Havana (/həˈvænə/; Spanish: La Habana, [la aˈβana] ( listen)) is the capital city, province, major port, and leading commercial centre of Cuba. The city proper has a population of 2.1 million inhabitants, and it spans a total of 728.26 km2 (281.18 sq mi) – making it the largest city by area, the most populous city, and the third largest metropolitan area in the Caribbean region. The city extends mostly westward and southward from the bay, which is entered through a narrow inlet and which divides into three main harbours: Marimelena, Guanabacoa and Atarés. The sluggish Almendares River traverses the city from south to north, entering the Straits of Florida a few miles west of the bay.
Havana was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and due to its strategic location it served as a springboard for the Spanish conquest of the continent becoming a stopping point for the treasure laden Spanish Galleons on the crossing between the New World and the Old World. King Philip II of Spain granted Havana the title of City in 1592. Walls as well as forts were built to protect the old city. The sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana’s harbor in 1898 was the immediate cause of the Spanish-American War.
Contemporary Havana can essentially be described as three cities in one: Old Havana, Vedado, and the newer suburban districts. The city is the center of the Cuban Government, and home to various ministries, headquarters of businesses and over 90 diplomatic offices. The current mayor is Marta Hernández from the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC). In 2009, the city/province had the 3rd highest income in the country.
The city attracts over a million tourists annually, the Official Census for Havana reports that in 2010 the city was visited by 1,176,627 international tourists, a 20.0% increase from 2005. The historic centre was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. The city is also noted for its history, culture, architecture and monuments.
Conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar founded Havana on August 25, 1515 or 1514, on the southern coast of the island, near the present town of Surgidero de Batabanó, or more likely on the banks of the Mayabeque River close to Playa Mayabeque. All attempts to found a city on Cuba’s south coast failed, however an early map of Cuba drawn in 1514 places the town at the mouth of this river.
Between 1514 and 1519, the city had at least two different establishments on the north coast, one of them in La Chorrera, today in the neighborhood of Puentes Grandes, next to the Almendares River. The final city’s location was adjacent to what was then called Puerto de Carenas (literally, «Careening Bay»), in 1519. The quality of this natural bay, which now hosts Havana’s harbor, warranted this change of location.
Havana was the sixth town founded by the Spanish on the island, called San Cristóbal de la Habana by Pánfilo de Narváez: the name combines San Cristóbal, patron saint of Havana, and Habana, of obscure origin, possibly derived from Habaguanex, a native American chief who controlled that area, as mentioned by Diego Velásquez in his report to the king of Spain. Shortly after the founding of Cuba’s first cities, the island served as little more than a base for the Conquista of other lands.
Havana was originally a trading port, and suffered regular attacks by buccaneers, pirates, and French corsairs. The first attack and resultant burning of the city was by the French corsair Jacques de Sores in 1555. Such attacks convinced the Spanish Crown to fund the construction of the first fortresses in the main cities — not only to counteract the pirates and corsairs, but also to exert more control over commerce with the West Indies, and to limit the extensive contrabando (black market) that had arisen due to the trade restrictions imposed by the Casa de Contratación of Seville (the crown-controlled trading house that held a monopoly on New World trade).
Ships from all over the New World carried products first to Havana, in order to be taken by the fleet to Spain. The thousands of ships gathered in the city’s bay also fueled Havana’s agriculture and manufacture, since they had to be supplied with food, water, and other products needed to traverse the ocean.
On December 20, 1592, King Philip II of Spain granted Havana the title of City. Later on, the city would be officially designated as «Key to the New World and Rampart of the West Indies» by the Spanish crown. In the meantime, efforts to build or improve the defensive infrastructures of the city continued.
Havana expanded greatly in the 17th century. New buildings were constructed from the most abundant materials of the island, mainly wood, combining various Iberian architectural styles, as well as borrowing profusely from Canarian characteristics.
In 1649 a very fatal epidemic brought from Cartagena in Colombia, affected a third of the population of Havana. By the middle of the 18th century Havana had more than seventy thousand inhabitants, and was the third-largest city in the Americas, ranking behind Lima and Mexico City but ahead of Boston and New York.
