Review by Alvah Bessie: Revolution in Cuba by Herbert L. Matthews

by Rebeca on June 9, 2009

Revolution in Cuba, by Herbert L. Matthews

Reviewed by Alvah Bessie
The Nation, November 8, 1975

In A World in Revolution (Scribner’s, 1971), Herbert Matthews wrote: “I have been the principal journalistic scapegoat for the rise to power of Fidel Castro and for the success of the Cuban Revolution, Owen Lattimore was assigned a similar role in the case of the Chinese Revoution in 1949 . . . ” The U.S. Senate Internal Security Committee, while never calling Matthews to testify, during its hearings on Cuba, “went on to pin the responsibility for Castro and the Cuban Revolution on me and The [New York] Times . . ” Matthews continued.

Certainly Matthews is one of the most distinguished foreign correspondents any American newspaper has fielded in our century. But the fact that Matthews covered Italy and its war against Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War, India, England, the Italian campaign in World War II and Cuba is not the major reason for the easily applied (and rarely merited) adjective. What distinguished him over the forty-five years he worked for The New York Times (twenty-seven as foreign correspondent, eighteen on its editorial board), was his passion for the facts, his refusal to give credence to handouts, his insistence on covering wars from the front lines, his risking of his life and reputation to get significant news, and his conviction that “to expound things as they really happened is the sole purpose” of journalism.

That conviction cost Matthews dear, for not only were he and his newspaper attacked for his exposition of “things as they really happened,” but Matthews was also made to suffer by his employer, who did not seem to enjoy the truth about the Spanish Civil war or the Cuban Revolution.

Conflict over Matthews and with Matthews has made journalistic history. In the cases of Spain and Cuba, the Times was attacked for what its correspondent was reporting, and in turn put pressure on its correspondent by censoring his copy after reprimanding him for writing “propaganda,” or killing it outright. The Times’s editors were annoyed because Matthews reported that there were Italian Blackshirts fighting for Franco, when one of their other correspondents, William P. Carney, said there were none. Matthews replied by sending detailed accounts and photographs of the Italian troops routed at the battle of Guadalajara (Brihuega) in March of 1937 – their equipment, documents, uniforms, battle orders, diaries and even their conversations with him (in Italian). He ended his dispatch with the words, ” . . . they were Italians and nothing but Italians.” And since the Times always called Franco’s men “Insurgents,” the assertion came out: “. . they were Insurgents and nothing but Insurgents.”

So far as Cuba was concerned, Matthews was in a unique position. When everybody including the dictator Fulgencio Batista thought and announced that Fidel Castro and his handful of guerrillas had been wiped out in the Sierra Maestra, Matthews cooly up and went there, found Castro, and sent out a sensational interview that scooped the world. Matthews’s admiration for Castro, Che Chevara and their associates was of course reflected in his dispatches; but that alone could not account for the fact that the Times muzzled him continuously.

Why didn’t the Times fire him instead of rejecting many articles and refuse to print anything he wrote between 1963 and 1966? It even prevented him from getting the biggest story of all – the missile crisis of 1962. He still had access to the top Cuban leaders because they knew he told the truth about them even if he did not agree with their ideas or their actions. But as a result of its policy – at once spineless and biased – the Times got no news at all out of Cuba between 1963 and 1971.

Matthews himself may have provided the reason for the Times’s ambivalence toward its best foreign correspondent in making it clear in A World in Revolution, in two books about Cuba and a biography of Castro, and also in this latest book about Cuba, that he was opposed to communism in Cuba (as in Spain), but he was in favor of a radical social revolution in both countries. In other words, he was and is that increasingly rara avis, a genuine liberal. In fact he is so much a liberal that even though he hurts to this day over the treatment he received from the Times for his Spanish and Cuban coverage, he can still “understand” the Times’s position and almost sympathize with it.

Matthews’s new book is the product of enormous labor, and is a deeply researched, detailed and lived history of Cuba. It spans that history from the time of the Spanish-American war which made Cuba our colony in all but name, down to the headlines about the catastrophic U.S.-sponsored invasion at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, and today’s headlines about the CIA’s continued attempts to assassinate Castro.

