With Castro, When the Crime Was Committed

Fidel Castro and French journalist Jean Daniel at the Riviera Hotel on November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. (March Riboud/L’Obs)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Jacobo Manchover, Paris, June 20, 2020 — An article by French journalist Jean Daniel, “Avec Castro, à l’heure du crime” (“With Castro, When the Crime Was Committed”), figured in a 1978 investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Commission of Inquiry into Political Murders. The article was first published in French in the weekly news magazine L’Express on November 28, 1963 and in English in The New Republic* on December 7, 1963. It was later picked up by about twenty other publications and in numerous languages. Was this a international scoop? Or simply an alibi?

Jean Daniel died in February 2020, at the ripe old age of ninety-nine, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. He had been co-founder and editor of the news weekly L’Obs, formerly Le Nouvel Observateur and, before that, France Observateur. A few months earlier an interview with him was published in the October/November issue of the pretentiously titled La revue pour l’intelligence du monde (The World Intelligence Review), headed by his friend Béchir Ben Yahmed. He later appeared in a documentary broadcast by the France 5 television network in early February 2020.

Even in the final months of his life, he still spoke with pride about the time, almost six decades earlier, that he happened to be present when Fidel Castro was told by phone of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. At no point did it occur to him that perhaps it was too coincidental. Could it have all been stage managed?

There was a detail that should have caught the attention of experts on the subject. The interview took place during a lunch with Fidel Castro, a nocturnal animal when it came to his encounters with foreign personalities, whether they were politicians or journalists. Why was a reporter able to enjoy such privileged access?

For his whole life Jean Daniel wanted to be an emissary of peace in different parts of the world, especially in the Israeli and Palestinian territories. On one occasion he met with Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Algeria. Though he had been born there, Jean Daniel was a supporter of Algerian independence. The meeting with Che convinced him that he could be the man to reduce tensions between the United States and Cuba.

With that in mind, he met several times with Fidel Castro after having interviewed John F. Kennedy a few weeks before, on October 24, in the Oval Office. The White House meeting lasted about twenty-five minutes. In his opinion the message Kennedy was conveying through him was of utmost importance. He wanted to bring back an encouraging response from Castro on maintaining secret contacts in light of the extreme tensions created in October and November of the previous year by the Missile Crisis.

Castro’s first meeting with the French journalist took place in a hotel room at the Riviera Hotel along Havana’s Malecón on the night of November 19 to 20, between 10:00 P.M and 8:00 A.M*. Castro’s arrival was completely unexpected since it had not been previously announced. The commander-in-chief came dressed in his ubiquitous combat uniform and a black beret.

Jean Daniel and his future wife Michele were resting, faces down, with their shoes next to the bed. The scene was more reminiscent of a vacation trip than a diplomatic mission. Also present were Castro’s personal physician and right-hand man until his death in 1969, Commander René Vallejo, and a translator, Juan Arcocha. During the meeting Vallejo, who was also dressed in battle fatigues, fell fast asleep, as was perfectly understandable given the time of night.

Nothing strange about that. Castro often gave interviews to countless reporters late at night, waiting until a few minutes beforehand, “for security reasons,” to announce his arrival. Snapshots of his meeting with Jean Daniel, taken by photographer Marc Riboud, were published in The New Republic, a magazine to which the reporter contributed articles, and in L’Express, immortalizing the rather informal meeting at the Riviera hotel.

Castro invited Jean Daniel to accompany him to the resort town of Varadero, about 130 kilometers east of the capital, on Friday November 22, where he was supposed to visit some new houses. Around 1:30 P.M., Cuba time (12:30 P.M in Dallas), it was announced that an assassination attempt on Kennedy had taken place. This time no photo of the historic moment was taken, at least as far as is known.

But why Varadero? Jean Daniel says it had something to do with his house on the beach. Officially, Castro did not own a house there, though there were countless “protocol houses” throughout the island at his disposal. Perhaps it was because Varadero had the advantage of being far from Havana and, therefore, from other sources of information who might contradict what Castro told the reporter.

Jean Daniel and Michele were chatting amicably with Castro through the interpreter, Juan Arcocha, when suddenly the phone rang. Commander René Vallejo, who was in the next room, and a security guard went to answer it. Castro was immediately told that President Osvaldo Dorticós wanted to speak to him. It was apparent something very serious had happened. Otherwise, it was inconceivable that Castro would be interrupted.

His reaction was one of astonishment: “How? An attack?” He listened to what the President was saying and repeated his responses three times and out loud so that his guests would hear and understand him, even if their understanding of Spanish was rudimentary: “That’s bad news. That’s bad news. Bad news.” In effect, Jean Daniel transcribed Castro’s emphatic reaction in his article.

