Want to know exactly how Castro took Cuba? I know the story. It’s one I’ve known for years, because my husband, Jeffrey Blyth, was with him.
At the time he was the chief American correspondent for the London Daily Mail
. He was in Havana on that New Year’s Eve in 1959, and when he returned to his hotel early New Year’s morning (it was years before we were married), the desk man said to him, “Have you heard? Isn’t it amazing? Batista’s fled.” The phone in his room was ringing as he opened the door. It was his news desk in London, and he was able to say, as soon as he answered, “Have you heard? Isn’t it amazing? Batista’s fled.”
He remembers that for days there was chaos in Havana. Mobs looted the casinos and smashed open the parking meters. No one was in control.
And where was Castro? That was the big question, of course. He was last heard of fighting in the mountains. However, a tipster told a colleague of my husband’s, a radio broadcaster named Buck Canel, that Castro was holed up in a small town not far from Havana called Matanzas. Canel also worked for Agence France-Presse, but he was famous throughout Latin America for his broadcasts in Spanish of American baseball games for Gillette.
They agreed they should try to find Castro. In a battered taxi, they drove the 70-odd miles to the town. In the old colonial square a large crowd had gathered. Canel asked, “Is Fidel here?” The crowd, recognizing his well-known radio voice, pointed to the local town hall and parted so they could make their way through. They climbed the stairs to the mayor’s office, with people around them whispering “It’s Buck Canel!”
There in the town hall was Castro in his military fatigues, his feet on the desk, talking into a telephone. When he heard the name “Buck Canel” he leaped to his feet and embraced my husband’s colleague.
Then in Spanish they talked. And talked. And talked. My husband kept tugging at Canel’s sleeve, asking, “What’s he saying?” Canel shushed him and said, “I’ll tell you in a minute” and kept on. When they finally stopped Canel explained that Castro, who had once dreamed of being a baseball player, was asking about an umpire’s call in the last game of the World Series.
Then he got down to business. “What’s happening in Havana?” Castro asked. Canel began to explain: Different groups had taken over different parts of the city. Castro wanted to know specifics. “Who’s in control of the police? The airport? The university?” he asked. And finally, “Who is running the radio and television station?”
Canel didn’t have all the answers, but knew definitely that Castro’s supporters were in charge at the radio and television station. He had been there earlier that day to make a broadcast.
“Are you sure?” asked Castro.
“Absolutely sure.” Canel replied.
“Let’s go then,” said Castro.
He and his bodyguards left the building and climbed into a battered old American jeep. My husband and Canel got back into their taxi and followed behind as they headed towards Havana. Nearing the city, the crowds got bigger and bigger as they realized Castro was on his way. Outside the broadcasting building, Castro leaped out of the jeep and went inside. He went straight to a studio, told the technicians to switch on the transmitter, and Castro started talking into the camera. He talked and talked and talked — for seven hours non-stop.
And that, my husband always says, is how Castro took Cuba.
A little footnote to history, I know; but it does illustrate in a bizarre way the power of media. Canel’s fame as a broadcaster made Castro admire and trust him, and Castro’s skill — and endurance — in front of a camera helped him take the country in just a few hours.
— Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness — and Liberalism — to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.