Matthews calls his beautifully structured book “An Essay in Understanding.” This will not, of course, protect him from the hatred and contempt of those who simply cannot stand having a Communist country “only 90 miles from Florida.” But even the most prejudiced will be unable to counter the evidence Matthews has marshaled that what los barbudos have done under the leadership of Castro and Guevara has been for the benefit of the vast majority of the Cuban people. Matthews is as adept at re-creating the personalities and histories of Fidel and Che as he is at explaining the circumstances that made the revolution inevitable, the manner in which it was led, the defeats and triumphs experienced, and the reasons for both. The portrait and analysis of Che, ending with his death in Bolivia, in which the CIA played a notorious part, is a high point in this engrossing story.

The reader is led from the historical background of the revolution, the endless exploitation of the Cuban people by Spain – and the United States which “liberated” them in 1898 – to the failure of the Granma expedition in 1956 that forced a small band of revolutionaries to withdraw into the Sierra Maestra Mountains. From that stronghold they fought and propagandized their way into Havana in January 1959, winning decisive battles against the Batista army of 10,000 men with as few as 300 guerrilla fighters. Matthews continues:

“It is true,” Castro told Lee Lockwood [author of Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel] “that we had many more ready to join us, but they had no weapons . . . We captured 500 and some weapons . . . That allowed us, now with 800 armed men, to spread out throughout the country . . . At the end of the war we had 15,000 soldiers of Batista surrounded in Oriente Province alone. We had some 2500 men there, plus 500 in Las Villas, a total of about 3000men.”

These are the kinds of fact that most of our newspapers do not like to print, just as they did not like the truth about our criminal intervention in Vietnam. Revolutions are never popular with those who benefit by the status quo ante, and Matthews, a reporter who trained himself to get the facts, necessarily became a gadfly and a nuisance to more people than his boss.

While it is possible to be impatient when he seems to misunderstand the difference between socialism and fascism – Castro and his regime are characterized throughout as authoritarian and totalitarian and Western capitalism is always equated with “democracy” – Matthews is brilliant in detailing precisely what the key protagonists of his book did and why they did it. He traces the parallels and points of divergence between guerrilla warfare in Cuba and Vietnam, between Fidel and the late Salvador Allende, between Cuba and Chile. He compares the treatment of Cuba by the American press since 1957 with its treatment of the Russian Revolution of 1917. He exposes the many plans to kill or overthrow Fidel, in which successive American presidents played a major role.

Castro ended U.S. domination of Cuba, which made him no friends on Wall Street or Pennsylvania Avenue. Contrary to U.S. propaganda, however, he never sold his country to the USSR. The roles played in the Bay of Pigs invasion by both Nixon and the late John F. Kennedy are largely forgotten now, but Matthews resurrects them and reveals how that fiasco was an attempt to repeat the CIA-Pentagon-Eisenhower-Nixon-Dulles operation against Guatemala in 1954, which finally left that nation “as corrupt and with the same mass poverty and tiny wealthy minority as of old – but safe for American strategy and business.”

Herbert Matthews always refers to himself as a reporter, a journalist, a foreign correspondent. In this major work he becomes a historian, but one with a difference: he is not “objective,” for which we may be grateful; nor is he the cynic he described himself as being earlier in his career: “In those years of 1931 to 1936,” he wrote in The Education of a Correspondent (1946), “the issues did not touch me personally, and where I later felt willing and anxious to combat the forces which were acting evilly, I was then content to be a mere spectator, to applaud success because it was successful, and to refrain from any moral judgement.”

Unlike the woman in the cigarette advertisement, Herbert L. Matthews has come a long way, but even in 1946 he knew the way he had come and the direction in which he must go:

I was sick at heart that night when I wrote my last dispatch on the Spanish Civil War . . . But the lessons I had learned! . . . Even then, heartsick and discouraged as I was, something sang inside of me. I, like the Spaniards, had fought my war and lost, but I could not be persuaded that I had set too bad an example.

“Open they arms,” cried Sanco Pança, “and receive they son Don Quixote too, who, though he got the worst o’n’t with another, he ne’ertheless got the better of himself, and that’s the best kind of victory one can wish for.”

Matthews must be singing inside again. The Cubans won their war, and the Spanish, after thirty-nine years of fascism, are winning theirs today; and he reported both causes “. . . aright to the unsatisfied.”

Revolution in Cuba, by Herbert L. Matthews, The Nation . Posted with permission of The Nation, November 8, 1975,



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