El jefe's last laugh

TIM CAVANAUGH is assistant editor of the editorial pages.

HERE'S A prediction you can take straight to the bank: One day, Fidel Castro will die. Until that time, the watch over the Cuban dictator's long-expiring body continues.

This week, it heated up, even without new evidence from el jefe's doctors. On Monday, Miami City Commissioner Tomas Regalado suggested that the Orange Bowl be made available, on Castro's death, as a venue for "helping a community celebrate." Meanwhile, a news conference about security at the Super Bowl in Miami got hung up on how the Magic City might react if Castro died during the big game.

Together, these stories produced the singular notion that the Super Bowl would be doubling as a venue for a celebration of the old revolutionary's death. By Tuesday, the proposed fiesta was talk-show fodder, and the city began downsizing, or at least re-characterizing, its Castro death contingency plan.

Inevitably, Castro got the last laugh. Late Tuesday, Cuban state television released footage of the president-for-life looking slightly stronger than he had during his last appearance.

Two things are notable in this hiccup of Castro eschatology: It was not motivated by any actual news, and this is not unusual. So flammable is the Duraflame of the Castro deathwatch that it can ignite spontaneously, at any time. A rumor circulating in late December, for example, held that the ailing leader was already dead and that the Cuban government was merely waiting to make the announcement on New Year's Day as a tie-in with the anniversary of the revolution (which we know from our readings in Cuban history -- or from "The Godfather II" -- occurred Jan. 1, 1959). Google "Castro is dead" and you'll get more than 62,000 results, going back many years. And whatever you do, don't open the "Castro is dead" spam; it contains a nasty virus.

"Growing up in Miami, you would always hear these rumors that Fidel had died," said Juan Carlos Saizarbitoria, co-producer of "East of Havana," a documentary about the Rap Cubano festival. "I always thought it was going to end with a whimper, and it looks like that's what's happening."

Prominent members of the Cuban exile community are in fact opposing the Orange Bowl celebration plan and the deathwatch in general because they focus too much attention on Castro, who has already devolved his responsibilities onto his brother, Raul. "That he looked healthy in the latest footage has no bearing on the fact that he can't command the country anymore, and probably won't be able to come back to full power," said Ramon Saul Sanchez, leader of the Miami-based Movimiento Democracia. "The focus now should be on Raul and what he's going to do."

That's unlikely to stop wave after wave of rumors about a frozen corpse, "Weekend at Bernie's"-style trick photography and state secrets that have bypassed the mainstream media and gone straight to a friend of your friend in Union City, N.J. "Listening to Spanish-language radio in town, people call in with all kinds of theories," said Frank Calderon, a Miami-based blogger who runs castrodeathwatch.com.

Such speculating in a news vacuum has a long pedigree. A.J. Liebling's 1953 column, "Death on the One Hand," details the way U.S. media filled thousands of column inches with skylarking over a single datum -- that Josef Stalin had suffered a stroke -- and no further information. (Stalin subsequently died, or so the official record would have us believe.) Liebling's conclusion -- "no-news is more voluminous than news" -- applies in any situation in which information is both finite and unknown.

To this ancient game, Castro and his watchers bring generations of built-up agon and emotional commitment. The dictator's death will almost certainly occasion a mass public outpouring in Miami, where residents (and their elected officials) are in the position of people crouched and waiting at a surprise party: Every floor creak sounds like the arrival of the guest of honor.

And the guest will retain, probably until his last breath, a genius for working the media and humiliating his enemies. This week's uptick in the deathwatch leaves just one question: Did Fidel, maybe, plan it this way?

"He wouldn't mind causing a little chaos here in Miami, letting people think he died just to cause trouble," Calderon said. "I have my own theory about why he was out of sight for so long before this new footage. Perhaps there was some kind of loyalty test, to see who would make a move when they thought he was dead."

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