In Cuba’s ‘second capital,’ covering Castro’s death a letdown for journalists

For South Florida newspapers and television stations, Fidel Castro’s death was not just a local story, it was the local story, the one that some journalists had anticipated and planned for their entire careers. 

When word came late Friday night that Castro was really, most sincerely dead–there were so many false alarms over the years that his previously reported demise became something of a laugh line—editors and producers needed only to turn to the “Castro Plans” that had been on hand and regularly refreshed for decades. 

“If you work at the Miami Herald, this was the story you always wondered about, worried about, wanted to be prepared for,” says managing editor Rick Hirsch. 

Slightly more than a third of Miami-Dade County’s population is of Cuban origin, about 950,000 people in all. Broward County, just to the north, is home to another 92,000. The Cuban presence is so pronounced that the region is sometimes called Cuba’s second capital. Hundreds of thousands fled the island after Castro took power in 1959 and nearly 200,000 more came in 1980 during the so-called “Mariel Boatlift.” 

Word of Castro’s death came to local media shortly after midnight. The timing was as bad as it could get, late at night on a holiday weekend. For years, news executives expected flotillas to set off from Miami with exiles intent on fetching their relatives, and flotillas of refugees leaving Cuba for Florida. They prepared to move reporters on rented boats or with the Coast Guard, to get there any way they could. But Castro had faded from view over the last decade, handing over power to his brother Raúl and looking increasingly frail as he appeared in public less often.

Herald editor Aminda Marqués Gonzalez reflected on what might have been in a Sunday column. “Once upon a time, you envisioned Fidel was in charge of everything,” says Hirsch. “By the time he died last Friday night, it was pretty clear there was a lot less uncertainty.” 

Uncertainty or not, Herald reporters, photographers, and editors streamed to their offices. Some didn’t wait to be summoned.

If it had happened at 2:30 in the morning instead of 12:30 at night, I think fewer people would have been awake,” says Hirsch. “But we had some people who went out and just began reporting.

And it wasn’t just in Miami.

“It was a much different experience that many of us had anticipated for so long,” agreed Dana Banker, managing editor of the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, a 30-mile drive north of Miami. The Sun-Sentinel, like other media, had over the years scaled back its Castro death plan. It did not, for example, send a reporter to Havana, relying on wires for coverage there. The Herald, which the Cuban government has viewed as anti-Castro, received visas for a reporter and photographer early this week; local television stations also sent reporters.

Still, the Cuban leader’s death was a big deal, and newspapers and television stations dug into stories they’d prepared in advance. And it wasn’t just in Miami. The New York Times also had a plan, complete with its own many-times-rewritten obituary and a list of reporters to deploy.

In South Florida, though, the news was more immediate. The Sun-Sentinel, like the Herald, had enough material in the can to go online almost immediately and updated that with live coverage as soon as it came in. The evergreen stories had been laid out on pages for years, ready to be supplemented with live coverage. That let the paper publish a 12-page wraparound special section in their Sunday editions.

TV stations were prepared, too. WPLG, the local ABC affiliate, put up a 22-minute obituary package as soon as the Associated Press confirmed the death, part of a 20-year-old rundown that included evergreen pieces, space for live coverage, and lists of staffers to contact. 

Morning show executive producer Natalie Morera, who got to the station at about 2 a.m. on Saturday, had been charged with keeping the rundown up to date. The obituary was deliberately lengthy, she said, to allow time for anchors to get to the set and to deploy reporters, photographers, and the cast of dozens required to get news on the air. “The first order of business was call our news directors, call our assistant news directors and down the list,” she says.

Among the first calls was to the station’s helicopter pilots, who quickly launched to pursue video of thousands of exuberant Cubans who gathered in front of places like the Versailles Restaurant, an iconic Little Havana institution and perennial focal point for Cuban events.

“Our station was first locally to announce the death of Castro,” Morera said. “We’re pretty proud of that.”

In the end, though, there was a sense among journalists that the cataclysmic event for which they’d prepared was just a little disappointing.

“We expected it to be like a Category 5 hurricane,” Banker says. “Instead it was more like a tropical storm.”

This story has been updated.

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Neil Reisner is a professor of journalism at Florida International University in Miami. He spent 25 years as a reporter and editor at newspapers in New Jersey and Florida, including the Miami Herald. Reach him at neil.reisner@fiu.edu.