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Castro, before and after

Published June 11, 2006

The story of Fidel Castro's rise to power in Cuba never ceases to provide fodder for historians. More than 46 years later, his future demise now also provides plenty of food for thought.

The world got its first real glimpse of Castro thanks to Herbert Matthews, the New York Times correspondent who traveled into the Sierra Maestra to interview him in February 1957. A few months earlier, Castro had landed in Cuba with a boatload of guerrillas determined to overthrow the widely despised regime of dictator Fulgencio Batista. The landing had gone badly, and by early 1957 Batista was claiming Castro and all his men were dead.

The dictator was wrong. But Matthews' story didn't get it absolutely right either. While he correctly predicted Batista's overthrow, he painted an overly rosy picture of the young Castro and his bearded troops.

The controversy surrounding his reporting was so great that the formal obituary that ran in the New York Times after his death referred to him as "one of the most criticized newspapermen of his time."

Matthews was an enterprising foreign correspondent who got his feet wet in Spain during the civil war in the 1930s, befriending Ernest Hemingway and siding with the leftist cause. In Cuba, he found another underdog cause.

His life story, so well researched and laid out in these pages by fellow New York Times foreign correspondent Anthony DePalma, provides an important lesson to every budding journalist: Never fall in love with your source, however much privileged access you are granted.

DePalma derives the title of his book from a memo Matthews wrote to a New York Times editor, proclaiming "the unavoidable fact that I, as inventor of Fidel Castro, am caught up in the chain of events occurring in Cuba."

While DePalma argues that Matthews' 1957 articles did not "create Fidel from nothing," they changed his image "from hotheaded loser to noble rogue with broad ideals."

Matthews enjoyed exclusive access to the Castro government, providing him with unique insights into the revolution. But his obsession with being the only journalist who really knew what was going on in Cuba blinded him from uglier aspects of the revolution that did not fit his romantic ideals.

It was a dangerous time in America to be writing sympathetically about the left. Matthews was undeterred, confident that he had nothing to fear. Indeed, there were no communist skeletons in his closet, despite the suspicions of the FBI.

Nor did Matthews believe Castro was a communist at heart. "Personally, I feel quite certain that Cuba under its present leaders will neither go communist nor come under communist control or even great influence," he wrote in a letter to his boss.

Editors were continually frustrated by the bias that crept into his stories, and tried to confine his writing to the editorial pages. They felt his closeness to Castro was "inappropriate" and dangerous for the paper's reputation.

Castro's own lavish praise of Matthews didn't help, including during a famous visit to New York. "Without your help, the revolution in Cuba would not have succeeded," he remarked on a visit to the New York Times.

When Castro joined the Soviet camp, Matthews continued to defend him, blaming the revolution's course on bungled U.S. diplomacy. There may be some truth to that. Indeed, defenders of Matthews praise his courage for standing up to the mainstream media.

After he resigned in January 1967 after 44 years at the paper, Matthews continued to write books on Cuba. He was unrepentant. After his last trip to the island in 1972, he wrote that he still believed the revolution would benefit the Cuban people.

DePalma writes that before Matthews' death in 1977, he had come to realize that his understanding of Castro failed to take into account the dictator's chameleon character, which placed opportunism above ideals.

That is certainly the psychological profile of Castro that emerges from Brian Latell's equally insightful book, After Fidel. A career CIA analyst turned academic, Latell writes from a uniquely privileged perspective. He blends his own institutional knowledge with interviews with present and former members of Cuba's leadership to provide a highly nuanced assessment of Cuba's future after Castro is gone.

With Castro, now almost 80, showing signs of deteriorating health, a post-Castro scenario is beginning to emerge more clearly.

For many years it was presumed that Castro's death would be the end of the revolution, and that a period of likely convulsion would follow. But communist Cuba's survival after the collapse of the Soviet bloc has defied its critics. Latell belongs to a growing school of academics who argue that the system in place in Cuba is more durable than previously recognized. Much of the credit for this belongs to Fidel's younger brother, Raul Castro, an often overlooked and underestimated figure.

Latell is the first to recognize Castro's "exceptional, often remarkable, leadership qualities." But Latell contends that the longevity of the revolution would not have been possible without Raul.

His younger brother is Fidel's "one truly indispensable ally," Latell writes. "Without him it is unlikely Fidel would still be in power."

It's a mutually dependant relationship. "Each of the two was his brother's keeper. ... Their talent, their style, and proclivities intersect and complement each other."

Fidel is "the visionary," in Latell's analysis, while "Raul has the organizational skills." Latell uses Raul's diary from the guerrilla days in the Sierra Maestra to highlight Raul's obsession with organization.

Appointed minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces as early as October 1959 - a position he still holds - Raul is the "guarantor of political stability."

Whenever Fidel needs an important task fulfilled - including executions - he turns to Raul. Latell describes in detail how in 1989 it was Raul who was delegated the painful task of explaining to the armed forces the necessity of executing one of Cuba's top generals.

Again, facing economic ruin in the early 1990s after the loss of Soviet subsidies, it is the armed forces under Raul that hold things together. Many of Cuba's key civilian posts are filled with military officers loyal to Raul who run the country's key institutions, including tourism, the main foreign currency earner.

Latell cannot say Raul will lead the country down a different path after Fidel is gone. But he hints that Raul's pragmatism could open doors that Fidel has kept tightly shut.

It is this dispassionate analysis that sadly was so lacking in Matthews' approach to Cuba. Indeed, if Matthews was the man who "invented" Fidel, Latell's book is a valuable contribution to demystifying him.

Times Latin America correspondent David Adams is based in Miami. He can be contacted at

[Last modified June 11, 2006, 06:24:40]

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