But the phone call seems strange. In fact, President Dorticós’ position was only a ceremonial one. Real power on the island lay with Fidel Castro, who at that time was prime minister. It is inconceivable that he would receive the news from someone in a subordinate position rather than from his security services, or from his brother Raúl, who was minister of defense. Dorticós ultimately fell from grace, though he continued to hold a ministerial position, that of justice minister. In 1976 Fidel officially assumed the title of President of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers, with Raúl as his vice-president. Dorticós ended up committing suicide in 1983. Suicides among Cuban political, military, or police leaders are common, especially when they carry unspeakable secrets.

Between 1:30 and 2:00 P.M., Cuba time, those present at the Varadero house were tuned in to a radio station broadcasting in English from Miami, with Commander Vallejo roughly translating, when they learned of Kennedy’s death at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. Castro told Jean Daniel that he thought he would be blamed for what happened, even though they did not yet know the identity of the alleged assassin, who was still at large after he had shot police officer J.D. Tippit. He turned out to be Lee Harvey Oswald, who had gone to the Cuban consulate in Mexico City to apply for a visa.

Jean Daniel realized then and there that his role as an intermediary between Castro and Kennedy, whom he had planned to see again upon his return to Washington, was over. Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson would automatically assume the presidency and nothing would be the same again. But Jean Daniel still had the instincts of a reporter. He described how Fidel Castro learned, at the same time he did, of the assassination in Dallas. It is not known who — he or an editor at L’Express — came up with the odd title: “With Castro, at the Scene of the Crime.” Nor does it specify what the crime was. But the ambiguity of the wording leaves little doubt that the person responsible for the crime might have been Castro himself.

This is how Jean Daniel achieved international fame. Moreover, his article became the quasi-official account, endorsed by Fidel Castro himself in at least two speeches he gave on November 23 and 27.

Jean Daniel served as Fidel Castro’s sole emissary. It never occurred to him that he might have been manipulated into believing he was the only reporter to witness Fidel Castro’s reaction firsthand. It would not have been the first time the old guerilla had fooled someone, however.

Herbert L. Matthews, a New York Times reporter who was on vacation with his wife in Cuba in early 1957, casually described how Castro had tricked him in the Sierra Maestra mountains, convincing Matthews that he was leading a full-fledged rebel army when in reality it amounted to a group of about twenty men. Matthews went on to become a personal friend of Fidel Castro and the best propagandist for his policies in the United States. Jean Daniel must either have not been aware of Matthews’ story or did not much care. He believed he was, or wanted to be, the first.

What was in the message that John F. Kennedy wanted his go-between to pass onto the Cuban prime minister? In one of his articles, Jean Daniel reports that Kennedy told him that he and his brother Robert — then attorney general and later assassinated himself in Los Angeles in 1968 after winning the California Democratic presidential primary — had become deeply distrustful due to Castro’s “insanities” and Communist stance after the Bay of Pigs operation and the Cuban missile crisis. During that crisis Castro had sent a letter to Nikita Khrushchev asking the Russian premier to launch a preventive nuclear strike on a large American city, a request that Kruschev fortunately denied.

Kennedy knew Castro was capable of anything. He noted, however, that his guerrilla war against the government of Fulgencio Batista, which ended when Castro seized power in 1959, had aroused some sympathy in the United States, feelings which Kennedy implied he himself shared. But Castro’s misstep with the Soviet Union forced him to abandon any such feelings. The tension was obvious during the 1960 presidential campaign when Kennedy harshly criticized Castro. It culminated in the Bay of Pigs debacle, an operation whose planning had begun under the Eisenhower-Nixon administration. If Castro could return to his initial proposals, however…

By November of 1963 Cuba and the Soviet Union were not enjoying the closest relations, nor was the friendship between Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev at its best. Nevertheless, no American leader could imagine the relationship breaking apart. A few months later, in April 1964, Fidel Castro undertook a 38-day trip to the USSR, during which he was greeted with full honors by the senior leaders of the Communist Party. The quarrels with the great “brother country” ended or were swept under the rug for decades.

The importance of Kennedy’s message to Castro, like Jean Daniel’s interpretation of it, should be considered in context. The reporter had gotten his exclusive and, out of naivetee or vanity, had made his views known to the world: Fidel Castro could not have known of a possible assassination attempt on John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 since at 12:30 P.M., Dallas time, he was with the reporter in Varadero. And the whole world believed it.

This brief article arose out of a strange feeling I always had about Jean Daniel’s account of his meeting with Fidel Castro and the interviews I had with him shortly before his death. Those who knew firsthand the ways in which Castro wielded power could harbor legitimate suspicions.

*Translator’s note: In The New Republic article, Jean Daniel says the meeting lasted until 4:00 A.M., not 8:00. A.M. The title of the article, “When Castro Heard the News,” also differs  from the one in L’Express.


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