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How a viral death rumor pushed Fidel Castro out of retirement

I'm always amazed at how fast rumors swim down the Florida Straits but it's sure hard getting news to go upstream.

Cubadebate / Handout / EPA

A handout picture provided by Cubadebate on Oct. 22, 2012, shows former Cuban President Fidel Castro walking in a garden on Oct. 19.

A week ago, I had barely cleared Cuban immigration and had just stepped into the terminal to grab my luggage when three Jose Marti airport skycaps jumped on me with questions about Fidel Castro's state of health.

They said everyone getting off the Miami flights told the same story -- that Castro lay on his deathbed and the only people left in the dark were Cubans living on the island and getting their news from state-run media.

Over the next week, I would be asked the same questions at least a hundred times. "Is Fidel dead? Did Fidel suffer a massive stroke? Is he just hanging on by life support?"

Ironically, I was in Havana looking for the same answers. 

Fidel Castro re-emerges, proving he's alive during trip to farm

Friends and acquaintances expected me to have the inside track on information since I had flown in from south Florida, home to 1 million Cuban Americans and a place where speculation about anything having to do with Castro has spawned a cottage industry.

We know now that all the rumors were rubbish.

The 86-year-old Castro surfaced over the weekend to prove that he's not only alive but still kicking.

He wrote an article and released proof-of-life photos taken Saturday that showed the retired revolutionary working in his garden.

In his essay, he sounded like the old Fidel Castro, the revolutionary icon who spent more than half his life growling at the Western press for pushing "imperialist propaganda" that "deceives" the public and publishes "crap."

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro published photos of himself, including several in which he's seen reading Friday's copy of a Communist Party newspaper, to dismiss reports that he was near death. TODAY's Natalie Morales reports.

In this case, he said, the "crap" was spreading "voracious lies" from a Venezuelan doctor who claimed to have inside information on Castro's health. 

Castro: I'm so healthy I don't 'even remember what a headache is'

The doctor, a pulmonary specialist who runs a sleep clinic in south Florida, told numerous newspapers and news agencies that Castro had suffered a massive bleed in his brain and was dangling on life support. More than once, he insisted that Castro was brain dead and that he would never be seen in public again.

When asked what his source was, the doctor would say "unnamed informants" in Cuba and Venezuela.

Defying journalistic logic, that justification became enough for a number of reputable news organizations to report these allegations. In one week, such an uproar was created that Castro himself had to emerge from retirement to prove the rumors false, and also to give us a glimpse of his old self.

He made sure the piece printed Monday added his opinion to a page of history on the 50th anniversary of the October Missile Crisis. Castro defended his decision to allow Moscow to station missiles in Cuba as "ethically irreproachable," since Washington had similar missiles in Turkey.

"We will never apologize to anyone for what we did," he stated. "The truth is that half a century has passed, and we are still here with our heads held high."

Castro is a survivor, and I think the retired revolutionary probably even enjoyed the uproar.

I know his supporters did.

I received no fewer than six phone calls this morning before I even had my first cup of coffee. They all came from the old-timers I had been calling all week to see what they knew about Castro's health.

This morning, they were calling back with their answers. One retired military man even quoted to me the last paragraph of Castro's article: "Vultures! I don't even get headaches. To prove what liars you are, I present you with these photos."

He then told me he would wait while I connected to the Internet on my achingly slow dial-up line to have a look for myself.

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A look at the life and times of the Cuban leader who has outlasted nine U.S. presidents.