From New World Encyclopedia
—  City  —
La Habana
Parque Central
Parque Central
Flag of Havana
Coat of arms of Havana
Coat of arms
Nickname: City of Columns
Position of Havana in Cuba
Position of Havana in Cuba
Coordinates: 23°08′N 082°23′W
Country Cuba
Province La Habana
Founded 1515a
City status 1592
Municipalities 15
 - Type Mayor-council
 - Mayor Marta Hernández (PCC)
 - Total 728.26 km² (281.2 sq mi)
Elevation 59 m (194 ft)
Population (2009) Official Census[1]
 - Total Green Arrow Up (Darker).png2,141,993
 - Density 2,932.3/km² (7,594.6/sq mi)
Time zone UTC−05:00 (UTC-5)
 - Summer (DST) UTC−04:00 (UTC-4)
Postal code 10xxx–19xxx
Area code(s) (+53) 7
a Founded on the present site in 1519.

Havana, officially Ciudad de La Habana, is the capital city, major port, and leading commercial center of Cuba.

Havana has a long and colorful history dating to earliest human habitation more than 7,000 years ago. In the modern era, Spanish settlement began in 1515, soon after Christopher Columbus and early Spanish explorers, searching for an alternate route to India, discovered Cuba and smaller islands in the Caribbean Sea. Havana's growth as an important seaport, developed in a natural, weather protected harbor and developed as the main Spanish port for the New World. An influx of African slaves came while Cuba was under a period of British rule from 1762, followed by 60 years of United States protection beginning in 1898. During the first half of the twentieth century, Havana was a popular destination for American tourists.

On January 1, 1959 the island nation fell under the control of the revolutionary leader Fidel Castro despite the dictates of the Monroe Doctrine. Following Castro's rise to power, Cuba became well known worldwide due to its pivotal role in world politics in the latter half of the twentieth century. During the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, Cuba was center stage during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. After the missile crisis cooled, Cuba under Castro exported communist revolution to many different countries throughout South America and Africa.

Havana is a city of great architectural character. Old Havana and its fortifications were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. However, the city lost much of its luster due in part to the country’s resources being diverted to the island's rural areas. In addition, Cuba's trade with the Soviet Empire effectively subsidized the Cuban economy. Following the Soviet Union's economic collapse in 1991, Havana’s economy was nearly crippled.

Havana's future economy is tied to the fortunes of the government of Cuba. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the nation attempted to progress from decades under a communist and socialist system. Cuba, after Fidel Castro turned control of the government to his brother Raul Castro, attempted to re-establish relationships with free and economically advanced nations. The economic engine that long existed in Havana has the potential to re-kindle once positive reforms are accomplished.


The name Habana is probably based upon the name of a local Taíno chief Habaguanex. The city is referred to as Havana in Dutch, English, and Portuguese.

Havana is located on the northeast coast of Cuba, along a deep-sea bay with a sheltered harbor. The city extends mostly west and south from the bay, which is entered through a narrow inlet and which divides into three main harbors: Marimelena, Guanabacoa, and Atarés.

The sluggish Almendares River flows north through the city, entering the Straits of Florida a few miles west of the bay.

The city lies on low hills that rise gently from the deep blue waters of the straits. A 200 foot (60 meter) limestone ridge culminates in the heights of La Cabaña and El Morro, the sites of colonial fortifications overlooking the bay. The University of Havana and the Prince's Castle are located on a hill to the west.

Havana, like much of Cuba, enjoys a pleasant year-round tropical climate tempered by trade winds and by warm offshore currents. Average temperatures range from 72°F (22°C) in January and February to 82°F (28°C) in August, and seldom drop below 50°F (10°C). Rainfall is heaviest in October and lightest from February through April, averaging 46 inches (1167 millimetres) annually. Hurricanes occasionally strike the island, but they ordinarily hit the south coast, and damage in Havana is normally less than elsewhere in the country.

Contemporary Havana can be described as three cities in one: Old Havana, Vedado, and the newer suburban districts. Old Havana, with its narrow streets and overhanging balconies, is the traditional center of part of Havana's commerce, industry, and entertainment, as well as being a residential area.

