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Anatomy of a Rumor: Reports On Cuban Leader Intense

January 8, 1986

MIAMI (AP) _ Rumors that Cuban President Fidel Castro had died spread like wildfire from the Little Havana community to Europe, but a Cuban government spokesman said Wednesday that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.

Veteran Cuban-American journalists and U.S. government officials said rumors that the 59-year-old communist leader has died crop up periodically, but that the one that erupted Tuesday was the most intense in memory.

″The calls started at about noon and they got more and more,″ said Tomas Regalado, news director of Spanish-language radio station WHRC. ″I finally had to go on the air at 5 p.m. (Tuesday) to say this was not true. Even today, we’re still getting a few calls.″

Spanish-language stations, and later, the English-language ones, had flooded switchboards Tuesday. Thousands in the local Cuban-American community of some 650,000 people jammed bars, restaurants and cafes to discuss the potential impact of Castro’s death, 27 years after his revolution.

″You know what this reminds me of? Remember when Orson Welles did that ‘War of the Worlds’ thing?″ asked Gustavo Pupo-Mayo, news director at WLTV, a Spanish-language TV station.

Local journalists tracked the rumor to a telephone call from Cuba from a friend of a friend of a local radio broadcaster, who was told of a Cuban nurse who said Castro had suffered a heart attack last Christmas and had since died. He reported the rumor, which was then broadcast by an amateur radio operator in Miami. That was apparently heard by ham radio operators in several other countries.

Calls from Mexico, Puerto Rico, London and elsewhere soon started coming in to Miami reporters and to U.S. and Cuban officials in Washington. Telephone circuits into Cuba were virtually impossible to obtain Tuesday.

Regalado said that when a Cuban spokesman was quoted Tuesday night as denying the rumor, that only fanned the flames.

″The people here said: ‘Now we’re really cooking.’ They always believe the opposite of whatever the Cuban government says,″ he said.

Angel Pino, spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, said Wednesday that Castro is in excellent physical shape. ″He doesn’t even have a cold,″ Pino said by telephone.

″This isn’t the first time we got these reports,″ Pino said. ″Miami is the cradle of this type of rumors. I think the problem is that the Cubans in Miami forget they are in North America now. They seem to think that Cuba is completely isolated.

″In reality, there are many foreign journalists and diplomats in Cuba. ... If something happens in Cuba, I don’t think they would discover it first in Miami.″

U.S. officials, speaking on condition they not be identified further, said the U.S. government had no information that Castro was dead or dying.

Juanita Castro, Fidel’s sister who broke with him two decades ago and now lives in Miami, said there had been no indication from their relatives in Cuba that he was ailing.

The latest rumor had fertile ground, Regalado said. He noted that Castro said last year for the first time that his brother Raul would be his successor and that other steps were being taken to prepare for a transition, if necessary. In late December, Castro told Brazilian interviewer he had given up his trademark cigars, spurring rumors that he had lung cancer or other problems.

Radio Rebelde, a state radio station in Havana monitored in Miami, made no mention of the rumors Wednesday but said Castro has meetings scheduled this week with the president of the Netherland’s Labor Party and with the president of Ecuador’s national congress.

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