Sunday, February 18, 2007

American who made Castro a legend

Cuba honours American who made Castro a legend
Reuters February 19, 2007

Cuba unveiled a marble plaque on Saturday commemorating the interview 50 years ago by New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews that helped build the legend of Fidel Castro, the state news agency Prensa Latina reported. The plaque was placed on the spot where Matthews met with Castro at his hideout in the Sierra Maestra mountains of south eastern Cuba.

Castro had taken to the hills two months earlier with a handful of men who survived a disastrous landing from Mexico to launch a guerrilla movement against US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. The government had claimed Castro was dead. Matthews’ article, published by The New York Times on February 24, 1957, showed Castro was still alive and fighting. It immediately made the 30-year-old firebrand an international figure.

In that glowing article Matthews wrote: “The personality of the man (Castro) is overpowering. It was easy to see that his men adored him and also to see why he has caught the imagination of the youth of Cuba all over the island. Here was an educated, dedicated fanatic, a man of ideals, of courage and of remarkable qualities of leadership.”

The interview may also have helped Castro by exaggerating the size of his rebel force. Castro later bragged he only had 18 men at the time, but made them pass in front of the American reporter several times. Less than two years after the interview, Castro and his revolutionary companion Ernesto “Che” Guevara swept down from the hills and overthrew the Batista government in a leftist revolution that steered Cuba towards communism.

The 80-year-old Cuban leader was forced to relinquish power temporarily to his brother Raul Castro on July 31 after emergency intestinal surgery. He has not appeared in public since. Officials say he is steadily recovering. Matthews, a senior editorial writer at The New York Times when he interviewed Castro, died in 1977. His reporting on Castro was the subject of the recent book The Man Who Invented Fidel, by Anthony DePalma.