It's time for another Gawker Book Club meeting: Ann Louise Bardach will be discussing her new book Without Fidel: A Death Foretold. Our topic today at 4pm: how Perez Hilton caused havoc in Miami by falsely reporting Fidel's death.
Investigative journalist Bardach has written and reported extensively about Castro's Cuba for Vanity Fair, The New York Times and 60 Minutes. Her new book follows the long end of Fidel Castro's reign and the rise of his brother Raul. One of the more bizarre chapters in that story is the 2007 false report by Perez Hilton that Fidel had died. Usually when Perez prints something fake it only causes trouble for a Hollywood D-lister and/or their publicist. This is Bardach's account of the chaos his dalliance in foreign affairs caused:
From Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington
In August 2007, several second-string newspapers in Colombia and Bolivia published stories asserting that Castro had, in fact, died. The rumors become so noisy that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez felt it necessary to set the record straight on his Sunday television show. "I spoke with him on his birthday," days earlier, Chavez said, "Rumors are circulating that Fidel Castro has died [but] Fidel is producing, he is writing." Then he proclaimed: "All of us will die one day, but Fidel is one of those who will never die."
But not everyone was convinced. On August 24, a 26 year old Cuban-American blogger named Mario Armando Lavandeira Jr, who posts under the name Pérez Hilton and specializes in teen celebrity gossip, recycled the Bolivian and Colombian dispatches. Lavendeira flatly announced on his blog that Fidel was dead and that the Miami Police Department would be making an official announcement imminently. It was a story of pure confection by a young blogger who had blurred and conflated crucial details.
Miami officials had met that day – but simply to review their contingency operation, dubbed "Alpha-Bravo," in which they would secure neighborhoods near Calle Ocho for a blow-out party once Castro was dead. Lavandeira was perhaps emboldened by fellow exile compatriot blogger, Val Prieto, who had made a similar claim on his ‘Babalu" blog: "Various sources inform that an announcement will come within the next few minutes from the Cuban government on Cuban TV and media." This was news to John Timoney, Miami's chief of police, since 2002.. A bemused Timoney told The Wall Street Journal that his forces had never gone on alert, adding drolly that "Since I've been here, Fidel has died four times already."
In a later post on his "PerezHilton" website, the would-be prophet offered a timeline. "The announcement of Fidel Castro's death will be made at approximately 4:00 P.M. Eastern. PérezHilton.com has just been updated exclusively." When 4 p.m. came and went, the unabashed Lavandeira jumped in with another breathless update. "An official announcement is still expected today. We are hearing that law enforcement wants to wait until rush hour traffic is over in Miami."
Pérez Hilton had made his name chronicling the comings, goings, arrests and rehabs of teen queens like Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. Evidently, he was not deterred in his entry into foreign affairs by his bogus scoop. Indeed, it justified a round of self-congratulation.
"PérezHilton.com was the first media outlet in the world to break the news of Castro's death.. We posted THIS ITEM on it last week!!!! A Cuban broke the story of the oppressive ogre's passing. We are soooo proud and happy!!... There's gonna be a big ol' party en Calle Ocho, mi gente!!"
As it turned out, the novice gossip columnist had something to crow about - having succeeded in getting his story picked up by several credulous mainstream reporters. Soon there were rumors about the rumors. Depending on who one spoke with – embalmers – from both Egypt and Russia – had arrived in Havana to attend to the deceased Castro. Never mind that Castro had already signaled in private conversations and with a few reporters (myself included) that he favored cremation. The rumors begat rumors reaching critical mass by day's end on August 24th. The Miami Herald got in on the action with a story covering the rumor mill: "On Friday, the rumors heated up again for the third week in a row: Fidel Castro's death would be announced, first at 2 p.m., then at 4, then at 5." The Herald story told of callers on Ninoska Pérez-Castellon's daily talk radio show, Ninoska en Mambí, weeping tears of joy believing the Great Satan of Cuba had expired. La Ninoska, the indefatigable anti-Castro radio diva of exile Miami, consoled her call-in supplicants. "The moment will come," she said soothingly, "but this is not the moment.''
"Don't believe a word. It's all a fabrication by the Miami crowd," a senior Cuban official warned Reuters. He was right, of course. Nor was it especially hard to debunk the Pérez Hilton-fueled "Fidel is Dead" rumor that had duped and embarrassed the mainstream media. For one thing, Ricardo Alarcon, the president of Cuba's National Assembly and a key spokesman on US policy -– had gone on vacation- and had not returned. Secondly, Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, flew off to Brazil to attend a -Latin American summit. Moreover, Raúl Castro had made a secretive trip to Italy, a crucial partner in Cuban tourism, in which he toured a state-of-the-art golf course in Tuscany. None of the three – all major players in the Cuban political firmament - would have ventured outside of Havana had Castro been remotely close to death's door.
On August 24, 2007, Castro was having a reasonably comfortable day and was watching his favorite show on television, La Mesa Redonda. He was particularly interested in the show as it featured his old school mate Max Lesnik, the exile columnist and bete noire of the Miami establishment, discussing the 100th birthday of the Cuban reformer, Eduardo Chibas. [A popular political activist, Chibas famously shot himself after his radio show in 1951, one year before Batista seized power.] "With Chibas alive there would have been no way for (Batista) to carry out a coup," Castro wrote in his Reflections "because the founder of the Cuban People's (Orthodox) Party watched him closely."
It was at Chibas' funeral, that a 25 year old Castro made his name, by leaping upon the grave and delivering a fiery denunciation of the Batisa regime. Castro owed much to Chibas – most notably, his own emergence as a political star to fill the void left by his death. There has always been one exception to Castro's aversion towards sentimentality: the Cuban Revolution in which his reminiscences bordered on reverie. Castro could now lie in his private hospital suite, eyes closed, and simply remember. For comfort and reassurance, he possessed his own mental movie: an endless video loop of his own improbable victories as the great guerrilla revolutionary.
By 9 p.m. on August 24th, 2007, Miami radio and television's rumor frenzy had devolved into a no-news meltdown. It was achingly clear that Fidel Castro Was Not Dead - Yet Again.
Castro couldn't help but celebrate yet another victory over "the Miami Mafia," as he designated his enemies in South Florida. Clad in his now familiar track suit, he arranged to be videotaped for a one hour interview for Cuban television. Asked about rumors of his impending death, Castro smiled contentedly and responded "Well, here I am!"
You can find more information on Without Fidel: A Death Foretold, on Annie's site. You can buy a copy at Simon & Schuster's site or on Amazon. If you're an author or a book publicist and you want to participate in the Gawker Book Club, send me an email.