Nineteen fifty-nine was a long time ago. That year, Alaska and Hawaii became the 49th and 50th states; Grammy award winners included Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
On Jan. 1, 1959, Fidel Castro became the head of the Cuban government. "Only Queen Elizabeth, crowned in 1952, has been a head of state longer," notes The Associated Press.
The news this week that the 79-year-old had handed over the reins of power, even temporarily, due to surgery for intestinal bleeding, was met by dancing in the streets of Miami's Little Havana.
"We are seeing the end of this 50-year-old, almost 50-year-old, terrorist regime," U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican of Cuban descent (who is related by marriage to Castro's family), told Miami television station WSVN.
"That regime is evil," Nelly Vazquez, 49, a Miami schoolteacher whose parents brought her to the United States when she was 3 years old, told Reuters. "They murdered a lot of people."
Someday someone -- a sociologist perhaps, or maybe a psychiatrist -- will write the complete history of the role this tiny country of 11 million played in the consciousness of the West. For most of my life Cuba was a cause celebre of the left. In recent years, that has slowly changed, mostly because the Czech Republic has taken to championing the cause of human rights in Cuba.
"After the fall of communism, it became our natural duty to help people in countries where they have authoritarian or totalitarian regimes," Czech ambassador to the U.S. Petr Kolar (a former janitor who was banned from a university for failing to join the Communist Party) told The Miami Herald. "We remember how important it was to be supported from outside."
Many in the West have never stopped buying Castro's improbable claim that communism and political repression brought prosperity to the Cuban people. But Czech supermodel Helena Houdova was recently arrested by Cuban police after taking photos of Cuban slums (she smuggled out the camera's memory card in her bra).
"The revolution's watchmen rose up because I was taking pictures of something they do not like," the 1999 Miss Czech Republic said at the time.
For these kinds of efforts, a May 9 editorial in Cuba's Communist Party newspaper denounced the Czechs as "salaried puppets of the imperial circles of power in the United States and of the anti-Cuban Miami terrorist mafia."
Religious liberty has been among the most consistently and rigorously suppressed freedoms under the Castro regime. Even today, religious schools are banned in Cuba. It is no accident that the leading democracy movement in Cuba is known as the Christian Liberation Movement.
This May, at its spring commencement, Columbia University left an empty chair on its stage to honor Oswaldo Paya Sardinas, the anti-Castro, Cuban democracy, human rights (and property rights) activist. Castro's regime refused to allow Paya to travel to pick up his honorary degree.
The day after Cuba was elected to the new U.N. Human Rights Council, Paya presented "Programa Todos Cubanos" ("Program for all Cubans"), a plan providing a nonviolent roadmap to democracy for Cuba. To date, despite a Castro crackdown to put organizers in jail, more than 25,000 people have signed a petition calling for a referendum on free elections, freedom of expression, free association and free enterprise. Former Czech president Vaclav Havel and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright applauded the effort, writing in the July 24 International Herald Tribune, "(W)e urge everyone who supports human rights to call on council members and all U.N. member states to bring their influence to bear on the Castro regime."
Especially now, when Castro's long nightmare hold on the Cuban people appears to be coming to a close.