Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Without Fidel by Anne Louise Bardach
The first obituaries for Fidel Castro were published in December 1956. It was then that the government of President Fulgencio Batista duped a gullible UPI correspondent named Francis McCarthy into reporting that Fidel Castro, and his brother Raul, had been killed in an ambush. In fact, the thirty-year-old leftist rebel leader was hiding out in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Desperate to jump-start his revolution- and his life- Castro dispatched an emissary to find an A-list messenger.
After a grueling trek, slogging through the near-impenetrable Sierra, Herbert Mathews, a star correspondent for the New York Times, was told to wait in the wet and chilly woods. It was dawn before Castro, ever mindful of stagecraft, finally descended from the hills- thus establishing his standard operating procedure with the media: Always keep reporters waiting, preferably in the dark, for as long as possible. The result was a heroic portrait that landed on page one of the Times.
From the beginning, newspapers and networks have maintained a standing obituary of Castro. It seemed only wise. After all, several American presidents had decreed that his elimination was a desirable outcome. Then there was the danger of freelance assassins- embittered, hard-wired exile militants- determined to wreak vengeance on the man who, in their view, had hijacked their country.
In the mid-1990s, high-decibel gossip that Castro had barely dodged a rendezvous with his Maker prompted news organizations to freshen up their obituaries. Pundits prepared their sound bytes, ready to yammer for their allotted seventy-five seconds of live television. And again, on June 23, 2001, following Castro's famous desmayo, or fainting spell, and the improvised oratory of his panic-stricken foreign minister, Castro's obits were rushed back to the rewrite desk.
The Castro obit industry cranked up one more time in 2004 when Fidel fell facedown splat to the ground. By then, Castro had made some unusual concessions about his mortality. Subtle but crucial changes signaled concerns for his health and the future of his Revolution. On July 1, 2006, Cuba's Communist Party decreed that the twelve-member Secretariat would be restored, thus enhancing the role of the Party when the transfer of power occurred. The Secretariat had been disbanded in 1992 after the Soviets dropped out of the picture. Henceforth, it would serve as the Party's steering committee and ensure that the Party (backed by the army), and its majority hardliner members, would play a central role in the post-Fidel era.
A month later, when Castro underwent emergency surgery (botched), the obit business roared into a frenzy and has remained on standby ever since. Over the next three years, Castro's obit would be revised monthly, sometimes weekly, at news bureaus around the globe. One reporter at National Public Radio lamented she had taped three Castro obituaries in the first year of his illness. In the second and third years of his infirmities, there would be many more revisions.
"We had to redo our obit several times," Anders Gyllenhaal, editor of the Miami Herald, said a year after Castro fell ill. Tom Fiedler, the paper's editor from 2001 to 2007, told Editor & Publisher that 'we had plans for Castro's death going back to the 90s. It was truly exhaustive, maybe more detailed than the Pentagon's plan to invade Iraq," Gyllenhaal told me in 2007. "We had internal workshops here about it and had to make big changes twice. Fortunately, we had a dress rehearsal," he added, referring to Castro's close call in July 2006.
A year later, the Herald was not feeling so sanguine. A senior editor, Manny Garcia, discarded traditional newsroom etiquette and penned a dishy, ornery brief in which he compared Castro to a "kidney stone- a constant pain who never seems to go away." Garcia explained his pique. "You gotta understand that the Cadaver-in-Chief is our story and biggest challenge," he complained. " We sit at meetings, long meetings, going over possible stories. Phrasing. Tone. Length. We've got at least five different versions of Fidel's obit, pegged to the time of day or night he dies. We built a Web page for the big day..." For journalists covering Cuba, whom Castro had long held in insect-low regard, the long dying of the Caribbean strongman had become one more indignity to be endured."