Preparing for Fidel Castro’s death

How Florida news organizations plan to cover the Cuban dictator's passing

MIAMI — Last week, the usual crew of friends from the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald, and various national and international outlets got together for what has become a familiar ritual.

Fidel Castro had died again.

Every year or so, a rumor bubbles up that the world’s most famous Cuban has this time, finally, truly, died. The local press corps sends crews to Versailles, the iconic Little Havana restaurant where presidential candidates appear to appeal to Cuban American voters and where journalists gather when anything about Cuba might be happening. Pretty early in the news cycle of a Fidel-is-dead rumor, The Associated Press writes a story that essentially says Castro might not be alive but no one on the island says he’s dead. This year, on Jan. 9, the AP’s Havana bureau chief, Michael Weissenstein, wrote that story, noting the rumor that the foreign press was being called to a press conference.

Weissenstein also took to Twitter. “Foreign correspondents now furiously calling each other about supposed press conference, an event not usually kept secret from press itself,” he wrote.

And also: “There is a noticeable gap between what’s happening in Havana and what’s happening in Havana on Twitter tonight.”

And this: “We’re watching the same Cuban TV everyone else is and no one’s mentioned a thing about Raul talking anytime soon. Everybody please calm down.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Social media, where so much is a joke or a cause, made it all seem like a farce. The photographers at Versailles filled up my Facebook feed with selfies of the group smiling over Cuban coffee.

There was a time when Cubans in Miami, and the press corps, believed Fidel’s death would spell regime change on the island and chaos in South Florida. And everyone had a plan. City officials would open up the Orange Bowl for celebrations in the hopes of keeping the streets clear. Schools might dismiss students early. Police and federal officials might block boat ramps to prevent eager Cuban exiles from trying to invade the island by boat.

On Jan. 9, I talked to Delrish Moss, a Miami Police Department major who has been in the public information office for 17 years. He’s a veteran of the Fidel Death Watch, and he got all the familiar calls from local, national, and foreign reporters, asking about the rumor and Miami’s plans.

“It typically happens in February, not January,” Moss joked. “We’ve been getting calls all day long. This has been consistent, almost annually, for at least 17 years. I remember one year it happened in June. That was weird.”

The Miami Herald used to have plans to sneak into Cuba by any means possible.

Photographer Tim Chapman, now retired from the Herald, told me he stashed film in a refrigerator in Cuba. Those who know Chapman won’t be surprised that his story involves a pretty girl.

“She lived next door to the Hemingway Marina,” he explained. “I rented space in her refrigerator.”

Chapman’s plan was to take a boat to the island.

“There were several plans–one crazy one was to have something like a mother ship anchored out in international waters,” he said.

Chapman even made a back-up plan to try to parachute onto the island, which won’t surprise his friends either.

South Florida journalists warned their families. When I was at the Herald, my parents, both reporters, knew that if Castro died I might actually disappear for a while. None of us were ever sure what we might have to do, but I was among many reporters over the years who knew I might have to try to find my way onto the island somehow.

In 2009, I had to quietly go to Havana because the rumor was just so strong. I watched the inauguration of America’s first black president from a bar in Havana. My assignment was just to lie low and try not to get thrown out–to be there ready to start reporting if Castro turned out to actually be dead this time.

Like many of us, Chapman was also periodically dispatched to Little Havana, where an ever-dwindling crowd of Cuban-American hardliners would gather to prepare to celebrate.

“After a while, I had a hard time focusing on people I hadn’t shot before,” he said. “If I were an editor, I would ban photographers from going to Versailles at this point.”

The ranks of the Cuban-American hardliners who cheered each New Year with “next year in Havana” have thinned over the years. After Fidel handed the reins to his brother Raul Castro in 2006, hopes of regime change dimmed.

And they tore the Orange Bowl down in 2008. For a while, Moss told me, the police department plan was to block the streets in front of Versailles. These days, he’s not sure what the plan is. The demographics of Miami have changed and the idea that the death of a dictator who lives across the Straits might shut down the city seems remote, even quaint.

The Herald hasn’t abandoned its Death-of-Fidel Plan, but the newspaper is calmer about the whole thing. Metro Editor Jay Ducassi told me the paper is no longer planning for chaos here or on the island. He said the paper has scrapped the plan to try to get in on boats.

“If he dies, nothing really changes in Cuba,” he said.

Ducassi has spent 26 years at the Herald, a newspaper like no other, at least when it comes to Cuba.

“I don’t know of anybody who has a community like ours where if there is a change in government in another country, it would be a local story,” he said. “Cuba and Haiti are like Coral Gables and Hialeah for us.”

The Herald has dealt with the Fidel Death Watch so many times that even stories about it, like this one done by the The New York Times on Jan. 9 and this one in the Daily Mail, seem kind of silly in Miami. The Herald checked out the rumor this time around but didn’t run anything on it.

“In the past, when there was a strong rumor, we’ve written about it and how it got started,” Ducassi said. “But we’ve written that story so many times, it’s become a cliché.”

Journalists and South Florida remain prepared for Fidel’s death. I tell my journalism students at Barry University that class is cancelled if the Herald has reported that Castro is dead. It is not cancelled if they hear a rumor that he’s dead. That’s going to happen pretty regularly, and I don’t want them using it as an excuse not to show up. But this is not like a rumor of a cloned Raelian baby or aliens again landing in Roswell, NM. Castro won’t live forever. When the rumor is finally true, like everyone else, I’ll need to drop everything and start reporting.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.