Non-event sparks mass hysteria

Mass hysteria gripped South Florida on Friday.  It came and went in a few hours, but it goes a long way to explain several decades of hysterical policy in Washington, D.C.

It’s natural I’d be thinking about mob psychology of late, as I read Mobs, Messiahs, and Markets – the new book from DR founder Bill Bonner and political journalist Lila Rajiva.  It’s a lively, breezy romp through episodes of collective madness past and present.  You can pre-order here for a special discount.

This particular episode speaks volumes about what happens when large numbers of people fervently, desperately want to believe something in face of little or no supporting evidence.  The large numbers of people are the Cuban exile community, and what they want to believe is that Fidel Castro is dead. 

Rumors have run hot and cold ever since his birthday passed on August 13 with no speech, no letter, no pictures, not even a possibly-years-old audio recording in the style of bin Laden.  The Associated Press captured the atmosphere in a few sentences:

Friday, the rumors were pushed into overdrive by a meeting of local officials to go over their plans for when Castro really dies and a road closure in the Florida Keys that was actually due to a police standoff.

A circular game ensued with radio stations reporting the rumors, citing TV stations, which cited the rumors on the street.

Sandra Avila, an executive at a design firm in Miami's Coconut Grove neighborhood, said clients and vendors called all day asking about the rumors.

"I've heard the rumors before, but there's a different feeling this time, like this time it's real," she said.

Nope.  Nothing doing.  Miami’s ABC affiliate WPLG felt itself obligated to explain why it was reporting hearsay:   

Rumors circulating from Miami to North Carolina and calls coming in to Local 10 said an announcement would be coming from Cuba by the end of Friday that Fidel Castro is dead.

While Local 10 doesn't usually report on rumors, the magnitude of how far reaching this was couldn't be ignored.

What may start as a whisper, quickly grows into a chorus of thousands.

The rumors have circulated for years. Usually every couple of months they'd start, but in the past week, the rumors have been in overdrive.

And what kicked them into overdrive on Friday was especially ludicrous.  The AP again:

Even celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, a Cuban-American who normally deals with Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, jumped into the fray Friday, writing that sources were saying the Miami police were poised to announce Castro's death.

Never mind the question of why the Miami police department and not the Havana government or, at least, the U.S. State Department would let the world know.

Let’s back up for a moment and contemplate this:  A celebrity rumormonger, spouting what’s nonsense on the face of it, constitutes a key link in a chain reaction that has tens of thousands of people convinced of something for which there’s zero evidence.

But this is an instance in which emotion trumps evidence: 

"For us it's not so much the waiting for the death of a person," said Joanna Burgos, spokeswoman for the Miami-based Raices of Esperanza, a nonpartisan youth group that advocates for a free and democratic Cuba.

"It's much more the waiting for the opportunity for young people on the island to have a chance to live freely, and hopefully that might give them an open door to do so."

Let’s back up further and contemplate the underlying assumption here – that Castro’s death will spontaneously trigger some kind of counterrevolution undoing 48 years of destruction.  Yet as the Miami Herald notes:

Even though it seems clear there won't be any real change on the island immediately after Castro's death, the exile community is preparing for something big nonetheless…

'Every time I buy a plane ticket to go somewhere with my family, I always say, `If Fidel doesn't die,' '' says Maria Elvira Salazar, host of WSBS-SBS 22's talk show Polos Opuestos (Opposite Poles).“In a way, this is going to be like Hurricane Andrew times 10. We don't know what's going to happen, besides the idea that there will be a Pharaonic funeral. But we know when he dies, everything will revolve around his death. [Mega TV will] be on 24-7 for God knows how many days.''

It is only when you start to grasp this depth of emotion that you can grasp why the United States continues to maintain economic sanctions against Cuba, sanctions so severe that those very same exiles’ travel to the island is limited to once every three years – in effect, forcing them to choose between attending their mother’s funeral, or their father’s.

The sanctions remain in place despite decades of evidence that their only accomplishment has been to give Castro and company a convenient scapegoat for Cuba’s wretched economy.  But in the midst of the exiles’ seething hatred for Castro, evidence be damned – even the compelling evidence that the Iron Curtain’s demise was greatly hastened by increased trade and travel between the Warsaw Pact and the West in the 1980s. 

And if the evidence is meaningless to leaders of the exile community, it is equally meaningless to world-improving American politicians, who for decades have kowtowed to exile demands to keep the sanctions in place, convinced they'll bring Castro to his knees any day now.  (A handful of this year’s presidential candidates are open to change, but not Hillary Clinton, who’s every bit as adept as her husband at figuring which way the political winds blow.)

And so a nonsensical policy remains in place, a policy that only strengthens the hand of Castro, exacerbates the misery of ordinary Cubans, and ultimately forestalls the day the Cuban exiles wish for most – when the land of their birth is finally free.