We called it “The Cuba Plan.”
For more than 20 years, we painstakingly planned our coverage for the inevitable day when Fidel Castro would die.
This would be a big story for Miami, and by extension, for the Miami Herald.
Every Herald editor throughout the decades, at least half a dozen, carried a hard copy of “the plan,” just in case. Reporters and photographers knew their assignments. They also knew, as a former reporter tweeted, that “every vacation, weekend and holiday plan came with a caveat: unless Castro dies.”
At least once a year, rumors swirled that Fidel Castro had died. Without communication in Cuba, the newsroom worked every source to confirm or deny. Inevitably, the talk would be quashed by a photo, a speech or a televised appearance.
Just about every journalist who has worked at the Herald over the past several decades has a story to tell about a Castro-related call during a vacation or family outing. There was false alarm after false alarm. Each time, we would revisit the plan, tweak our coverage, update the stories and assign new ones.
I have a bulging file filled with various iterations of The Cuba Plan, before we relied on a shared Google Doc.
The plan changed drastically over the decades, driven by both changes in the industry and politics on the island.
Early in our planning, the document was 60 pages long.
Fidel Castro was still healthy and in power, and we planned for a possible political revolution. We played out the most extreme scenario, espoused by many experts, of unrest in the island, and Cubans on both sides of the straits taking to the seas. We thought carefully about the multiple ways we might get reporters into Cuba, knowing that at the time the government would not permit a Miami Herald journalist on the island. One plan might even have involved renting a boat.
We also planned for various print scenarios, depending on the time of day we learned of his death. There were posters, special street editions and, at one point, ongoing coverage in the Miami Herald for 30 days and 60 days for el Nuevo Herald.
Eventually, the print sections were fully designed. Most of those mock-ups were lost during our last conversion to a new publishing system.
When Fidel Castro fell ill in 2006, and leadership shifted to Raúl Castro two years later, the story changed and so did our coverage plan. His death seemed less likely to trigger the same kind of reaction in Cuba or Miami.
With the shift to digital, the Cuba Plan became a 24/7 breaking news template built around immediacy and social media. Hurricane Matthew’s close brush with Florida just last month allowed us to put a breaking news version of the plan to a real test.
A small staff was working the long Thanksgiving holiday.
I was asleep when my phone rang at 12:47 a.m.
“Fidel Castro is dead,” said night news editor, Alex Mena.
“What?” He repeated: Fidel Castro is dead, we are posting the obituary now.
All those years of planning paid off.
The obituary we published, first written by Glenn Garvin in 2001, has been updated at least once a year since then. There were three versions of varying lengths ready to be published. Some of the reporters whose bylines appear on the stories we published have long since retired. Our former long-time Caribbean correspondent, Don Bohning, passed away before he could see his story published.
With early holiday deadlines for print, the story of Castro’s death did not make the Saturday morning newspaper.
But we quickly had a rich array of deeply reported stories and analysis posted on our website. We dispatched reporters, photographers and videographers to the streets of Miami where people were beginning to gather. We went live on Facebook. Groggy editors made their way back to the newsroom.
The coverage continued through the early morning until the next crew came in on Saturday morning. Some reporters woke up to voice mails they'd missed in the middle of the night.
No one in the newsroom could recall a rumor since January 2015. In fact, Fidel Castro had been quite public this year, meeting with world leaders in his home and addressing the Cuban Communist Party’s VII Congress in April as he appeared more frail.
This time, the news came with no advance warning, no rumors, no round of calls to the state department, local police departments or island sources.
This time, it was true.