In '59, New York Times Called Castro 'Conservative,' Justified Political Killings

As the totalitarian communist dictator of Cuba for 47 years, Fidel Castro repressed those who worked for democracy, human rights and a free press. Yet through the decades, many in the American media have maintained their romanticized mythology of Castro as a progressive revolutionary icon, provider of “free” health care, a Latin American David vs. the Goliath of the United States.

In contrast to their coverage of right-wing dictators, like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, journalists do not often mention those killed, imprisoned or exiled by Castro’s ruthless “revolution,” but treat him as a celebrity head of state. Just a few years ago, ABC’s Barbara Walters trekked to Havana to produce yet another soft feature on the dictator.

“For Castro, freedom starts with education,” Walters oozed on the October 11, 2002 "20/20." “And if literacy alone is any yardstick, Cuba would rank as one of the freest nations on Earth.”

Now that Fidel’s reign may have ended, it was interesting to see that the New York Times Web site included a sidebar "From the Archives," with links to PDF versions of their own coverage of Castro’s rise to power in the late 1950s. I didn’t read them all, but one that I clicked on showed an incredible pro-Castro bias, with the Times justifying Castro’s executions of political opponents, touting his genius and insisting that his new government wasn’t communist but “conservative.”

Herbert L. Matthews wrote the article, headlined “Castro Aims Reflect Character of Cubans,” which the Times Web site indicates originally appeared on page E6 ("Week in Review" section) of the January 18, 1959 edition, just a few days after Castro seized Cuba. The Times’s subheadline on Castro: “He Is a Creature of His Country and He Is Followed as a Hero.”

Here is an excerpt, beginning with the first paragraph:

The hunted young man who for three hours whispered his passionate hopes and ideals into my ear in the gloomy jungle depths of the Sierra Maestra at dawn on Feb. 17, 1957, is now the chief power in Cuba. In the eyes of nearly all his compatriots, Dr. Fidel Castro is the greatest hero that their history has known.

People in the United States are now disturbed by the executions of men who, Cubans are convinced, were torturers and killers under Gen. Fulgencio Batista.

The Cuban point of view can be simply stated. For seven years, Cuba lived through the most brutal reign of terror in recent history. Cubans know this, because there is hardly a family in Cuba that did not have a member at least arrested and at worst tortured and killed by President Batista’s soldiers and police. Moreover, in every city, town and village, the killers and torturers are known.

Then came the revolution, and much to everyone’s surprise, especially the Cubans, there was no blood bath. In the first twenty-four hours in Havana, the riff-raff and gangsters ran around looting; but as soon as the 26th of July Movement and the other organized rebel groups got going, order was restored. It had been taken for granted that there would be fearful mob violence because of the bitterness and hatred of the people against the tormenters. Nothing of the sort took place.

However, Fidel Castro and the new Provisional Government felt, in the first place, that justice must be done and, in the second place, that, if the authorities did not mete out justice in an orderly way, the people would exercise lynch law and in the process there would be some private vengeance and some innocent victims....

The sensational stories [about the executions] that some American correspondents sent and the reaction in the United States astounded and hurt Cubans greatly.

To anyone writing about Cuba at this moment it’s necessary to keep a basic fact in mind. Dr. Castro is not in any sense different in character from his fellow Cubans. Those who want to condemn him must condemn all Cubans, as there are very few Cubans indeed who would disapprove of the executions that have been and are taking place.

Two years ago Dr. Castro was a revolutionary pure and simple. He was then 30 years old. As an undergraduate of 21 at the University of Havana, he had been a wild harum-scarum, so careless of politics that he was involved with student organizations containing Communists. 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. Cubans wish that the United States would realize he is the creature of his race, his history and his traditions, and above all of the horror and tyranny of the seven-year reign of Fulgencio Batista.

Matthews' homage to Castro makes today's bias seem downright objective. Why the New York Times would want to post such a sycophantic embarrassment is beyond me.

Rich Noyes
Rich Noyes
Rich Noyes is the Senior Editor for Newsbusters