Vedado, a newer section to the north and west, has become the rival of Old Havana for commercial activity and nightlife. Centro Habana, sometimes described as part of Vedado, is mainly a shopping district that lies between Vedado and Old Havana.

The Capitolio Nacional marks the beginning of Centro Habana, a working class neighborhood, with numerous run-down buildings. Chinatown and The Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagás, one of Cuba's oldest cigar factories, is located in the area.

The more affluent residential and industrial districts spread out to the west. Among these is Marianao, dating from the 1920s. Many suburban homes were nationalized to serve as schools, hospitals, and government offices. Several private country clubs have been converted to public recreational centers.

Miramar, located west of Vedado along the coast, remains Havana's exclusive area, and includes mansions, foreign embassies, diplomatic residences, upscale shops, and facilities for wealthy foreigners. The International School of Havana is located in the Miramar neighborhood.

In the 1980s many parts of Old Havana, including the Plaza de Armas, became part of a 35-year multimillion-dollar restoration project, purported to instill in Cubans an appreciation of their past and to make Havana more attractive to tourists, to increase foreign exchange.


El Morro Fortress.

The earliest inhabitants of Cuba were the Guanajatabey people,[2] who migrated to the island from the forests of the South American mainland as long ago as 5300 B.C.E. Subsequent migrants, the Taíno and Ciboney, who had migrated north along the Caribbean island chain from the Orinoco delta in Venezuela, drove the Guanajatabeyes to the west of the island.

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), on his first voyage to the Americas, sighted the eastern point of Cuba on October 28, 1492. The current Havana area and its natural bay were first visited by Europeans during Sebastián de Ocampo's circumnavigation of the island in 1509.[3] Shortly thereafter, in 1510, the first Spanish colonists arrived from Hispaniola and began the conquest of Cuba.

Conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar (1465–1524) founded Havana on August 25, 1515, on the southern coast of the island, near the present town of Surgidero de Batabanó. The climate was poor and the region was swampy, so between 1514 and 1519, the city had at least two different establishments. Havana moved to its current location next to what was then called Puerto de Carenas (literally, "Careening Bay"), a superb harbor at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico, in 1519.

Regular attacks by buccaneers, pirates, and French corsairs meant the Spaniards began building fortifications. To counteract pirate attacks on galleon convoys headed for Spain, following a royal decree in 1561 all ships headed for Spain were required to assemble this fleet in the Havana Bay. Ships arrived from May through August, waiting for the best weather conditions, and together, the fleet departed Havana for Spain by September.

This boosted commerce and development of the adjacent city of Havana. Goods traded in Havana included gold, silver, alpaca wool from the Andes, emeralds from Colombia, mahoganies from Cuba and Guatemala, leather from the Guajira, spices, sticks of dye from Campeche, corn, manioc, and cocoa.

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. In 1563, the Spanish Governor of the island moved from Santiago de Cuba to Havana, making that city the de facto capital.

On December 20, 1592, King Philip II of Spain granted Havana the title of city. Later, the city would be officially designated as "Key to the New World and Rampart of the West Indies" by the Spanish crown. The San Salvador de la Punta castle guarded the west entrance of the bay, while the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro guarded the eastern entrance. The Castillo de la Real Fuerza defended the city's center, and doubled as the Governor's residence until a more comfortable palace was built. Two other defensive towers, La Chorrera and San Lázaro were also built in this period.

In 1649, an epidemic brought from Cartagena in Colombia, affected one-third of the population of Havana. On November 30, 1665, Queen Mariana of Austria, widow of King Philip IV of Spain, ratified the heraldic shield of Cuba, which took as its symbolic motifs the first three castles of Havana, and displayed a golden key to represent the title "Key to the Gulf." On 1674, construction of the city walls began, to be completed by 1740.

