Rumor Fatigue Sets In at False Alarms of Castro’s Death


This article by Lizette Alvarez appeared in The New York Times.

The bulletin now falls squarely in the pantheon of unconfirmed phenomena, along with U.F.O.s, sightings of the Loch Ness monster and the breakup of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie:

Fidel Castro is dead.

Sooner or later, it will be true. But on Friday, for the umpteenth time, Miami was distracted by the rumor that Mr. Castro, 88, who has survived revolution, assassination attempts, countless cigars, substantial stress, a fall after leaving a stage and a life-threatening stomach ailment, had finally succumbed.

“Hope springs eternal,” said James Cason, the former head of the United States Interests Section in Cuba from 2002 to 2005 and now the mayor of Coral Gables, a wealthy enclave in Miami-Dade County. “He must have died 20 times since the time I went to Cuba.”

Cuban-Americans gathered in the usual spot, the Versailles restaurant on Calle Ocho, and other Cuban establishments to ponder the possibility that this time, maybe, maybe, it would be true. But even here in a city still fixated by Mr. Castro, rumor fatigue was obvious. Versailles had put its Fidel-is-dead game plan into action — assigning some parking spots to local TV and radio stations, but few showed up

It was no different at La Carreta, a restaurant in Westchester, Fla., a Cuban-American stronghold.

“There is always doubt about this; the joke is on us,” said Manolo Alvarez, 75, a retired painter, laughing as he held court with his friends in front of the Cuban cafecito counter. “But eventually it will happen. No one is immortal. And he will join the devil.”

Castro death alerts come fast and frequently these days. His age, ill health, long absence from public view and society’s shift from old-school rumor mill to hyperspeed Twitter feed make even debunked stories effortlessly spreadable. In fact, determining the provenance of each rumor has become a kind of modern-day parlor game.

In this case, the story probably stemmed from a simple mix-up, the death of a lesser-known namesake in a faraway country: Fidel Castro Odinga, the son of a prominent Kenyan politician, Raila Odinga, died on Sunday and was eulogized on Thursday. A similar mistake occurred in August 1997, when a Cuban revolutionary figure, Rene Orley Sanchez Castro, died in Cuba, spawning a swirl of speculation around the world.

Like most of the past false reports, the one on Friday was bolstered by tantalizing circumstantial droplets. The last time Mr. Castro was seen in public was Jan. 9, 2014, making Friday the first anniversary of his disappearance. And Mr. Castro, never at a loss for words, had failed to comment about December’s announcements by his younger brother, Raúl, and President Obama that the United States and Cuba would resume diplomatic ties.

There was also word on Friday of an abruptly scheduled news conference and chatter — true or not — about how the major roads to a famous revolutionary cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, where Mr. Castro reportedly will be buried, were being repaired.

The likeliest explanation for Mr. Castro’s absence is that he is, in fact, too mentally and physically frail to be seen or to speak.

“We don’t know what his physical state is because they never let you know,” Mr. Cason said of Cuban officials. “But they want him to be remembered as strong and vigorous. They don’t want him to be seen.”

Tales of Mr. Castro’s demise have surfaced for decades. In 1986, the State Department had to beat back a flurry of reports and questions from Miami about Mr. Castro’s apparent death. The sources of the speculation were varied and dubious: A ham radio operator in Havana, a nurse in Cuba who telephoned a friend in Miami, a report by an astrologer.

More rumors followed, off and on, and then accelerated after Mr. Castrovanished for a stretch in 2006 and, once again, after he relinquished power to his brother Raúl in 2008. Through the years, Mr. Castro has been rumored to have been stricken by heart attacks, brain hemorrhages, strokes and cancer. He has alternately delighted in and derided the many attempts to “kill him off early,” as he joked once in 1997.

“Now that our enemies have prematurely declared me dying or dead, I am happy to send my compatriots and friends around the world this short film material,” Mr. Castro said in 2006, after his absence.

In Miami, his death, when it is finally confirmed, will be historically momentous and, for most, cause for jubilation. The city will dust off its ever-evolving contingency plans. Even some private schools have early dismissal emails to parents at the ready.

But, to a certain extent, Mr. Castro’s death will also be anticlimactic. Years ago, his death was seen as the necessary prelude to a democratic Cuba and a return home for tens of thousands of exiles. With Raúl Castro firmly in place, that is no longer the case.

“If this had happened at the height of his power, or even when he was just fading, it would be different,” said Peter Hakim, a Cuba expert at the Inter-American Dialogue center in Washington. “This was almost a personal battle not to let Fidel win. Now, I think people are beginning to accept that Fidel has won. He will go to his grave with the government intact and the U.S. backing down from its unalterable commitment to unseat the regime he installed.”

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