Published on June 17th, 2015 | by EJC0
Fidel Is Dead? Long Live Fidel?
In this article, Jago Kosolosky, a journalist at MO*, retraces the origin of recent rumours that Fidel Castro had died. The original article, which was published January 11th, has been translated and republished with permission of the author.
Fidel Castro is no stranger to death rumours. On January 9th 2015, Twitter was awash with such gossip once again – and the claims continued to spread even after larger media organisations had already dispelled the rumours. [See the #castrodead hashtag.] This time around, the rumour mill might have been spun faster by the true reports that Kenyan opposition politician Fidel Castro Odinga – known as Raila – had died on Sunday the 4th of January. But how exactly did the rumours start? MO* reconstructs the rumour mill in this “making off”.
One of the first tweets that mentions the death of the Cuban revolutionary leader links to an article published on the ICLEP website on January 5. ICLEP is the Instituto Cubano por la LIbertad de Expressión y Prensa – a national not-for-profit based in Florida, US. According to Corporationwiki, it was founded by Normanda Hernández González, a Cuban writer-activitst who now lives in the US, after he was arrested in Cuba in 2003. He was released in 2010 and then applied for asylum in the United States of America. ICLEP’s other board members have similar backgrounds. The organisation advocates the interests of a large group of exiles from Cuba who have now settled in the US, mostly residing in Florida. The profiles of the twitter users who shared the early rumours of Castro’s death also resemble this background. They are Cubans who left for the US, and are known there for their conservative and republican political preferences, as a reactionary move against the revolutionary regime in their homeland.
Wishful thinking, therefore, probably inspired the early spread of the rumour – but where did the rumour spring from to begin with? The ICLEP article mentions an interview that proves to have been important clue.
“Let’s just say Fidel is dead!”
The source of the rumours appears to be Yusnaby Pérez. This young blogger is very active on social media, Twitter being his preferred network. His Spanish acount has over 298000 followers, and the English version he created just over a year ago has already gathered over 19200 followers, too. His Facebook page is very popular as well, with 78000 likes. Finally more than a thousand Google+ users also connect to him. (These numbers have been adjusted from the original article published in January)
Pérez – who travels back and forth between Cuba and the US – blogs stories and pictures of the island, claiming his work “demonstrates the truth about Cuba and the daily life there”. On January 4, Pérez published a blog titled “¿Se Murió Fidel?”, or “Has Fidel Died?”. The post kicked up 73 comments. The tweet advertising the blog was retweeted almost one thousand times, and the Facebook post was shared an equal number of times, with many comments from readers. Later, when the rumours about the revolutionary leader’s death multiplied, Pérez also avidly spread such reports.
But what was the actual content of Yusnaby Pérez’s blogpost? Rather than a news report, the story is a poetic denouncement of the “dictatorship in Cuba”. The author writes that the Cuban people must choose between two options: “either we die, or we get used to talking, calling out. and claiming our rights”. He then continues, “let’s get on with it already and say that Fidel is dead! What do they want to do, hide it like they did with Chavez?” “On the 1st of January, for the first time ever, my neighbour did not put out the sign that reads VIVA LA RÉVOLUCION. How curious!”
Pérez ends the blog: “Cuba’s fate is so insecure, it is like that of a fugitive trying to outrun the law in a helicopter without any gas in the tank. You wait, this is just the beginning.”
Just the beginning
And it was just the beginning. The next stop in this online trail is Notiminuto, a small Spanish-language news website. It’s not clear where the site originated from, but a little research brings up the fact that the domain name is registered with Ascio. The IP-address lead to Illnois, Chicago, but the domain was requested by someone called Arturo Sarmiento Perez whose homecountry appears to be Venezuela. The US’s relative freedom of expression online could well be the reason for placing the Notiminuto website on an American server.
On Sunday January 4th, the site published an interview with the blogger Yusnaby Pérez – the same publication date as his own blogpost. The author of the interview is María Elena Lavaud, a journalist and writer who boasts an equally large number of Twitter followers. Lavaud frequently writes about Cuba and, when the rumours gained momentum, she too shared and spread reports claiming the Cuban governent was about to announce Fidel’s death.
This interview would be an interesting lead for the purposes of this article. That is, if it could still be accessed online. But it has now disappeared.
