Miles Kington: The last word in Caribbean dictators

'There are cases of women going into labour as he starts a speech and giving birth before he finishes'
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The Independent Online

Very unusual job indeed No 64: the man who updates Castro's obituary

 

"I FIRST wrote Fidel Castro's obituary in the 1950s, shortly after he took over as Cuban leader. I last wrote it a few days ago, to incorporate his fainting during a big speech. So for nearly half a century I have been writing Fidel Castro's obituary. You might say that it is a job for life. And he is far from dead yet!"

It is not often realised by the general public that obituaries are not hastily pieced together on the day that someone famous dies. They have been in preparation for years. A famous person might die any day, and you have to have something in stock. But if a famous person doesn't die and goes on doing things and still not dying, the obituary has to be updated now and then.

In Fidel Castro's case, very often, over a long period.

And the man who does it for more papers and news services than he cares to mention is Robin Haskill-Jones.

"Funnily enough, I owe my whole career pattern to Fidel Castro's impending death. When I first came out of university in the 1950s as a Spanish student, one of the first jobs they gave me on the paper that I joined was doing an obit of Fidel. Just then they thought that he might die any day, that he might easily get shot by the forces of reaction. So I did a bit of research into Caribbean and South American politics and found it fascinating enough to go on researching it, and – well, 10 years later – I was no longer a journalist but a lecturer in South American politics."

By that time he had refurbished Castro's obituary at least eight times.

"When you're writing Fidel's obituary, you have to take two things into account. What he says he's going to do. And what he actually does do. He has always said that he is paving the way for socialism to take over the world. On that count, I think we would have to say that he has failed.

He also says that he is going to resist the American monster and create a people's paradise in Cuba. Well, I don't know about paradise, but he has certainly done well on some counts – Cuban medicine, Cuban education, Cuban crime prevention, even Cuban music – these are all fields in which Cuba has performed better overall than America. So you constantly have to evaluate his place in history vis-à-vis his day-to-day activities."

What does that mean?

"Um, well, I think that what I mean is that Castro is a paradox, because he has remained in power by standing still. Castro is very dynamic but also very static. To be the world's longest surviving leader sounds impressive until you realise that all you have to do to achieve it is to stay there at the crease. He gives the impression that there is a state of permanent revolution going on, but it is now so much the norm that nothing new ever happens.

"It is significant, I think, that the Cuban newspaper Granma is named after the boat that brought Castro and his little band of men to Cuba for the invasion. Once living history, it is now enshrined in the past, and so is Castro. Can you imagine an American newspaper being called The Mayflower? I don't think so."

So, what does Fidel actually do these days that necessitates continual updating of his stock obituary?

"Oh, a few trips here and there, but speeches mainly. He still makes these amazing five- or six-hour speeches. Does anyone ever listen to them? People may have picnics during his speeches and read books and make love and even have babies – oh yes, there are several famous accounts of women going into labour as he starts a speech and having a baby before he finishes. It is an old Cuban riddle: Q. What pain for a man is equivalent to childbirth for a woman? A. Sitting through one of Fidel's speeches.

"Maybe, as his obituarist, I am the only person who ever goes through the entire text of his speeches, and you'd be amazed by some of the stuff he puts in. In the middle of all the propaganda, you suddenly get complete poems by Lewis Carroll... baseball scores from the American news services... recipes for cooking things in rum..."

And what if Robin Haskill-Jones should peg out before Castro?

"No worries. I've written my obit."

No, I really meant who will go on refurbishing Castro's obit?

"Who cares? Like Castro, I have appointed no successor."

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