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Schrodinger’s Castro
Posted by: Billy Hollis on Tuesday, January 16, 2007

There appears to be a consistent strategy employed by authoritarian regimes. Consider the following:

  • Arafat's death was quite secretive. No one really knows the exact time he died.
  • We don't know if Osama bin Laden is dead or alive. There has been no message from him that was verified as being new for at least a year.

The latest such incident is, of course, Fidel Castro . Current news contains speculation and unverified sources that claim he's close to death.

How do we know when these guys are dead or alive? They're doing their own version of Schrodinger's Cat .

Of course, we know why this is happening. Any authoritarian organization, be it a Communist government or a terrorist organization, is most vulnerable when its leading figure dies. That's the point at which the pressure that built up over a long span can be released all at once. Such a release could provide the power to topple or disable the entire organization, and the lieutenants of the leading figure know that.

It appears that the standard way of dealing with that vulnerability is now to provide a smokescreen around the leader's death. No one outside the inner circle really knows when the leader dies. The false starts and general confusion allow the pressure over the death the be released more gradually. In some cases, such as Osama's, we may never know exactly when he dies/died.

Hiding a leader's death while the struggle for succession goes on isn't new, of course. But many of the major tyrants of the 20th century, such as Stalin and Mao, had their death announced publicly, with no major confusion over when and how the death occurred. The ensuing power struggles were at least partially exposed to public notice, and may have taught authoritarians a valuable lesson.

If Castro's cronies have any hold on reality, they know that Castro's death could set off significant unrest. It could even spiral out of control and overthrow the Communist government. Preservation of their regime and hiding their own struggles to end up as the next dictator are both good reasons to create confusion over whether Castro is dead or alive now, especially if he's already dead. If he's not, they don't want the public to know the day he dies right away; better to let his death be a gradually drawn out "open secret".

From this point forward, I think we have to assume that any authoritarian figure that is said to be "gravely ill" is quite possibly already dead. And gaining intelligence to blow the cover of such efforts at misdirection should be a priority. It's in our interest to use such an opportunity to discredit or even get rid of authoritarians.

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Previous Comments to this Post 

Beyond the unrest issue, I think it is also in the best interest of whoever the #2 man is to have time to cement his hold on power. Authoritarian regimes are not well-known for creating strong #2 guys — the only exception seems to be family members (e.g. in Iraq and Cuba). By delaying news of the death, the #2 guys can have weeks or months being seen as the "acting" leader. By the time the death is actually announces, most folks are used to the #2 guy being seen publicly wielding the reigns of power.
Written By: coyote
By delaying news of the death, the #2 guys can have weeks or months being seen as the "acting" leader. By the time the death is actually announces, most folks are used to the #2 guy being seen publicly wielding the reigns of power.
That makes sense coyote, but is what has been happening in Cuba? I am far from up to date on the specifics of Cuba, but it seems that for your scenario to be accurate, we would have been seeing a lot of Fidel’s little brother over the last few months, don’t you think?
Written By: meagain
URL: http://
Why don’t we drop a daisy cutter on his hospital just to be sure?
Written By: kyle N
Samizdata’s quote of the day:
"Castro Reportedly in Grave," begins an Associated Press headline. Unfortunately, the next word is "Condition."

- James Taranto
Written By: Bryan Pick

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