"A revolution is not a bed of roses. A revolution is a struggle between the future and the past."
— Fidel Castro, 1959.
In mid-January — 60 years after Fidel Castro assumed control of Cuba — my wife, Judy, and I and friends Art and Cricket Donoho of Fruita traveled to the island nation of 11 million people. There we saw evidence that the struggle between the future and the past continues.
U.S. citizens can legally travel to Cuba now, under different visas and tours. We obtained educational visas through our tour operator, Viking Cruises. But our visit also involved commercial and entertainment activities.
We bought cigars from a state-owned cigar store that also sold rum and coffee. Importation rules have been relaxed several times in recent years, and Americans can bring up to 100 cigars home with them.
We toured Havana in cars that predated the revolution — the one we rode in was a 1953 Chevrolet, but the motor was a much newer Mercedes Benz diesel. Many of the old cars have been adapted to use diesel power.
American-made parts for these old cars became unavailable soon after Castro took control of Cuba on Jan. 1, 1959, when the American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the country.
Fidel Castro, his brother Raul, their Argentinian friend Ernesto "Che" Guevara and their ragtag band of revolutionaries arrived in Havana on Jan. 8, 1959.
Our ship, the Viking Star, didn't dock at Havana. Instead, it circled the western half of the 700-mile-long island to dock at the city of Cienfuegos.
This port city is about 200 years old, which is young by Cuban standards. Havana will celebrate its 500th anniversary later this year, while Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba are several years older than Havana.
Still, Cienfuegos was an important part of Cuba's sugarcane industry. It once boasted more than 60 sugar mills. And, like much of the Western Hemisphere, it depended heavily on African slaves for labor.
Modern Cienfuegos is a mixture of old and more modern structures. There is a large oil refinery just outside the city, while the city's historic square is ringed with beautiful old buildings such as a Gothic-style Catholic church and colorful Spanish stucco edifices.
However, away from the main square, there are crumbling sidewalks and deteriorating concrete apartment buildings constructed during the Soviet era. Most of these have seen little maintenance for many years. But people sit chatting in doorsteps or try to sell tourists food, trinkets and bike-cart tours of the city.
There are private businesses in Cuba — family-owned restaurants, craft shops and hostels — that began to spring up as rules regarding small businesses loosened. Their numbers have boomed since then U.S. President Barack Obama visited the country in 2016 and diplomatic relations began to improve.
President Donald Trump pulled back some of what Obama did, but there is still greater openness between the two countries than there was a decade ago. Signs in the Miami airport now advertise direct flights to Havana.
Foreigners have wielded significant power in Cuba since shortly after Christopher Columbus set foot on the neighboring island of Hispaniola.
Spain controlled Cuba for roughly 400 years, but revolution began brewing in the mid-19th century. In 1868, the Ten Years War erupted, led by a wealthy plantation owner named Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who freed all his slaves and urged them to join the fight for Cuba's independence.
Céspedes was killed by Spanish forces in 1874, but the rebellion continued, then stalled and resumed more than a decade later. This time it was led by a poet and academic named José Marti. He, too, died for the cause of Cuban independence, and statues of both men can be found in various places in Cuba.
After the battleship USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor on Feb. 15, 1898, the United States became involved in Cuban independence. By June, American troops were fighting in what we know as the Spanish-American War.
Cubans, such as Martin Rosello, our guide for our bus trip to Havana, prefer to call it the Cuban and American war with Spain. They proudly note that if Cuban rebels hadn't kept Spanish troops off the beach near Santiago de Cuba, Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders would never have landed, much less charged up nearby San Juan Hill.
But they did land, along with many other U.S. troops, who fought side-by-side with Cubans and made short work of the Spanish. Spain granted Cuba its independence that summer. And in 1903, Cuba granted the United States the perpetual right to operate a naval base at a place called Guantanamo Bay.
The end of the war with Spain also led to a ban on the Spanish sport of bullfighting, Rosello said. Instead, Cubans embraced an American import: baseball.
This past December, an agreement was reached to allow Cuban athletes to play Major League Baseball in the United States without defecting, making Rosello and other avid Cuban baseball fans ecstatic.
The Republic of Cuba was established in 1902, with the United States as its protector. Batista served as president from 1940 to 1944, then lost power. He staged a coup in 1952, became dictator and ended the democratic republic.
In Havana today, one can see evidence of Cuba's past eras in its architecture. There is an old Spanish fort dating from the early 1500s. A more recent Spanish fortress was built in the 1700s, after the British briefly occupied the island.
There are also large, pre-revolution hotels, built or renovated when U.S. mobsters such as Meyer Lansky worked with Batista to establish casinos, racetracks and luxury hotels.
The Hotel Nacional de Cuba still stands, as does the Hotel Habana Riviera, both much seedier looking than they must have been in the 1950s.
The casinos closed after the revolution, but Castro's regime used hotels to house visiting foreign dignitaries.
Signs of the Castro regime abound: A large steel portrait of Che Guevara adorns one downtown building. Painted graffiti on walls proclaim revolutionary slogans. There are numerous Soviet-era concrete box buildings in various stages of disrepair.
Fidel Castro stepped down as president of Cuba's communist regime in 2008 and died in 2016. His brother, Raul, assumed control in 2008 and governed for a decade until he retired.
Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel, born a year after the Castros took over, was named Cuba's president in April.
It's not just political leaders who are revered in Cuba. Not far from downtown Havana, one sees evidence of American author Ernest Hemingway — Papa to many Cubans. He spent much of his final years at Finca Vigia, his home east of the city.
Nearby is a restaurant and bar called La Terraza de Cojimar. It was here, locals claim, that Papa wrote much of "The Old Man and the Sea," about an aging Cuban fisherman.
In the bar, there is a plaque with Hemingway's photo on it. Multiple photos of him adorn the walls, including one of Papa with Fidel Castro. There is a corner table, roped off from the rest of the restaurant, said to be Papa's regular table.
Not far from the restaurant is a small park with a bronze bust of Hemingway in a gazebo. It looks across a small inlet to the cove where Papa used to keep his fishing boat.
Hemingway was revered, but the Soviets were Cuba's economic mainstay for decades, providing equipment and experts, and buying most of Cuba's sugar.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the so-called "Special Period" began in Cuba. The market for Cuba's sugar collapsed, there was little money to build or maintain infrastructure, and jobs disappeared, especially for university-educated professionals.
A few years later, Cuba hitched its economic wagon to Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. That worked for a time, as Cuba traded professional expertise for Venezuelan oil. But since Venezuela's economy collapsed, it has had little to offer Cuba.
Now, Cuba is engaging in joint ventures with countries such as China and Canada, creating solar and thermal energy plants and planning to drill for oil on land and off shore.
Tourists have long visited Cuba from Europe, Canada and Central and South America. But Cubans are eager for more Americans to visit and spend money.
"My generation is ready to move on" from 60 years of antipathy with the United States, said 33-year-old Rosello.
But in doing so, the country must preserve the universal health care and universal education Castro's regime provided, he added.
In addition to tours such as ours, eco-tourists now snorkel in the reefs of the Bay of Pigs, made famous by the failed, U.S.-backed attempt to retake Cuba from Castro in 1961.
There is bird watching on much of the island, and there are 60 all-inclusive resorts not far from Havana.
Cuba has great potential, not just in tourism, but in agriculture, energy and education. However, it also faces continuing economic problems and has massive infrastructure needs.
The country confronts an uncertain future as it works to overcome problems from its turbulent past.
Bob Silbernagel's email is firstname.lastname@example.org. He writes the column First Draft of History published every other Monday in The Daily Sentinel.