Composing Castro’s obituary: a story 30 years in the making that says a lot about newspapers

(Photo used by permission of Creative Commons)
Fidel Castro gives a speech in Havana, Cuba, in 1978.

Glenn Garvin, Octagon adviser Patricia Fels’s former boyfriend at Stanford University, currently works for the Miami Herald as a reporter.

Fifteen minutes after the death of one of the most infamous and influential Latin American leaders was announced, a more than 270-inch long obituary detailing the figurative rises and literal falls of Fidel Castro was posted on the Miami Herald website.

No, it was not just conjured up on the spot.

This was an obituary that took 30 years of writing, revising and waiting.

And the end of that kind of obituary says a lot about how newspapers have changed since the ‘80s.

Reporter Glenn Garvin received the call to take on this story in 2001, when Castro fell down a flight of stairs, fainted and was hauled off in an ambulance – in front of the eyes of millions.

Although the accident left Castro only unconscious and with a few broken bones, it looked as if he was going to die.

In fact, Garvin said that if this incident hadn’t occurred in public, it’s very likely that it wouldn’t have ever been reported on.

According to Garvin, as soon as the cameras had recorded the accident, Cuba tried preventing any news reporting by rushing Castro off in an ambulance.

However, this secrecy attracted even more attention to the story, further convincing people that Castro was dying.

And because 60 percent of Miami’s population is Cuban exiles, Fidel Castro is very big news.

That’s why the Herald had had a prepared obit for Castro since at least the 1970s.

“All that caused the editors at the Miami Herald to say, ‘Hey what’s the state of our Fidel Castro obit?’”

If Castro had actually died, the communist government would keep that secret until troops lined the streets and other security measures were taken to prevent any insurrections by anti-Castro supporters and/or dissident military factions.

So they would have no time after the Castro was out of the bag.

At the time Garvin had recently returned from a five-year job as bureau chief at the Herald’s Nicaraguan bureau. And he had been writing about Latin America for about 20 years.

“As it happened, we had a very new executive editor and kind of a new foreign editor, and neither of them had really ever looked into (the obituary) before,” Garvin said.

“So they pulled out the existing obituary, and it hadn’t been touched in 10 years, no updates.”

It was a perfect combination: the seemingly imminent death of Castro and the recent return of a Latin-American expert.

Garvin said he instantly noted how outdated the obit was.

“Not only was it really old, but it just seemed to me for a guy of such importance – not only to world history but also to Miami history – that there were a lot of things that just were not covered very adequately – for example – the Mariel Boatlift, which had an enormous impact on Miami,” he said.

In the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, approximately 125,000 Cuban refugees came to Miami in a month, increasing the number of workers by 7 percent.

“People argue (whether this was) good or bad for Miami, but whatever it was, it was a huge thing,” Garvin said.

“And there were two sentences in the (old) obituary on that, which really didn’t explain (it) very well and certainly didn’t address its importance.”

Problems like these needed to be fixed, and fast.

“I’ll have to say that this was one of the most worrisome assignments I’ve ever had,” Garvin said.

“Castro could die at any minute. This was the way we were looking at things.

“And when that happens, we would put out an extra edition.”

Garvin explained that an “extra” was a special-edition paper that newspapers used to put out the instant after something major (such as Castro’s death) happened.

“It’s a big deal,” Garvin said.

“It costs a lot to print those papers, so you want to sell a lot of them to cover the costs. So it’s gotta be good.”

There would be no waiting until the next morning if the whistles blew for the obituary, and there’d be no internet to instantly post a “breaking news, more to come” story.

“At any minute they could scream,‘We need the obit! We need the obit!” Garvin said.

As time was ticking, Garvin determined that he was going to take an unorthodox approach to the story.

“Rather than write it top to bottom, I just began writing sections,” Garvin explained.

“I would say, ‘Right now I’m just gonna write the section on the Bay of Pigs invasion. That’ll be 600 words.’ And then, ‘Okay, now I’m going to write the Mariel Boatlift; that’ll be 700 words.’”

“I would just do these sections and figure that if the flag went up – or down – as the case may be, we’d just slap these sections into the appropriate places on the existing obituary. It wouldn’t be very good, but it’d (improve) upon what would have been (published).”

After five days of writing and editing, Garvin said he felt that he had a good product, but one that was probably too long.

At 270 inches, the new obituary was roughly four times as long as the previous one.

But there was no time to cut or edit it.

(Photo used by permission of the Miami Herald)
Reporter and obit writer Glenn Garvin

“Literally 30 seconds after I finished putting everything into place and it was all completed, the foreign editor came over and said, ‘You’ve got to shoot me that in the computer; the (executive editor) really wants to see that,’” Garvin said.

“Before (the foreign editor) could really cut it, the executive editor said, ‘I‘ll need to see that thing now,’” Garvin said.

“So the executive editor took it, and we didn’t hear anything for 24 hours. I was too tired to care a great deal about this; I just figured whatever would be, would be.”

Meanwhile the foreign editor was in a state of emotional purgatory.

