Destination guide: Havana, Cuba
Havana is the capital of Cuba, an island located between the Atlantic and the Caribbean, near the shores of Mexico and the United States. This tourist destination was declared a World Heritage Site due to the fact that it has preserved, among other things, its beautiful architecture and a culture rich in traditions.
Traveling through Havana, you can visit the Main Square, the National Capital building, the Cigar Museum, the Embankment, the National Aquarium and an endless number of places where you can try exquisite Cuban cuisine.
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Havana - History Overview
In 1514 San Cristóbal de la Habana was founded on the south coast of Cuba near the mouth of the Río Mayabeque by Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez. Named after the daughter of a famous Taíno Indian chief, the city was moved twice during its first five years due to mosquito infestations and wasn’t permanently established on its present site until December 17, 1519. According to local legend, the first Mass was said beneath a ceiba tree in present-day Plaza de Armas.
Havana is the most westerly and isolated of Diego Velázquez’ original villas and life was hard in the early days. Things didn’t get any better in 1538 when French corsairs and local slaves razed the city to the ground.
It took the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru to swing the pendulum in Havana’s favor. The town’s strategic location, at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, made it a perfect nexus point for the annual treasure fleets to regroup in the sheltered harbor before heading east. Thus endowed, its ascension was quick and decisive, and in 1607 Havana replaced Santiago as the capital of Cuba.
The city was sacked by French privateers led by Jacques de Sores in 1555; the Spanish replied by building the La Punta and El Morro forts between 1558 and 1630 to reinforce an already formidable protective ring. From 1674 to 1740, a strong wall around the city was added. These defenses kept the pirates at bay but proved ineffective when Spain became embroiled in the Seven Years’ War with Britain, the strongest maritime power of the era.
On June 6, 1762, a British army under the Earl of Albemarle attacked Havana, landing at Cojímar and striking inland to Guanabacoa. From there they drove west along the northeastern side of the harbor, and on July 30 they attacked El Morro from the rear. Other troops landed at La Chorrera, west of the city, and by August 13 the Spanish were surrounded and forced to surrender. The British held Havana for 11 months. (The same war cost France almost all its colonies in North America, including Québec and Louisiana – a major paradigm shift.)
When the Spanish regained the city a year later in exchange for Florida, they began a crash building program to upgrade the city’s defenses in order to avoid another debilitating siege. A new fortress, La Cabaña, was built along the ridge from which the British had shelled El Morro, and by the time the work was finished in 1774, Havana had become the most heavily fortified city in the New World, the ‘bulwark of the Indies.’
The British occupation resulted in Spain opening Havana to freer trade. In 1765 the city was granted the right to trade with seven Spanish cities instead of only Cádiz, and from 1818 Havana was allowed to ship its sugar, rum, tobacco and coffee directly to any part of the world. The 19th century was an era of steady progress: first came the railway in 1837, followed by public gas lighting (1848), the telegraph (1851), an urban transport system (1862), telephones (1888) and electric lighting (1890). By 1902 the city, which had been physically untouched by the devastating wars of independence, boasted a quarter of a million inhabitants.
Havana entered the 20th century on the cusp of a new beginning. With the quasi-independence of 1902, the city had expanded rapidly west along the Malecón and into the wooded glades of formerly off-limits Vedado. There was a large influx of rich Americans at the start of the Prohibition era, and the good times began to roll with a healthy (or not-so-healthy) abandon; by the 1950s Havana was a decadent gambling city frolicking to the all-night parties of American mobsters and scooping fortunes into the pockets of various disreputable hoods such as Meyer Lansky.
For Fidel, it was an aberration. On taking power in 1959, the new revolutionary government promptly closed down all the casinos and then sent Lansky and his sycophantic henchmen back to Miami. The once-glittering hotels were divided up to provide homes for the rural poor. Havana’s long decline had begun.
Today the city’s restoration is ongoing and a stoic fight against the odds in a country where shortages are part of everyday life and money for raw materials is scarce. Since 1982 City Historian Eusebio Leal Spengler has been piecing Habana Vieja back together street by street and square by square with the aid of Unesco and a variety of foreign investors. Slowly but surely, the old starlet is starting to rediscover her former greatness.