By the middle of the eighteenth century Havana had more than 70,000 inhabitants, and was the third largest city in the Americas, ranking behind Lima and Mexico City but ahead of Boston and New York City.[4]

Havana’s fortifications withstood attacks until August 1762, when the British under Admiral Sir George Pocock (1706-1792) besieged the city for three-months, and held it as a prize of war for six months until the treaty ending the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) restored Havana to Spain.

While in control, the British immediately opened up trade with their North American and Caribbean colonies, transforming Cuban society. Food, horses and other goods flooded into the city, and thousands of slaves from West Africa were transported to the island to work on the undermanned sugar plantations.

After regaining the city, the Spanish transformed Havana into the most heavily fortified city in the Americas. By the end of the 18th century, Havana attracted French craftsmen, British merchants, German bankers, and others, giving Havana a distinct international and cosmopolitan character. But Cuba remained a Spanish colony while wars of independence raged elsewhere in Spain’s New World empire in the early 1800s.

In 1837, the first railroad was constructed, a 32-mile (51km) stretch between Havana and Bejucal, which was used for transporting sugar to the harbor. Gas public lighting was introduced in 1848. In 1863, the city walls were razed so that the city could be enlarged.

At the end of the nineteenth century, with an independence movement gaining support, Havana witnessed waning Spanish colonialism in America, which ended definitively when the United States' warship Maine was sunk in its port, on February 15, 1898, giving that country the pretext to invade the island.

After the Spanish troops left the island in December 1898, the government of Cuba was handed over to the United States on January 1, 1899. For 60 years, Cuba was a close economic and political ally of the United States. Havana acquired the look of a U.S. city, as more U.S. businesses and tourists moved there. Havana achieved being the Latin American city with the largest middle class per-capita simultaneously accompanied by gambling and corruption where gangsters and celebrities were known to mix socially.

Cuba’s government wavered between a fragile democracy and a dictatorship, with corruption running rampant. There were a number of coup attempts against the government of Fulgencio Batista (1901–1973). Change came when Fidel Castro (b. 1926) took control of Cuba on January 1, 1959.

Castro promised to improve social services, public housing, and official buildings. But shortages soon affected Cuba following Castro's abrupt declaration of a one party communist state. He nationalized all private property and businesses on the island, prompting an embargo by the U.S. that hit Havana especially hard.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, ending the billions of dollars in subsidies to the Cuban government. Many believed the Castro government would soon vanish, as had other Soviet-backed governments in Eastern Europe. However, the communist government turned to tourism for financial support, targeting Canada and western European nations, and bringing in about two billion dollars annually, according to National Geographic.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, much of Havana was dilapidated and crumbling, with its citizens not having the money or the government authorization to preserve the old buildings.

On the night of July 8-9, 2005, the eastern suburbs of the city took a direct hit from Hurricane Dennis, with 100 mph (160 km/h) winds the storm whipped fierce 10-foot (3.0 m) waves over Havana's seawall, and its winds tore apart pieces of some of the city's crumbling colonial buildings. Chunks of concrete fell from the city's colonial buildings. At least 5000 homes were damaged in Havana's surrounding province.[5] Three months later, on October 2005, the coastal regions suffered severe flooding following Hurricane Wilma.


Cuba is a communist state. The president is both chief of state and head of government, and proposes members of the cabinet of ministers. The unicameral National Assembly of People's Power comprises 614 members elected directly from slates approved by special candidacy commissions to serve five-year terms.

The national government is headquartered in Havana and plays an extremely visible role in the city's life. Havana is dependent upon the national government for much of its budgetary and overall political direction.

The all-embracing authority of the Communist Party of Cuba, the Revolutionary Armed Forces (Military of Cuba), the militia, and neighborhood groups called the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), has led to a declining role for the city government, which, nevertheless, still provides such essential services as garbage collection and fire protection. The CDRs, which exist in virtually every street and apartment block, have two main functions: first, to actually defend the revolution against both external and internal opposition by keeping routine record of every resident's activities and, second, to handle routine tasks in maintaining neighborhoods.

