01 February 2009

Die Already!

Die Already! The Miami Herald needs the money.

As Fidel rumors swirl, our newsroom plan awaits

Manny Garcia is The Miami Herald's Senior Editor/News.

At Miami Herald Media Company, Fidel Castro is the journalistic equivalent of a kidney stone -- a constant pain who never seems to go away, and you pray that he passes, soon.

Castro is part of our collective newsroom psyche, even outside One Herald Plaza.

You could be on an African safari when Fidel dies and you gotta come home. Publisher's orders.

Everywhere I travel, I take ''the Cuba plan,'' a three-ring binder with every possible scenario for when Fidel dies. Calling-tree diagrams. Bank accounts. Satellite phones. Fixers. Fast boats.

The Cuba plan went on a Mediterranean cruise with my family. It's been to Barcelona, Rome, Vancouver, Disney World -- even down North Carolina's Nanthahala River -- safely tucked in a waterproof bag while my son and I rafted.

Sad, huh?

You've gotta understand that the Cadaver-in-Chief is our story and biggest challenge. The Cuban government will not give us a journalist's visa to report from there, claiming we are the exile's lapdogs, which is garbage. Meanwhile, some exiles call us Granma North.

So we sneak reporters into Cuba to write about what's going on. We don't publish their bylines because it's dangerous, and you run the risk of getting caught and hassled by the authorities.

While that's going on, we sit here at Mother Herald and prepare some more for the Big Day.

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 -- dubbed the `Holy (bleep) page.

We've got Castro plans in English and Spanish, as well as every conceivable photo of Fidel: young, old, fatigue-clad, pajama-clad, vegetative.

We stare at his tinted eyebrows. You've seen them -- a hue possibly achieved only using abuela's Roux Fanci-Full rinse No. 52, Black Rage.

So we keep training and waiting for him to die. You've heard that joke where Fidel outlives us all?

Well, he's outlived journos involved in cobbling out the earliest Cuba plans. Others quit, retired or just figured they should enjoy life away from the Cuba plan.

(On a positive note, Fidel was a great recruiting tool. ''Where would you rather be when Castro dies?'' It worked!)

But we hang in there.


On a recent night, the rumor mill kicked in full-throttle -- Fidel had had a heart attack. He'd had a stroke. He's in a coma. Fifo is dead.

My friends call. My relatives call.

``Por fin se murió el hijo de la gran [prostituta]?''

``Did the son of the great [prostitute] finally die?''

I've never understood the ''great'' part of that phrase.

No, Fidel's apparently alive and in yet another track suit and slippers. The Cuban government releases a photo of Fidel, this time with Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is holding his hand.

We stare at the photo. He looks no different from an abuelo you'd see at Hialeah Hospital wearing the silk pajamas his nietos got him at the Pembroke Lakes Mall -- except that this abuelo is a dictator.

'It's a friggin' wax dummy.''

``No man, he's looking better.''

``Please, it's Photoshopped! He's dead.''


The truth is we don't know squat. So we polish up the Cuba plan some more, send people to Cuba, call State Department sources who know even less than we do. At all times, we try to act super smart and prepared for Anders Gyllenhaal, our executive editor, who asks pointed questions.

``Is he dead?''

Not too long ago, Juan Tamayo, a long-suffering keeper of the Cuba plan, sat in a room with us to see if we needed to scale back our ambitious Cuba plan.

Fidel had refused to suddenly die -- a wonderful scenario, in a journalistic sense, setting the stage for a fat Special Edition that could be on the streets within hours.

You felt deflated. The kidney stone remained lodged. The old bastard would find a way to hurt even our single-copy sales on his way to Hades.