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Our Still-Living Man in Havana

Why There'll be no Conspiracy to Hide Castro's Death

With the probable exception of Osama bin Laden, no one individual's death is more anticipated that Cuban leader Fidel Castro's. After 48 years at the helm, he is the longest-serving current ruler of a country. Eager anticipation of the 81-year-old's death is nothing new, of course: Since seizing power in 1959, he has been the target of as many as 638 assassination attempts, and various injuries and illnesses in past years have also fueled speculation that his end was near. His most recent affliction, an unidentified intestinal illness that forced him to cede power to his brother Raul last summer, has only increased his many opponents' impatience for his final departure.

In the last two months the rumor mill had taken on a new intensity, with louder and more aggressive assertions that he was long-gone. For several consecutive Fridays in August, reports detonated in the blogosphere, the mainstream media, and on the streets of Cuban-exile communities around the world that Castro's passing had finally arrived. No official announcement from Havana ensued, suggesting that the rumors were false, but many people who generated the rumors stood firm on their sources, and insisted that the Cuban government is hiding the fact that Castro is truly dead.

One of the allegations that generated the greatest hype came from a surprising source: Mario Lavandeira, a.k.a. Perez Hilton, a Miami-born celebrity blogger of Cuban heritage, who typically doesn't cover international politics. Lavandeira announced on August 24 that high-level sources had revealed to him that Castro was dead and that the announcement from Havana would happen at exactly 4 p.m.

According to Univision, the Spanish-language media giant, readers of called in around the same time claiming that the news was "confirmed" and demanded that the company update its website with the news immediately.

Both Hilton and many members of the Miami Cuban-exile community, including posters on Univision message boards and callers on local radio stations, believe that Castro has been dead for weeks, if not months, despite the lack of acknowledgement from Havana. Even though Castro was interviewed in September on Cuban television and appeared in a photo with Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, Lavandeira and others have refused to take back their assertions that he is dead.

But right now, obviously, there isn't any conspiracy to conceal Castro's death. And when he does pass, there won't be. The Cuban government has acquired an image as adept at lies and cover-ups. Though the reputation has stuck, it's in large part a myth of the government's own making. Insofar as it speaks to a desire to conceal Castro's death, there isn't much behind it.

There are two key points that Castro death-wishers make when defending the claim: That, prior to his recent reemergence, he had not been seen in public for over a year; and that the Cuban government isn't ready to run the country without him.

When the announcement never came in August, and institutions like the Wall Street Journal accused Hilton of reporting "fake news," Lavandeira defended his post. He claims it is in the Cuban government's interest to hide Castro's death "because they are not ready for a change in the regime," Lavandeira told me in an e-mail.

Another pundit who has remained fairly firm on his stance that Castro is gone is Val Prieto, a Miami-based blogger for Babalu. Prieto recently argued that the Cuban and international press are complicit in covering up Castro's death. Prieto wrote, "Isn't it reasonable to think that the Cuban government, as long as it has dumbasses, useful idiots and [mainstream media] journalists held by the balls, all swallowing the "fidel's ok, here's his latest editorial" bullshit soup, that it will continue to do so unfettered and without consequence?" (After Castro's television appearance last week, Prieto noted that the legitimacy of the video was questionable, given that it was prerecorded.)

In fact, Castro's illness has given the government plenty of time to prepare for the official succession of power from brother to brother. "The government is not in a position of weakness. This is actually an ideal scenario for them. This is a long slow fade from power," said Philip Peters, an expert on the Cuban economy and vice president of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute. "I don't think they are afraid of the moment [of Fidel's death]."

Indeed, Cubans are growing accustomed to seeing Raul in the role of the political leader. Even though Raul Castro is running the day-to-day functions of government, it's become quite clear that he has goals and interests that he won't be able to see through until his brother's death. For instance, during a speech on July 26 in the central province of Camaguey, Raul called for "structural and conceptual changes" in the state-controlled agricultural sector to boost output and lower prices.

Analysts say the changes Raul has suggested could mean allowing collectives and other semi-private enterprises to take over the land that the government has left fallow. A move in that direction would be a clear acknowledgement that the government has failed at producing ample food for the country on its own under the Socialist model, and that a different model is needed. Meanwhile, Fidel's own rhetoric (as conveyed through a series of essays appearing in Cuban newspapers) and belief in the system he created has not faltered once since he took ill.

Another reason the Cuban government isn't going to pretend he's alive when he's not is that his ministers believe that the Cuban people will need a chance to mourn him before moving forward. "They're planning a big funeral; there's no benefit in avoiding the announcement" said Uva de Aragon, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami. In the meantime, according to de Aragon, they may keep him out of public view because he is on an oxygen tank or has some other unsightly medical condition.

Castro had not appeared live in public since late July, 2006, when he fell sick and was forced to undergo surgery. Since then, only a few images of the aged leader have appeared in the Cuban press, including that prerecorded TV interview. However, though he had not materialized in the flesh, 45 essays with his byline have been printed in Cuban newspapers since March, where he pontificates on such themes as the Iraq war, biofuels and climate change. The articles could be ghost-written, but many observers say they mirror his meandering style of public speaking.

As evidence by his steady stream of bylined writing, the Castro government has been working to dispute the rumors. "I think [the people who believe he is dead] are people who confound their wishes with reality, they are obsessed with this," Cuban Culture Minister Abel Prieto told reporters in mid-September, according to Reuters.

When Castro finally dies, the announcement will be solemn but firm. And then Cuba--and everyone awaiting his demise--can move on.

By Eliza Barclay