Havana is one of the 14 Cuban provinces. Havana city borders are contiguous with the Habana Province, thus Havana functions as both a city and a province. There are two joint councils upon which city and provincial authorities meet. One embraces municipal and provincial leaders on a national basis, the other, a Havana city and provincial council. A mayor is the chief administrative officer. Havana is divided into 15 constituent municipalities.


The Cuban Government adheres to socialist principles in which most of the means of production are owned and run by the government and most of the labor force is employed by the state. There was a trend towards more private sector employment in the early twenty-first century. The government has rolled back limited reforms undertaken in the 1990s to increase enterprise efficiency and alleviate serious shortages of food, consumer goods, and services.

With an estimated per capita GDP of $11,000 in 2007, the average Cuban's standard of living remained, in 2008, at a lower level than before the downturn of the 1990s, which was caused by the loss of Soviet aid and domestic inefficiencies.

The extreme centralized economy has resulted in extreme economic stagnation throughout Havana and countless buildings have become vacant, abandoned, and beyond repair.

The sugar industry, upon which the island's economy has been based for 300 years, is centered elsewhere on the island and controls some three-fourths of the export economy. But light manufacturing facilities, meat-packing plants, and chemical and pharmaceutical operations are concentrated in Havana. Other food-processing industries are also important, along with shipbuilding, vehicle manufacturing, production of alcoholic beverages (particularly rum), textiles, and tobacco products, particularly the world-famous Habanos cigars.[6]

Havana has a network of suburban, inter-urban and long-distance rail lines, the only one in the Caribbean region. The railways are nationalized and run by the Union for Railways of Cuba.

Havana's Omnibus Metropolitanos has a widely diverse flee of new and old donated bus models. The Metrobus division operates "camellos" (camels), which are trailers transformed into buses, on the busiest routes. The camellos are a Cuban invention following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

José Martí International Airport, located about 11km south of the city center, is Cuba's main international and domestic gateway. Havana remains Cuba’s main port, and most imports and exports pass through there, while it supports a considerable fishing industry.

Demographics and culture

Apartment buildings.

The city/province had 2,400,300 inhabitants in 2006, and the urban area over 3,710,100, making Havana the largest city in both Cuba and the Caribbean region.[7]

People classified as white made up 65.1 percent of Cuba's population in 2002, mulatto and mestizo 24.8 percent, and black 10.1 percent. Havana has a significant minority of Chinese, Russians mostly living in Habana del Este who emigrated during the Soviet era, and several thousand North African teen and pre-teen refugees. Spanish is the official language.

Roman Catholics form the largest religious group in Havana. The Jewish community in Havana was reduced after the revolution from once having embraced more than 15,000 Jews, many of whom had fled Nazi persecution and subsequently left Cuba for Miami or returned to Israel after Fidel Castro took to power in 1959. Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Santeria are also represented.

Under the Castro government, educational and employment opportunities were made available to Cubans of all ethnic backgrounds, although top positions and fields of study were usually reserved only to signed communist party members.

Under the Cuban government all citizens are covered by the national health care plan. Administration of the health care system for the nation is centered largely in Havana. Hospitals are run by the national government, and citizens are assigned hospitals and clinics to which they may go for attention. During the 1980s Cuba began to attract worldwide attention for its treatment of heart diseases and eye problems, some of this treatment administered in Havana. There has long been a high standard of health care in the city.

The University of Havana, located in the Vedado section of Havana, was established in 1728. The city's only other university, the respected Catholic University in Marianao, was closed after the revolution. The Polytechnic Institute "Joe Antonio Echeverria" trains most of Cuba's engineers.

The vocational Cuban National Ballet School with 4,350 students is the biggest ballet school in the world and the most prestigious ballet school in Cuba [8], directed by Ramona de Sáa.

Havana's two baseball teams in the Cuban National Series are Industriales and Metropolitanos. The city has several large sports stadiums, the largest is the Estadio Latinoamericano. Havana was host to the 11th Pan American Games in 1991 and was host to the 1992 IAAF World Cup in Athletics.