“The foreign editor was just sweating it out a bit; he was afraid he was going to get yelled at. And instead the executive editor came back and said ‘Print it all,’” Garvin said.

According to Garvin, Martin Baron, former executive editor of the Miami Herald and current executive editor of The Washington Post, had a bit of a temper, ruling the room via “tyrannical bullying.”

Yet this helped move things along for Garvin with his lengthy obit.

“When Marty (Baron) said, ‘Print it all,’ all of the editors who thought it was too long just immediately sort of shut up, and that was that.”

But because Castro was over a decade away from dying, the enormous obituary didn’t run.

And for about five years, only little revisions were made on the obit every time there was news on Cuba (about once or twice a year, Garvin said).

Then in 2006, Castro released a letter to the public, revealing his sickness (surgery from intestinal bleeding) and his need for surgery and stating he would temporarily relinquish his power and give it to his brother Raul until he recuperated.

“(But) he was never better,” Garvin said. “In fact, that turned out to be the de facto power shift in Cuba.”

So in 2006 he gave the obituary another workover.

Garvin explained some of the tricky caveats of editing an obituary written over a number of years.

For example, quotes that were said five or 10 years ago might need some updating, as opinions changed over time (which could be expressed by the changing of a verb tense).

Also, if someone were to say, “I feel that Castro has been in the works to die for the past 10 years” 15 years ago, a news agency couldn’t haphazardly change that number without permission.

However, fewer edits were made with each passing year until 2014, when President Barack Obama and Raul declared a resumption of diplomatic relations between their respective countries.

And Garvin said that no major changes were made after 2015.

Then on Nov. 25, Black Friday, came the news that Garvin had waited to hear for over 20 years: Fidel Castro was dead.

But ironically, the writer of his giant obituary was out of town.

Garvin was in Orlando watching a Stanford basketball tournament, missing what he called “Miami going crazy for two days.”

But by then nothing needed work. “Everybody knew where the obituary was stored inside the computer, and they had to add to the lede of the story (that) he died Friday night and something like that – we left a little hole for that,” Garvin said.

“Within 15 minutes of our learning of the death, they had it on our website,” Garvin said.

The extra was no more, as “newspapers just aren’t as important to people as they used to be.”

In fact, the only problem turned out to be computer related.

Three or four years before Castro’s death, the Herald had changed their publishing software, so when the obit was converted to the new file format, it released a plethora of glitches, tripling everything on the page.

Now Googling “Fidel Castro” brings up multiple obituaries on the first (and most-viewed) search page.

(Photo used by permission of Creative Commons)
Fidel Castro meets with some children in 1959.

But the Herald is the only local paper that pops up among powerhouses like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

That’s because with the decrease in popularity of print issues, these types of obits are fading away, Garvin explained.

“This is kind of a dying art,” he said.

“It used to be that newspapers had a big bank of prepared obituaries (for) famous people, people of importance.”

In fact, there is only one more pre-written famous obit left in the Herald’s computers: Raul Castro’s, which Garvin wrote in 2014.

So what kind of figure warrants a massive obituary like Castro’s?

If there’s a clear distinction between which papers write these, shouldn’t there be one just as clear for whom they write them on?

“It’s a combination,” Garvin said.

“It’s partly the editors and partly the reporters showing interest in it. (For example), (at the same time as) Frank Sinatra (was falling) very ill, Kurt Cobain (a key figure in the Seattle grunge movement) shot and killed himself with a shotgun.”

Yet the Herald ran and had an obituary ready for Sinatra but not Cobain.

According to Garvin, this led to some dissent among the younger and older staffers.

“Some of the younger people complained very loudly that we had no prepared obituary on Kurt Cobain but we had one on Frank Sinatra and this was somehow unjust,” Garvin explained.

Garvin concluded that there was no real reason for the inclusion of Oscar-winning, Mafia-related Sinatra or the neglect of lived-fast, died-young Cobain except for the difference in those who write and read newspapers.

Editors and readers of newspapers, are, on average, middle-aged, so they aren’t “in” with pop culture, he said.

And as both are involved with the making of the paper (editors write things they want to attract the readers’ attention), that means that who and what are reported depend on them.

Also most readers of local papers don’t need a city-centric spin on major, national news stories; they can get that from other papers that aren’t tailored to the needs of the community.

“I guarantee you that we’re not going to write an obituary for Obama or Bush,” Garvin said.

“We’ll just get that off the wire.”

Some of the “wires,” like The Washington Post and The New York Times, may be already writing the President-elect’s.

“With Trump, what is he, over 70? They might need that right away,” he said.

Interestingly, the Miami Herald is one of the only papers that comes up on the first Google search page that isn’t nationally read.

“Somebody wrote that weekend that the papers with really big Castro obituaries were The New York Times, the LA Times, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and us,” Garvin said.

“The only guy with a byline still working at his newspaper was me. The one for The Washington Post had two bylines. One of them was dead and the other had retired.”

By Chardonnay Needler

Print Friendly, PDF & Email