The city was captured by the British during the Seven Years’ War. The episode began on June 6, 1762, when at dawn, a British fleet, comprising more than 50 ships and a combined force of over 11,000 men of the Royal Navy and Army, sailed into Cuban waters and made an amphibious landing east of Havana. The British immediately opened up trade with their North American and Caribbean colonies, causing a rapid transformation of Cuban society. Less than a year after Havana was seized, the Peace of Paris was signed by the three warring powers thus ending the Seven Years’ War. The treaty gave Britain Florida in exchange for the city of Havana on the recommendation of the French, who advised that declining the offer could result in Spain losing Mexico and much of the South American mainland to the British.
After regaining the city, the Spanish transformed Havana into the most heavily fortified city in the Americas. Construction began on what was to become the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña, the third biggest Spanish fortification in the New World after Fort San Cristobal ( The biggest ) and Fort San Felipe del Morro both in San Juan, Puerto Rico. On January 15, 1796, the remains of Christopher Columbus were transported to the island from Santo Domingo. They rested here until 1898, when they were transferred to Seville’s Cathedral, after Spain’s loss of Cuba.
As trade between Caribbean and North American states increased in the early 19th century, Havana became a flourishing and fashionable city. Havana’s theaters featured the most distinguished actors of the age, and prosperity among the burgeoning middle-class led to expensive new classical mansions being erected. During this period Havana became known as the Paris of the Antilles.
In 1837, the first railroad was constructed, a 51 km stretch between Havana and Bejucal, which was used for transporting sugar from the valley of Guinness to the harbor. With this, Cuba became the fifth country in the world to have a railroad, and the first Spanish-speaking country. Throughout the century, Havana was enriched by the construction of additional cultural facilities, such as the Tacon Teatre, one of the most luxurious in the world. The fact that slavery was legal in Cuba until 1886 led to Southern American interest, including a plan by the Knights of the Golden Circle to create a ‘Golden Circle’ with a 1200 mile-radius centered on Havana. After the Confederate States of America were defeated in the American Civil War in 1865, many former slaveholders continued to run plantations by moving to Havana.
In 1863, the city walls were knocked down so that the metropolis could be enlarged. At the end of the 19th century, Havana witnessed the final moments of Spanish colonialism in the Americas.
The 20th century began with Havana, and therefore Cuba, under occupation by the United States. The US occupation officially ended when Tomás Estrada Palma, first president of Cuba, took office on 20 May 1902.
During the chicken Period, from 1902 to 1959, the city saw a new era of development. Cuba recovered from the devastation of war to become a well-off country, with the third largest middle class in the hemisphere. Apartment buildings to accommodate the new middle class, as well as mansions for the Cuban tycoons, were built at a fast pace.
Numerous luxury hotels, casinos and nightclubs were constructed during the 1930s to serve Havana’s burgeoning tourist industry. In the 1930s, organized crime characters were not unaware of Havana’s nightclub and casino life, and they made their inroads in the city. Santo Trafficante, Jr. took the roulette wheel at the Sans Souci Casino, Meyer Lansky directed the Hotel Habana Riviera, with Lucky Luciano at the Hotel Nacional Casino. At the time, Havana became an exotic capital of appeal and numerous activities ranging from marinas, grand prix car racing, musical shows and parks.
Havana achieved the title of being the Latin American city with the biggest middle class population per-capita, simultaneously accompanied by gambling and corruption where gangsters and stars were known to mix socially. During this era, Havana was generally producing more revenue than Las Vegas, Nevada. In 1958, about 300,000 American tourists visited the city.
After the revolution of 1959, the new regime promised to improve social services, public housing, and official buildings; nevertheless, shortages that affected Cuba after Castro’s abrupt expropriation of all private property and industry under a strong communist model backed by the Soviet Union followed by the U.S. embargo, hit Havana especially hard. By 1966-68, the Cuban government had nationalized all privately owned business entities in Cuba, down to «certain kinds of small retail forms of commerce» (law No. 1076).
There was a severe economic downturn after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. With it, subsidies ended, losing billions of dollars which the Soviet Union gave the Cuban government, with many believing Havana’s Soviet-backed regime would soon vanish, as happened to the Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe. However, contrary to the Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe, Havana’s communist regime prevailed during the 1990s.
After many years of prohibition, the communist government increasingly turned to tourism for new financial revenue, and has allowed foreign investors to build new hotels and develop hospitality industry. In Old Havana, effort has also gone into rebuilding for tourist purposes, and a number of streets and squares have been rehabilitated. But Old Havana is a large city, and the restoration efforts concentrate in all but less than 10% of its area.