Places of interest

See: Old Havana Havana has a wide variety of museums, palaces, public squares, avenues, churches, and fortresses. The restoration of Old Havana included a museum for relics of the Cuban revolution. The government places special emphasis on cultural activities, many of which are free or involve only a minimal charge. Landmarks include:

  • National Capitol Building, which was completed in 1929 as the Senate and House of Representatives and is said to be a replica of the United States Capitol Building in Washington D.C. Its dome dominates Havana's skyline. The Cuban Academy of Sciences headquarters and the National Museum of Natural History is located there.
  • Fortaleza San Carlos de la Cabaña, which is a fortress on the east side of the Havana Bay, constructed at the end of the 18th century.
  • Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, which is a picturesque fortress guarding the entrance to Havana Bay.
  • San Salvador de la Punta Fortress, which is a small fortress built in the sixteenth century, at the western entry point to the Havana harbor. It played a crucial role in the defense of Havana during the first centuries of colonization. The fortress still houses some 20 old guns and other military antiques.
  • Christ of Havana, which is Havana's statue of Jesus much like the famous Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro. Carved from marble by Jilma Madera, it was erected in 1958 on a platform which makes a good spot from which to watch old Havana and the harbor.
  • Great Theatre of Havana, which is famous particularly for the acclaimed National Ballet of Cuba. It sometimes hosts performances by the National Opera. The theater is also known as concert hall, Garcia Lorca, the biggest in Cuba.
  • Colon Cemetery, which was built in 1876, has nearly one million tombs.

Looking to the future

Great Theatre of Havana

Havana has a long and colorful history, although much of the city remains a crumbled image of a more glorious past. In 2008, Cuba was slowly recovering from a severe economic downturn in 1990, following the withdrawal of former Soviet subsidies, worth $4-billion to $6-billion annually. This economic shock meant the government turned to tourism for foreign exchange, and has led to refurbishment of Old Havana.

Cubans still want to escape to the United States and a brighter future, using homemade rafts, dilapidated boats, and smugglers. The U.S. Coast Guard intercepted 2,864 individuals attempting to cross the Straits of Florida in 2006. Havana's prospects are tied to the fortunes of the Government of Cuba. A representative constitutional democracy plus a private-enterprise based economy would go a long way towards unleashing the economic powerhouse that has long existed in Havana.


  1. 2009 Official Census. Retrieved April 20, 2012.
  2. Richard Gott. 2004. Cuba: A new history. (New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300111142), Chapter 1.
  3. (Spanish) El Instituto Panamericano de Ingeniería Naval. Historia de la Construcción Naval en Cuba Retrieved December 2, 2008.
  4. Hugh Thomas. Cuba, or the Pursuit of Freedom, 2nd Ed. (original 1971) (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998. ISBN 0306808277), 1
  5. Hurricane City. Havana, Cuba's history with tropical systems Retrieved December 2, 2008.
  6. Geography of World Urbanization. The economy of Havana Retrieved December 2, 2008.
  7. Mongabay. Cities and urban areas in Latin America with population over 100,000 Retrieved December 2, 2008.
  8. (Spanish) Bohemia. April 28, 2006. Por una formación humanista Retrieved December 2, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barclay, Juliet, and Martin Charles. 2003. Havana: portrait of a city. London: Cassell Illustrated. ISBN 9781844031276.
  • Cluster, Dick, and Rafael Hernández. 2006. The history of Havana. (Palgrave essential histories.) New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781403971074.
  • Gott, Richard. 2004. Cuba: A new history. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300111142.
  • Havana History and Architecture of a Romantic City. 2009. Monacelli Pr. ISBN 9781580932387.
  • McAuslan, Fiona, and Matthew Norman. 2007. The rough guide to Cuba. New York: Rough Guides. ISBN 9781843538110.
  • Michener, James A., and John Kings. 1989. Six days in Havana. Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 9780292776296.
  • Thomas, Hugh. Cuba, or the Pursuit of Freedom, 2nd Ed. (original 1971) New York: Da Capo Press, 1998. ISBN 0306808277.
  • World Fact Book. 2008. Cuba.

External links

All links retrieved June 25, 2024.


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