Try to imagine the excitement of the Cuban people in 1959 when the young, charismatic barbudo, the bearded one, Fidel Castro, and his band of ragtag rebels managed to pull off the impossible: getting rid of the dictator Fulgencio Batista and ushering in -- or so everyone expected -- a new era in Cuba, a Cuba free of the corruption, violence and cronyism that had pockmarked its history since before its wars of independence.
It's impossible to exaggerate the enthusiasm and hope Castro engendered in those early months in power before the realpolitik of the revolution kicked in. Who didn't want sovereignty, free health care or universal literacy?
Some, however, who witnessed the summary trials and executions of enemies, real and perceived, saw the writing on the bloody wall -- the notorious paredón of the firing squads -- and fled the country. For others, it took much longer for the bigger picture of the revolution to come into focus, as it was in a constant state of flux, battling detractors, internal dissidents and the Yankee colossus to the north, unhappy that a socialist regime had taken root 100 miles off its coast.
At the height of the Cold War, all countries and especially developing ones, were forced to choose one superpower straitjacket or the other. As a result, Castro figured prominently in two of the era's watersheds: the humiliating fiasco at the Bay of Pigs, followed 17 months later by the near cataclysm of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Yet while El Comandante wanted to play with the big boys -- in fact he longed to be the biggest and baddest boy -- he was discounted when the showdown came. Kennedy and Khrushchev would decide the fate of the world without him.
This blow to Castro's ego was redirected into the restless struggle to find other outlets on the international stage -- in South America, Asia and Africa -- to play out the aggrandized role Castro envisioned for himself and his revolution.
In those days, every year of the revolution was named for a cause: Year of Solidarity (1966), Year of the Heroic Guerrilla (1968), the Year of the 10 Million (1970), with its single-minded effort to reach an unrealistic sugar cane harvest goal that nearly bankrupted the country. And despite his failures, El Comandante still found ways to inspire his supporters at home and abroad, supporters who dedicated their lives to the revolution's idealistic vision of justice and equality for all.
The truth, unfortunately, was a far cry from this utopia. As early as 1961, Castro threw down the gauntlet in a famous speech to the island's writers and intellectuals: Within the revolution, everything. Against the revolution, nothing. This meant that dissent of any nature -- artistic, political or otherwise -- was forbidden, resulting in an ever-growing intolerance (think of the internment camps for homosexuals and other so-called social deviants in the '60s) for anything perceived as swerving from the party line.
What was the party line? Whatever El Comandante decided it was -- for convenience, expedience or the increasingly baroque and self-serving rationalizations he provided for staying in power. Can a revolution that has endured more than a half-century still be called a revolution?
Did Castro really believe that in an educated, once-industrious population of more than 11 million souls he was the only one qualified to run the country? (Despite his brother Raúl taking the helm in 2008, everyone knows that Castro pulled the strings behind the scenes.) For years, Castro blamed the US embargo -- a senseless policy if there ever was one -- for Cuba's economic troubles, never once accepting responsibility for the erratic and ill-conceived decisions that have run the country aground.
This became painfully apparent after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, presaging the collapse of the Soviet Union and the drastic depletion of the revolution's hefty subsidies along with it. What ensued was a terrible period -- euphemistically called the Special Period -- during which many Cubans actually went hungry. In a desperate bid for foreign currency, Castro threw open the doors to tourism and its attendant problems, including glaring socioeconomic disparities that brought on rampant prostitution, black market hustling and more corruption.
A few years ago, when I returned to Cuba after a long absence, I kept hearing the phrase Cerraron la bolsa, meaning, roughly, that the government was bankrupt -- not just financially but morally and spiritually. The beacon that the Cuban Revolution once represented to the world had become nothing more than a grimy night light, with the Cuban people openly detesting Fidel himself -- once a sacred cow -- and his interminable gerontocracy.
Los viejos no nos dejan vivir. The old men don't let us live. This is the refrain to a still-popular song on the island. I can only hope that with the passing of El Comandante, the Cuban people on both sides of the Straits of Florida -- and beyond -- can finally live fully and freely in pursuit of their dreams, and begin to heal from this failed, costly experiment.