Fidel interview published as part of Guardian series
Campaign News | Tuesday, 18 September 2007
This interview of Fidel Castro by Herbert Matthews took place in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, February 16 1957. It was published in the New York Times, February 24 1957
Thursday September 20, 2007
Fidel Castro, the rebel leader of Cuba's youth, is alive and fighting hard and successfully in the rugged, almost impenetrable vastnesses 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 thus-far losing battle to destroy the most dangerous enemy General Batista has yet faced in a long and adventurous career as a Cuban leader and dictator. 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 Señor Castro except this writer.
No one in Havana, not even at the United States embassy with its resources for getting information, will know until this report is published that Fidel Castro is really in the Sierra Maestra.
This account, among other things, will break the tightest censorship in the history of the Cuban republic. Havana does not and cannot know that thousands of men and women are heart and soul with Fidel Castro and the new deal for which they think he stands. It does not know that hundreds of highly respected citizens are helping Señor Castro, that bombs and sabotage are constant (18 bombs were exploded in Santiago on February 15), that a fierce government counter-terrorism has aroused the populace even more against President Batista. Throughout Cuba a formidable movement of opposition to General Batista has been developing. It has by no means reached an explosive point. The rebels in the Sierra Maestra cannot move out. The economic situation is good. President Batista ought to be able to hang on for the nearly two years of his present term that are still left. However, there are bad spots in the economy, unemployment is heavy; corruption is rife.
Fidel Castro and his 26th of July Movement are the flaming symbol of opposition to the regime. The organisation is formed of youths of all kinds. It is a revolutionary movement that calls itself socialistic. It is also nationalistic, which generally in Latin America means anti-Yankee. The programme is vague and couched in generalities, 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.
To arrange for me to penetrate the Sierra Maestra and meet Fidel Castro, dozens of men and women in Havana and Oriente province ran a truly terrible risk. They must, of course, be protected with the utmost care, for their lives would be forfeit - after the customary torture - immediately if any could be traced. From the looks of things, General Batista cannot possibly hope to suppress the Castro revolt. His 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 Spaniard from Galicia, a "Gallego" like Generalissimo Francisco Franco. The father was a pick-and-shovel labourer early in this century for the United Fruit Company, whose sugar plantations are on the northern shores of Oriente province. A powerful build, a capacity for hard work and a shrewd mind led the father up in the world until he became a rich sugar planter himself. When he died last year, each of his children, including Fidel, inherited a sizable fortune. Someone who knew the family remembers Fidel as a child of four or five years, living a sturdy farm life. The father sent him to school and 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.
Fidel had to flee from Cuba in 1955 and he lived for a while in New York and Miami. The year 1956, he announced, was to be the "year of decision". Before the year ended, he said, he would be "a hero or a martyr". The government knew that he had gone to Mexico and last summer was training a body of youths who had left Cuba to join him. As the end of the year approached, the Cuban army was very much on the alert, knowing that Fidel Castro was coming back. He was already, in a measure, a hero of the Cuban youth, for on July 26 1953, he had 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. Fidel Castro was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but there was an amnesty at the time of the presidential elections of November 1 1954, and he was let out. It was then he crossed to the [American] continent and began to organise the 26th of July Movement.
The blow, which at the time seemed an utter failure, was struck on December 2 1956. That day a 62-foot diesel-engined yacht, the Granma, landed 82 young men, trained for two months on a ranch in Mexico, on the Oriente shore below Niquero at a spot called Playa Colorada. The idea had been to land at Niquero, recruit followers and lead an open attack against the government. However, the Granma had been spotted by a Cuban naval patrol boat. Planes flew in to strafe, and the men on the yacht decided to beach her. Playa Colorada, 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. They scattered and took to the hills. Many were killed. 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 the most astonishing rumours; one constantly encouraged by the government has been that Fidel Castro is dead. This was the situation when the writer got to Havana on February 9 to try to find out what was really happening. The censorship has been applied to foreign correspondents as well as Cuban. What everybody, even those who wanted to believe, kept asking was: "If Fidel is alive, why does he not do or say something to show that he is?" Since December 2 he had kept absolutely quiet - or he was dead. As I learned later, Señor Castro was waiting until he had his forces reorganised and had mastery of the Sierra Maestra. This fortunately coincided with my arrival and he had sent word out to a source in Havana that he wanted a foreign correspondent to come in. Because of the state of siege, it had to be someone who would get the story and go out of Cuba to write it. Then came a week of organisation. A rendezvous point and a time had to be fixed and arrangements made to get through the government lines into the Sierra Maestra.
The first problem was to get through the government road blocks and reach a nearby town that would be a jumping-off place. Late on the afternoon of Friday, February 15, Señor Castro's contact man got in touch with me in Havana with the news that the meeting was set for the following night in the sierra and that Señor Castro and his staff would take the chance of coming a little way toward the edge of the range so that I would not have to do too much climbing.
After nightfall I was taken to a certain house where three youths who were going in with me had gathered. One of them was "one of the 82", a proud phrase for the survivors of the original landing. I was to meet five or six of them. A courier, who owned an open, armytype jeep, joined us. We had to go through one army roadblock and beyond that would be the constant risk of army patrols, so we had to have a good story ready. I was to be an American sugar planter who could not speak a word of Spanish and who was going out to look over a plantation in a certain village. One of the youths, who spoke English, was my "interpreter".
