A pesar de su cosmopolitismo, no estoy seguro que el gran público de la Feria del Libro de Guadalajara aprecie masivamente un libro titulado El hombre que se inventó a Fidel Castro.
Ensayo que Financial Times comenta con cierto respeto, cuando Le Monde habla del Début des célébrations à La Havane en hommage à Fidel Castro y BBC Mundo se pregunta “¿Qué le regalaría usted a Fidel?”.
FT WEEKEND MAGAZINE – BOOK REVIEWS
By Richard Lapper
The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba and Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times
by Anthony DePalma
Public Affairs £15.99, 320 pages
FT bookshop price: £12.79
In February 1957 a veteran American war reporter called Herbert Matthews disguised himself as a tourist and travelled from Havana to the foothills of the Sierra Maestra in eastern Cuba.
After an all-night hike Matthews, then 57, met Fidel Castro, the leader of a small band of left-wing guerrillas that had recently landed on Cuba’s eastern coast. The result of the encounter was a three-hour-long interview. When published as a series of articles in The New York Times, the exchange proved to be pivotal to the fortunes of both men.
The interview – also reproduced secretly in Cuba – consolidated Castro’s reputation as a credible alternative to Fulgencio Batista, the right-wing dictator, and paved the way two years later for the eventual success of the rebels’ armed campaign. Nearly 50 years later, Castro, now 80, is – despite the recent deterioration in his health – still at the centre of Cuban politics. And the myths surrounding him are as powerful as ever.
For the interviewer, however, the «scoop» had disastrous consequences. After Castro came to power in 1959, it emerged that Matthews had unwittingly exaggerated the strength of the guerrilla army – and so made it noticeably easier for its supporters to raise funds.
On a visit to New York shortly after his triumph, Castro even boasted that he had duped Matthews, adding to the concerns of his editors at the Times who were already alarmed about the partiality of his reporting.
As Cuba shifted sharply to the left in the early 1960s and the Florida Straits became a new front line in the cold war, Matthews continued to visit Cuba and defend its new government. Initially inundated with congratulatory letters, Matthews soon found himself receiving hate mail. Matthews’ story ends sadly, with the journalist dedicating the remaining years of his life to an attempt to salvage his reputation.
As told by Anthony DePalma – himself a New York Times reporter – in The Man who Invented Fidel, this tragic tale makes compelling reading. That is partly because of DePalma’s sympathy for his subject. He paints a picture of a brave, hardworking, experienced and passionate reporter. Before his Cuban adventures Matthews had followed Italian troops into Ethiopia and accompanied Republican forces in Spain, where he became a close friend of Ernest Hemingway, as well as filling posts for The Times in London, Paris and elsewhere in Latin America. Many of the charges against him were overblown, says DePalma. Matthews was not a man easily taken in – a «useful fool», as Communist leaders would have put it.
Matthews did exaggerate the size of Castro’s rebel force, but his mistake was genuine. Information gleaned from the field was carefully weighed up alongside that from secondary sources. While interviewing Castro, for example, he «had the presence of mind» to count each one of the individuals he saw, and his estimates of guerrilla strength squared with what he had been told by several different sources.
Nevertheless, DePalma writes that Matthews’ work was «defined by his bias and by the open way in which he acknowledged that he was taking sides». Partly because of his own sympathy for the rebel cause, Matthews continued «to perceive Castro as an idealist» long after the Cuban leader «had transformed himself into a demagogue». Matthews fiercely defended the objectivity of his reporting, but «his rigid self-confidence deluded him about the words he wrote and the impact they had».
It seems a harsh judgment. After all, Matthews’ mistakes are not in the same league as such falsifiers as The New York Times’s Jayson Blair, who plagiarised reports and deliberately invented quotes before being exposed in 2003. But DePalma is writing at a time when many in the American media see bias, albeit a bias very different to that championed by Matthews, as a positive virtue. And DePalma is right to insist that journalists try to be as objective as they possibly can be when they write about those in power.
Richard Lapper is the FT‘s Latin America editor.