How do you start a media frenzy over Fidel Castro? Today, all it took was this brief statement from a Cuban official, Roberto Fernandez Retamar:
"Fidel is not leading Cuba at this moment and this has not allowed disorder to take possession of Cuba. And this has set in motion a peaceful succession in Cuba."
The key words: "peaceful succession." As our woman in Havana, Mary Murray, has pointed out, in the language of official Cuba, "succession" is definitely not a word to be used casually. It denotes what happens when -- after holding power for almost half a century -- Fidel steps down for real. "Succession" is NOT the temporary handoff of power to brother Raul that was announced last week, and reconfirmed over the weekend by a top Cuban official during a visit to Bolivia.
Was today's statement intended as a low-key announcement of the actual succession? Or was it just a signal to the anti-Castro Bush administration that life was continuing peacefully in Cuba, despite Fidel's illness?
As President Bush himself said today in Crawford, Texas: "Cuba is not a very transparent society." Today's announcement only made it more confusing. U.S intelligence has NOT had a good line on what is going on.
American officials at first interpreted today's statement to mean that Cuba is trying to show the U.S. that this transition is happening without incident -- contrary to administration expectations. At the same time, they weren't sure whether this was the first announcement of a real succession, or whether it was just in-artfully expressed.
So when Fernandez Retamar spoke, everyone listened. What did it mean?
In fact, few people outside the troika now ruling Cuba -- and Fidel, if he's well enough to care -- know what's really going on inside Havana's regime. And that includes U.S. intelligence analysts. But they, like most Cuba watchers, quickly figured out that Fernandez Retamar didn't have the clout to announce such an important development about Cuba's future. Especially not after more important figures in the government have been saying that Cuba's legendary leader was recovering nicely and would eventually return to office.
All of this reminds me of how we used to watch the Kremlin lineup at the annual May Day parade to figure out who was up and who was down. Which isn't a bad analogy, considering Castro's longtime reliance on the former Soviet Union.
In any case, it took less than an hour for two top Cuban officials to tell NBC News there was no truth to any suggestion that Castro was leaving government for good. It was bad reporting. A misinterpretation by the wire service. Or, if you prefer, the official simply "misspoke."
In fact, it's a perfect example of what can happen when reporters cannot independently cover the news. Everything gets reported as fact -- including rumor. Meanwhile, Castro will celebrate his 80th birthday next Sunday, and his brother Raul, temporarily in charge of the country, has still not surfaced publicly.