For the Times and Castro, Love at First Sight

The Times reminds us that the mainstream media's love affair with Communist dictator Fidel Castro started early

As Fidel Castro, dictator of Cuba since 1959, malingers in a shadowy state of sickness, the Times for some reason points us to the embarrassing reports filed by Times reporter (and Castro dupe) Herbert Matthews between 1957 and 1959.

It's a series of Walter Duranty-style hagiographies of Castro that foreshadowed the mainstream media's later and long-standing embrace of Castro's quest for "social justice," "free" health care, and a "high literacy rate" (no matter that books and newspapers were censored).

Matthews' blinkered Castro idealism retains a faint echo in the paper's respectful present-day coverage, which lacks Matthews' freshly flowered hero worship but nonetheless fails to grasp the reality of Castro's tyranny over Cuba. Wednesday's report on the mystery of Castro's health leaves off judgmental terms like "dictator," a word the Times invariably uses when referring to right-wing dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet of Chile.

Nasty words like "tyrant" or "dictator" rarely pierce the Times' bubble of Castro coverage. The paper prefers to soak him second-hand in the adulation he gets from left-wingers (or what reporter Lizette Alvarez in 1995 called "churches, black groups and social advocacy groups"), such at a church in Harlem he visited after being snubbed by the United Nations during its 50th anniversary celebrations.

As colleague Rich Noyes puts it, for the Times and Castro it was love at first sight.

Matthews tromped into the Sierra Maestra in February 1957 and emerged with the ur-text of future Castro coverage in a story that appeared on February 24, which included this objective analysis of the left's emerging Christ figure: "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 Cuba all over the island. Here was an educated, dedicated fanatic, a man of deals, of courage and of remarkable qualities of leadership."

Some lines will make you laugh (or cry): "The program is vague and couched in generalities, but it amounts to a new deal for Cuba, radical, democratic and therefore anti-Communist." Another: "He has strong ideas of liberty, democracy, social justice, the need to restore the Constitution, to hold elections."

Forty-seven years later, Cuba is still waiting.

Perhaps the most embarrassing hero-worship is Matthews' January 18, 1959 profile after Castro had seized power: "Castro Aims Reflect Character Of Cubans - He Is a Creature of His Country And He Is Followed as a Hero." Here, Matthews insisted that Castro and his administration had nothing to do with communism and in fact was "economically and politically conservative."

"In the eyes of nearly all his compatriots, Dr. Fidel Castro is the greatest hero that their history has known....Neither the Batista regime nor the United States Embassy in Havana was ever able to present proof that Fidel personally had been a Communist. He himself always denied that he knowingly had anything to do with communism....The ministerial Cabinet in office today consists mainly of older men and, by any standard that can be applied, it is economically and politically conservative....Whatever one wants to think, everybody here seems agreed that Dr. Castro is one of the most extraordinary figures ever to appear on the Latin-American scene. He is by any standards a man of destiny."

Leftwing T-shirt icon and murderer Che Guevara makes a cameo in Mathews coverage of January 4, 1959, with Matthews describes the "Argentine doctor" as "an outstanding leader."

On March 8, 1959, "Now Castro Faces the Harder Fight" contains what passed for Matthews' second thoughts about the dawning tyranny of Castro, but he downplays the tyrant's power as just an accident of history: "His follows - now almost all Cuba - would also add that he is a man of high moral principles and is essentially good in the moral sense, although some of these worry about the way in which the force of circumstances has willy-nilly given him the power of a dictator. But few Cubans criticize him, as many Americans do for the executions of the 'war criminals.'"

In an April 5, 1959 review of a book by another newspaperman and Castro acolyte, Jules Dubois of the Chicago Tribune, Matthews again demonstrated his devotion to Fidel, a feeling which had been apparently crystallized at that first meeting in the Sierra Maestra, in willful ignorance of the burgeoning tyrannies around him: "Anyone who reads it carefully will understand much that is happening today in Cuba. Fidel proclaims in that five-hour speech the ideals of the social revolution he is now trying to put into effect: to restore sovereignty to the people, to achieve a more equitable distribution of land and profits from industry and agriculture, 'the confiscation of all of the property of all the malfeasants' and other measures affecting housing, education and employment."