Happy Birthday Fidel!

13 August 2006 |

Rumours of Castro’s ’57 death had been greatly exaggerated

By HERBERT L. MATTHEWS 1957 New York Times

Fidel Castro, the rebel leader of Cuba’s youth, is alive and fighting hard and successfully in the rugged, almost impenetrable fastnesses of the Sierra Maestra, at the southern tip of the island.

President Fulgencio Batista has the cream of his army around the area, but the army men are fighting a losing battle.

This is the first sure news that Fidel Castro is still alive and still in Cuba. No one connected with the outside world, let alone with the press, has seen Senor Castro except this writer.

This account will break the tightest censorship in the history of the Cuban Republic. The Province of Oriente with its 2,000,000 inhabitants is shut off from Havana as surely as if it were another country.

Havana does not know that thousands of men and women are heart and soul with Fidel Castro and the new deal for which they think he stands, and a fierce government counterterrorism campaign has aroused the populace even more against President Batista.

Formed of youths of all kinds, Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement calls itself socialistic. The program is vague, but it amounts to a new deal for Cuba, radical, democratic and therefore anti-communist. The real core of its strength is that it is fighting against the military dictatorship of President Batista.


Raul Castro, left, younger brother of Cuban rebel leader Fidel, has his arm around second-in-command, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, in their Sierra de Cristal Mountain stronghold south of Havana, Cuba, during the Cuban revolution in 1958. (ANDREW ST. GEORGE)

This account will break the tightest censorship in the history of the Cuban Republic. The Province of Oriente with its 2,000,000 inhabitants is shut off from Havana as surely as if it were another country.

Havana does not know that thousands of men and women are heart and soul with Fidel Castro and the new deal for which they think he stands, and a fierce government counterterrorism campaign has aroused the populace even more against President Batista.

Formed of youths of all kinds, Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement calls itself socialistic. The program is vague, but it amounts to a new deal for Cuba, radical, democratic and therefore anti-communist. The real core of its strength is that it is fighting against the military dictatorship of President Batista.

From the looks of things, General Batista’s only hope is that an army column will come upon the young rebel leader and his staff and wipe them out.

Fidel Castro is the son of a rich sugar planter. His father sent him to the University of Havana where he studied law and became one of the student opposition leaders who rebelled against General Batista in 1952 because the general had staged a garrison revolt and prevented the presidential elections of that year.

On July 26, 1953, Castro led a band of youths in a desperate attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. In the fighting, about 100 students and soldiers were killed but the revolt failed. Castro was sentenced to 15 years in prison but there was an amnesty at the time of the presidential elections of Nov. 1, 1954, and he was let out. He crossed to the continent and began to organize the 26th of July Movement.

On Dec. 2, 1956, a 62-foot diesel-engined yacht, the Gramma, landed 82 young men on the Oriente shore below Niquero at a spot called Playa Olorada. The idea had been to land at Niquero, recruit followers and lead an open attack against the government. However, the Gramma had been spotted by a Cuban Naval patrol boat.

Playa Olorada, unhappily for the invaders, was a treacherous swamp. The men lost their food and most of their arms and supplies and soon were being attacked by army units. Of the 82 no more than 15 or 20 were left after a few days. Because of the complete censorship, Havana and the other Cuban cities crackle with rumours — encouraged by the government — that Castro is dead. What everybody kept asking was: "If Fidel is alive, why does he not do or say something to show that he is?"

As I learned later, Senor Castro was waiting until his forces had mastery of the Sierra Maestro. He had sent word out to a trusted source in Havana that he wanted a foreign correspondent to come in. The contact got in touch with me. (After an arduous journey into the hills of the Sierra, aided by Castro sympathizers and followers, I reached his camp in the tropical forest.)

LOGISTICS OF REBELLION

Senor Castro, according to his followers, is 30, and that is old for the 26th of July Movement. It has a motley array of arms and uniforms. Several of the youths had lived in the United States and spoke English; one had been a professional baseball player in a minor league.

By physique and personality, Castro was quite a man: a powerful six-footer, olive-skinned, full-faced, with a straggly beard. He was dressed in an olive gray fatigue uniform and carried a rifle with a telescopic sight, of which he was very proud.

Someone brought tomato juice, ham sandwiches made with crackers, and tins of coffee. In honour of the occasion, Castro broke open a box of Havana cigars. No one could talk above a whisper at any time. There were columns of government troops all around us, Senor Castro said, and their one hope was to catch him and his band.

THE EIGHTY-TWO FORMED

As the story unfolded of how he had at first gathered the few remnants of the Eighty-two around him and kept the government troops at bay while youths came in from other parts of Oriente, one got a feeling that Castro is now invincible. Perhaps he isn’t, but that is the faith he inspires in his followers.

They have had many fights, and inflicted many losses, Senor Castro said. Government planes came over and bombed every day; in fact, a plane did fly over, but went on to bomb higher in the mountains.

"We have been fighting for 79 days now and are stronger than ever," Senor Castro said. "The soldiers are fighting badly; their morale is low and ours could not be higher. We are killing many, but when we take prisoners they are never shot. We question them, talk kindly to them, take their arms and equipment, and then set them free."

"The Cuban people hear on the radio all about Algeria, but they never hear a word about us or read a word, thanks to the censorship. You will be the first to tell them. I have followers all over the island. All the best elements, especially all the youth, are with us. The Cuban people will stand anything but oppression."

I asked him about the report that he was going to declare a revolutionary government in the Sierra. "Not yet," he replied. "The time is not ripe. I will make myself known at the opportune moment. It will have all the more effect for the delay, for now everybody is talking about us. We are sure of ourselves.

"There is no hurry. Cuba is in a state of war, but Batista is hiding it. A dictatorship must show that it is omnipotent or it will fall; we are showing that it is impotent."

The government, he said with some bitterness, is using arms furnished by the United States "against all the Cuban people."

"They have bazookas, mortars, machine guns, planes and bombs," he said, "but we are safe here in the Sierra; they must come and get us, and they cannot."

Senor Castro speaks some English, but he preferred to talk in Spanish, which he did with extraordinary eloquence. His is a political mind rather than a military one. He has strong ideas on liberty, democracy, social justice, the need to restore the Constitution, to hold elections. He has strong ideas on economy, too, but an economist would consider them weak.

The 26th of July Movement talks of nationalism, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism. I asked Senor Castro about that. He answered, "You can be sure we have no animosity toward the United States and the American people.

"Above all," he said, "we are fighting for a democratic Cuba and an end to the dictatorship. We are not anti-military; that is why we let the soldier prisoners go. There is no hatred of the army as such, for we know the men are good and so are many of the officers.

"Batista has 3,000 men in the field against us. I will not tell you how many we have, for obvious reasons. He works in columns of 200; we in groups of 10 to 40, and we are winning. It is a battle against time and time is on our side.

"They never know where we are," he said as the group arose to say goodbye, "but we always know where they are. You have taken quite a risk in coming here, but we have the whole area covered, and we will get you out safely."

They did. We had no trouble driving back through the road blocks to safety and then on to Havana.

So far as anyone knew, my wife and I had been away fishing for the weekend, and no one bothered us as we took the plane to New York.

Herbert L. Matthews, 1900-1977, was a war correspondent and editorial writer for The New York Times for 45 years.

This story first appeared in The New York Times in 1957. Veteran newsman Herbert Matthews got an exclusive interview with the young revolutionary Fidel Castro, who turns 80 today.

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