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."


  1. "Without Fidel; A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana, and Washington" by Anne Louise Bardach, author of "Cuba Confidential"; Scribner, 2009

    There are several interesting parts to this book. The extent to which Cuban politics is a family affair is quite remarkable. For instance, the family of Castro's first wife- Mytra Diaz-Blart- ( some say the true love of his life) are principle players in the anti-Castro exile community in Florida. But of course, Fidel and Raul have had many wives, mistresses and children most of whom have some role in the island's government, though none have been especially groomed for maximum leadership. A particularly interesting case is that of Raul's daughter Mariela , head of the Cuba Federation of Women, and spokesperson for the clan; well- traveled, married to an Italian photographer, living a bohemian lifestyle and a passionate advocate for gay and transgender rights through CENESEX, the Cuban National Center for Sex Education.

    This book also gives a detailed account of the way police, state's attorney's, judges, mayors, representatives, Congressmen, the U.S. Attorney Generals, Senators (like Joe Lieberman and Harry Reid), the FBI, the CIA and several Presidential Administrations ( Clinton's and both Bush's) give various anti-castro reactionary thugs free reign to carry-on their terrorist- a.k.a "freedom-fighting"- campaigns against Castro's regime, particularly with respect to the downing of Cubana flight #455, the worst act of airline terrorism in this hemisphere prior to 9/11. There is also a detailed account of how conservative republicans and powerful anti-castro media interests- many of which are corruptly subsidized with tax-payer dollars- rig the elections in South Florida. Included is an account of how Senator's Leahy and Sanders bucked the Cuban lobby in Washington to allow some school-kids from Vermont to go to Cuba to play baseball.

  2. Fidel

    His enemies say he was an uncrowned king who confused unity with unanimity.

    And in that his enemies are right.

    His enemies say that if Napoleon had a newspaper like "Granma, no Frenchmen would have learned of the disaster at Waterloo.

    And in that his enemies are right.

    His enemies say that he exercised power by talking a lot and listening little, because he was more used to hearing echoes than voices.

    And in that his enemies are right.

    But some things his enemies do not say: it was not to pose for the history books that he bared his breast to the invaders' bullets,

    he faced hurricanes as an equal, hurricane to hurricane,

    he survived six hundred and thirty-seven attempts on his life,

    his contagious energy was decisive in making a country out of a colony,

    and it was not by Lucifer's curse or God's miracle that the new country managed to outlive ten U.S. presidents, their napkins spread in their laps, ready to eat it with knife and fork.

    And his enemies never mention that Cuba is one rare country that does not compete for the World Doormat Cup.

    And they do not say that the revolution, punished for the crime of dignity, is what managed to be and not what it wished to become. Nor do they say that the wall separating desire from reality grew ever higher and thanks to the imperial blockade, which suffocated a Cuban-style democracy, militarized society, and gave the bureaucracy, always ready with a problem for every solution, the alibis it needed to justify and perpetuate itself.

    And they do not say that in spite of all the sorrow, in spite of the external aggression and the internal high-handedness, this distressed and obstinate island has spawned the least unjust society in Latin America.

    And his enemies do not say that this feat was the outcome of the sacrifice of its people, and also the stubborn will and old-fashioned sense of honor of the knight who always fought on the side of the losers, like his famous colleague in the fields of Castille.

    -Eduardo Galeano in "Mirrors"-