Thankfully, the internet vaults turn up a cached version of the Notiminuto website. We can see what the interview looked like when it was still online: this is a pdf-file of the webpage. We thus know that the page was taken off at some point after 13:39 GMT on January 4. This is what we read in the article which was titled “Exclusive Interview With the Cuban Blogger @Yusnaby (Part 1)” – interestingly, Part 2 was never published. The selection from the article is more or less the starting point of the online gossip. It’s 150 words here, but it was blown up to enormous proportions. On Friday January 9th (several days after the publication of Yusnaby’s blogpost and the publication-and-withdrawal of this Notiminuto piece) over 12000 people sent a tweet that included the words “Castro muerto”, and another 1600 used the English version “Castro dead”.
[excerpt of the "Exclusive Interview"]
“[...] María Elena Lavaud: Well then, let me ask: Where is Fidel Castro?
Yusnaby Pérez: There have been rumours that Fidel Castro is dead. This has not been confirmed, but it really seems true. Either he is dead, or he’s mentally not doing well. Recently three spies, who had been detained in the US, returned to the island. [...] Not a single picture with Castro was taken. And he made no public appearances on January 1, the anniversary of the revolution. [...] Besides, we’re now seeing a historic moment in the relationship between Cuba and the United States, but not one of his usually frequent musings has been published. [...]”
Why would Notiminuto delete this interview after it had been put online? The news site might have been startled by the wide and rapid spread of the interviewee’s claims. It is possible they later concluded there wasn’t in fact enough evidence to justify the publication. But it is also possible that the website consciously tried to wipe or erase the origins of the rumour.
This is the next obvious question. After all, the blogpost and the interview both appeared online on Sunday, but it took five days before the mediastorm took place on Twitter on Friday the 9th. As with every iconic (ex)-stateleader, death rumours concerning Fidel Castro pop up regularly and there is a certain pattern to them. Such rumours tend to emerge and re-emerge in cycles.
A first increase in the number of tweets for “Castro muerte”/”Castro dead” took place on the day of publication, January 4. (Some 2000 Spanish and around 150 English tweets were recorded.) Then followed a short dip, before the gossip exploded on social media, starting late on Thursday before reaching its peak on Friday the 9th of January. (These are the aforementioned 12000 Spanish and 1600 English tweets.) A short-lived lag in interest is no exception for news or other content that goes viral.
By an extraordinary coincidence, on January 4 a Kenyan politician, member of the oppostion Fidel Castro Raina Odinga, did die. Did this legitimate news boost the rumours about the Cuban Castro? It is possible, but it remains very difficult to predict why and how something spreads on social media at this scale.
So far we’ve reconstructed the path the death rumours followed when they became big “news”. Now, we will consider why the false claims started.
One could argue that the young blogger, who has consistently distanced himself from Cuban politcs but apparently still has resourceful ties to the same regime, had access to information others did not – news of the death of Fidel Castro. His reasoning also appears sound – many of the issues he mentions in the deleted interview, are indeed odd and raise questions.
But does the claim of one blogger, noted down in a single interview, written by someone who shares his ideas, and published by a news site that does not have an outstanding reputation carry enough weight to be taken for granted? Other media did in fact take over the report of Castro’s death. The rumour thus climbed its way up to the world press, using social networks as a stepping stone. Due to the enormity of the rumour and its momentum, the Cuban government was eventually forced to deny the claims of Castro’s death and the reported preparations of an official press conference.
The quotation mentioned above was taken over by a large number of smaller media productions – mostly organisations that disagree with Havana and have close ties with the US – and was exposed to a mass of readers. It was propagated due to the wishful thinking of a large group of exiles and people in Cuba.
I don’t know if Fidel Castro died, I don’t have that kind of information. I’ll probably be one of the last people to know if he does die. But even if he had died, this rumour would not have been the suitable kind of reporting to reveal that fact. So I therefore apologise, you didn’t get a scoop in this article on Castro’s health. I don’t know if he is dead or alive. But I’m honest enough to admit that I don’t know.
The author sought to contact Yusnaby Pérez, María Elena Lavaud, Notiminuto and the ICLEP organisation. They have not reacted to his requests to comment on this article.
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Photo: Marcelo Montecino