Our story convinced the army guard when he stopped us, although he looked dubious for a little while. Then came hours of driving, through sugar-cane and rice fields, across rivers that only jeeps could manage. One stretch, the courier said, was heavily patrolled by government troops, but we were lucky and saw none. Finally, after slithering through miles of mud, we could go no farther. It was then midnight, the time we were to meet Castro's scouts; but we had to walk some first and it was hard going. At last we turned off the road and slid down a hillside to where a stream, dark brown under the nearly full moon, rushed its muddy way. One of the boys slipped and fell full length in the icy cold water. I waded through with the water almost to my knees and that was hard enough to do without falling. Fifty yards up the other slope was the meeting point.
At last we heard a cautious, welcome double-whistle. One of us replied in kind and this had to be kept up for a while, like two groups meeting in a dense fog, until we got together. One of our party had found an advance patrol and a scout came with him to lead us to an outpost in the mountains. The scout was a squatter from the hills, and he needed to know every inch of the land to take us as he did, swiftly and unerringly across fields, up steep hills, floundering in the mud. The ground levelled out blessedly at last and then dipped suddenly. The scout stopped and whistled cautiously. The return whistle came. There was a short parley and we were motioned on, sliding down into a heavy grove. The dripping leaves and boughs, the dense vegetation, the mud underfoot, the moonlight - all gave the impression of a tropical forest, more like Brazil than Cuba.
Señor Castro was encamped some distance away and a soldier went to announce our arrival and ask whether he would join us or we should join him. Later he came back with the grateful news that we were to wait and Fidel would come along with the dawn. Someone gave me a few soda crackers, which tasted good. Someone else stretched a blanket on the ground and it seemed a great luxury. It was too dark in the grove to see anything. We spoke in the lowest possible whispers. One man told me how he had seen his brother's store wrecked and burned by government troops and his brother dragged out and executed. "I'd rather be here, fighting for Fidel, than anywhere in the world now," he said.
There were two hours before dawn, and the blanket made it possible to sleep. With the light I could see how young they all were. Señor 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, and even a few civilian suits. The rifle and the one machine gun I saw were all American discarded models. The captain of this troop was a stocky Negro with a black beard and moustache, a ready, brilliant smile and a willingness for publicity. Of all I met, only he wanted his name mentioned: Juan Almeida, "one of the 82".
Raul Castro, Fidel's younger brother, slight and pleasant, came into the camp with others of the staff, and a few minutes later Fidel himself strode in. Taking him, as one would at first, by physique and personality, this was quite a man - a powerful six-footer, oliveskinned, full-faced, with a straggly beard. He was dressed in an olive-grey fatigue uniform and carried a rifle with a telescopic sight, of which he was very proud. It seems his men have something more than 50 of these and he said the soldiers feared them.
"We can pick them off at a thousand yards with these guns," he said. After some general conversation we went to my blanket and sat down. Someone brought tomato juice, ham sandwiches made with crackers, and tins of coffee. In honour of the occasion, Señor Castro broke open a box of good Havana cigars and for the next three hours we sat there while he talked.
No one could talk above a whisper at any time. There were columns of government troops all around us, Señor Castro said, and their one hope was to catch him and his band. The personality of the man 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. As the story unfolded - of how he had at first gathered the few remnants of the 82 around him; kept the government troops at bay while youths came in from other parts of Oriente as General Batista's counterterrorism aroused them; got arms and supplies and then began the series of raids and counter-attacks of guerrilla warfare - one got a feeling that he 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, Señor Castro said. Government planes came over and bombed every day; in fact, at nine sharp a plane did fly over. The troops took up positions; a man in a white shirt was hastily covered up. But the plane went on to bomb higher in the mountains.
Castro is a great talker. His brown eyes flash; his intense face is pushed close to the listener and the whispering voice, as in a stage play, lends a vivid sense of drama. "We have been fighting for 79 days now and are stronger than ever," Señor 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. I know that they are always arrested afterward and we heard some were shot as examples to the others, but they don't want to fight, and they don't know how to fight this kind of mountain warfare. We do."
"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, not only against him but 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."
Señor 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 of 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 Señor 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."
To show that he deals fairly with the Guajiros he asked someone to bring "the cash." A soldier brought a bundle wrapped in dark brown cloth, which Señor Castro unrolled. There was a stack of peso bills at least a foot high - about $4,000 he said, adding that he had all the money he needed and could get more. "Why should soldiers die for Batista for $72 a month?" he asked. "When we win, we will give them $100 a month, and they will serve a free, democratic Cuba."
"I am always in the front line," he said; and others confirmed this. Such being the case, the army might yet get him, but in present circumstances he seems almost invulnerable. "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 area covered, and we will get you out safely."
They did. We ploughed our way back through the muddy undergrowth in broad daylight, but always keeping under cover. The scout went like a homing pigeon through woods and across fields where there were no paths straight to a farmer's house on the edge of the sierra. There we hid in a back room while someone borrowed a horse and went for the jeep, which had been under cover all night. There was one road block to get through, with an army guard so suspicious our hearts sank, but he let us through. After that, washed, shaved and looking once again like an American tourist, with my wife as "camouflage", we had no trouble driving back through the road blocks to safety and then on to Havana. So far as anyone knew, we had been away fishing for the weekend, and no one bothered us as we took the plane to New York.
· Copyright New York Times 1957.
Tariq Ali has also written an introduction to this interview which can be read in full at: