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Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington

Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington

Part One: The Long Dying
Chapter Four: Writing for History

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 Raúl, had been killed in an ambush. In fact, the 29-year-old leftist rebel leader was hiding out in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Desperate to jumpstart his revolution — and his life — Castro dispatched an emissary to find an A-list messenger.

After a grueling trek, slogging through the near-impenetrable Sierras, Herbert Matthews, a star correspondent for The New York Times, was told to wait in the wet, chilly and dark 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, and 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 were the legions of freelance assassins – embittered, hard-wired exile militants – determined to wreak vengeance on the man whom, in their view, had hijacked their country.

In the mid 1990s, high-decibel gossip that Castro had barely slipped away from a rendezvous with his Maker, prompted news organizations to freshen up their obituaries. Pundits prepared their sound bytes, ready to yammer on for their allotted 75 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 re-write desk.

The Castro obit industry cranked up one more time in 2004 when Fidel fell face-down 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. Hence forward, it would serve as the Party’s steering committee and ensure that the Party, and its majority hardliners, would play a central role in the post-Fidel era.

A month later, when Castro underwent emergency surgery, the obit business roared to 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 year of his infirmity, there would be many more revisions.

“We had to redo our obit several times,” Anders Gyllenhaal, the 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.” “We’ve had internal workshops here about it and had to make big changes twice,” said Gyllenhaal in 2007. “Fortunately, we had a dress rehearsal.”

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 sought to explain his pique. “You gotta understand that the Cadaver-in-Chief is our story and biggest challenge,” he complained. “We sit in meetings, long meetings, going over possible stories. Phrasing. Tone. Length. We 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.

The first attempt at a Castro biography appeared in April 1959, with a collection of his letters entitled Cartas del Presidio [Letters from Prison] with the curious subtitle of A Preview from a Biography of Fidel Castro. Its cover featured the 26 year old Castro’s mug shot taken after his arrest for the Moncada assault in 1953.

The book’s twenty one letters included missives sent to his wife, Myrta, his half-sister, Lidia, the esteemed intellectual Jorge Mañach who had elegantly glossed Castro’s Moncada speech for him, his personal lawyer, a future mistress, and the father of a compatriot who perished in the Moncada attack. The collection also includes several to his trusted friend and political stalwart, Luis Conte Aguero, who published the letters and wrote its preface, a passionate tribute to the man he believed would be Cuba’s savior. Two years later, Conte Aguero had fled the country and copies of the book disappeared from the shelves. In 2005, I wrote a new introduction to the book, which was republished in a English/Spanish edition.

A celebrity inmate, Castro used his time in prison – about 22 months – resourcefully. He read and wrote ceaselessly and relentlessly plotted his political future. The letters amply demonstrate Castro’s strategic thinking, and natural leadership. They are an early indicator of his Machiavellian cunning and his genius for public relations. “We cannot for a minute abandon propaganda, for it is the soul of our struggle,” he famously wrote his confederate Melba Hernández in 1954. Letter after letter illustrates Castro’s ability to inspire others to do his bidding. Many of his correspondents appeared to have centered their lives around him, seeking to know his needs and anxious to fulfill them. Some focused on his political agenda while others awaited instructions in public relations and talking points: “Maintain a deceptively soft touch and smile with everyone,” he advised Hernández. “Follow the same strategy that we followed during the trial; defend our points of view without raising resentments. There will be enough time later to squash all the cockroaches together. Do not lose heart over anything or anyone.”

The letters are an early map of Castro’s political ambitions, along with lesser matters including his desired visits with Fidelito, his devolving marriage and subsequent divorce. Although Castro has never been regarded as a man of easy sentiment, the letters are filled with warmth and affection towards those he trusted. To those who opposed him, there were rages and rants.

There are disquisitions on all manner of topics from his food preferences, pubic relations, and philosophical musings including his esteem for the Stoic philosopher Cato, who chose to end his life rather than live under Caesar. For his enemies, a casual homophobia leaked from his pen: “Only an effeminate like [Ramon] Hermida, at the lowest degree of sexual degeneration, would resort to these methods, of such inconceivable indecency and unmanliness,” Castro huffed in one letter, referring to the Minister of Interior.

The most poignant aspect of the letters is the number of correspondents lauded by Castro as devoted friends or heroes, who would later break from him when he assumed power. Support for the Cuban Revolution had cut across all class and economic distinctions. Most believed that the removal of the corrupt and repressive Batista regime could only auger better things for Cuba. But in time, many came to believe they were betrayed.

Many like Jorge Mañach and Castro’s own sister fled into exile. Others were sent to prison or the firing squad. A few like Miguel Ángel Quevedo, the gifted editor of Bohemia, who proved so helpful to Castro, took their own lives. Such was Quevedo’s singular importance that Castro had beseeched Conte Aguero to bring the publisher-editor on board. “I beg you to visit Quevedo,” he wrote, “and exhort him in this sense… The simple publication of the charges will have tremendous consequences for the [Batista] government.” In another letter to his wife Myrta, he reminds her, “Do not fail to give the article to Miguel Quevedo, now with more reason than ever.”

On July 26, 1958, the third anniversary of the Moncada assault, Bohemia published Fidel’s Sierra Maestra Manifesto laying out his fervently held belief on the necessity to unite the various factions seeking to topple Batista. On January 11, 1959, the magazine printed a special edition that sold more than one million copies. Quevedo’s subsequent suicide note, sent to the renowned journalist Ernesto Montaner, is a searing indictment against his former friend. “Fidel is nothing more than the result of the clash between demagoguery and stupidity,” he wrote before taking his life in Caracas in August 1969. “All of us contributed to his creation….I die disgusted and alone. Condemned, without a country, and abandoned by friends to whom I generously gave financial and moral support during the most difficult days….And now we are all victims.” ‹‹       Next ›› December 2009

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