Rumours that Fidel Castro is dead swept through Havana and Twitter on Friday, fanned by the revolutionary leader’s year-long public absence, although the timing is suspiciously close to the death of a high-profile person with the same name.
The death of Fidel Castro, 88, has also often been mistakenly declared before on social media and this time may have been confused with the recent death in Nairobi of Fidel Castro Obinga, the son of a prominent Kenyan politician.
Fanning the rumours is that the normally logorrhoeic Castro, who ceded control of the socialist island eight years ago due to ill health, has made no public comment on the move to restore diplomatic relations with the US, announced three weeks ago by his younger brother and successor, Raúl Castro, and Barack Obama, the US president.
Nor did he put in an appearance when three jailed Cuban spies, considered heroes by the Cuban government, were returned to Havana as part of the initiative that potentially could end the US’s more than 50-year trade embargo against Cuba.
Roberta Jacobson, the highest ranking US diplomat on Latin America, will lead talks in Havana with Cuban authorities about migration and the process of normalisation on January 21. It will be the largest such delegation from the US in decades.
“Fidel has not been able to appear, but this [the normalisation process] was the culmination of long diplomatic work in which he [Fidel] was involved, of that there is no doubt,” Gabriel Molina, a former director of state newspaper Granma, told AFP.
A sweep through Havana’s streets on Thursday night revealed no unusual activity or lights burning at the ministries of the interior and defence, nor at the council of state or the communist country’s Central Committee, casting further doubt on the rumours.
Castro last appeared in public on January 8 last year at a show by Cuban artist Alexis Leyva “Kcho”, a personal friend. In July, he also hosted separate talks with Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, and Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader.
The former leader lives in near seclusion, tended by doctors and writes occasional so-called “reflections” published in the official press on recondite topics such as the moringa plant. But while his absence has not gone unnoticed in Cuba, his fading from the national scene has also led to his passing from many Cubans’ minds.
“For more than a year, there have been no street jokes about him . . . Fidel Castro is dying in the collective imagination,” Rosa Lopez, a dissident journalist, wrote Thursday on news website 14ymedio.
Mr Obama announced the relaxation of US policy towards Cuba on December 17, although complete removal of the embargo requires an act of Congress.
Senior Cuban-American lawmakers oppose the move, citing the Castro government’s human rights record and lack of democracy. But Republican senator Bob Corker, the incoming head of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Thursday that the embargo had failed to achieve its goal of bringing democracy to Cuba, although he stopped short of endorsing Mr Obama’s initiative.
“We are going to have some robust hearings,” he told a press conference. “There are heartfelt feelings on both sides.”
Havana this week released two dozen dissidents from jail, some of them believed to be among the 53 it had agreed to free last month as part of the move to restore diplomatic relations with the US.