La Habana, lo más grande: 500 year history of the city of Havana


“LA HABANA, LO MÁS GRANDE” (“Havana, the greatest”) is the slogan being used in Cuba to celebrate the 500th anniversary of their capital city this November. CubaSi magazine looks back at the iconic city’s five centuries of conquest, slaughter, slavery, colonisation, revolution and restoration, and towards its future as a model of sustainable development

Since its founding 500 years ago, the city of Havana became a meeting point of the Americas, Europe, and Africa. It was on 16 November 1519 that the Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar named the settlement ‘San Cristóbal de la Habana’. The name ‘Habana’ came from the Taíno language spoken by the indigenous people inhabiting the island – soon either slaughtered or enslaved to pan for gold . Immediately the Spanish began to bring large groups of Africans to use as slaves, initially to mine for gold and later to work on sugar and tobacco plantations. More than a million Africans were taken to Cuba as part of the Atlantic slave trade – Cuba did not end its participation in that trade until 1867, and did not abolish slavery across the island until 1886.

In the early years, Havana was at the mercy of pirate attacks because it looked out to the ocean, so in 1561 the Spanish Crown built the Morro Castle and other fortifications in the bay to protect their ships as they transported the riches obtained from the Americas to Spain. Slave labourers were used to dig rocks from the moat and build the thick castle walls – it took 30 years.

Thousands of ships from all over the New World carried products first to Havana, in order to be taken to Spain. The ships stopping in the bay, a perfect natural harbour, fuelled Havana’s agriculture and manufacturing, since they required supplies of food, water, and other products. By 1563 Havana had grown so much in strategic importance that the Spanish rulers moved the capital there from Santiago de Cuba.

Of course, most of colonial Havana was built by African slaves and their descendants. Plaza Vieja (Old Square) was an important site where slaves were bought and sold. By 1600 there were 16 sugar mills around Havana. In the 17th century buildings multiplied, mostly using wood and combining Spanish architectural styles. By the middle of the 18th century Havana had more than 70,000 inhabitants, ranking ahead of Boston and New York. It was the most important of the Spanish ports because it had facilities where ships could be refitted, and by 1740 it had become Spain’s largest and most active shipyard and the only dry dock in the Americas.

havanamap1740_Plan_of_the_city_and_harbour_of_the_Havanna_situated_on_the_island_of_Cuba_BPL_m8628 -650wide
1740 map of Havana


Plaza Vieja Havana

Crowning the tower of the Fuerza Castle / Castillo de la Real Fuerza, now a museum, is La Giraldilla, a bronze weathervane dating from 1630 in the form of a woman that has become a symbol of Havana, as it overlooks the harbour. According to legend, it is a tribute to the widow of a former Havana governor, who kept waiting in vain for the return of her husband from an expedition.

La Habana
La Giradilla, symbol of Havana


In 1762 during the Seven Years War the English seized control of the city from the Spanish. British control lasted ten months, during which time there was a surge of slave trafficking. 10,000 more slaves arrived in Havana due to the English relaxing the rules governing commerce in the city. In mid-1763 the English reached an agreement with the Spanish, giving back Havana in exchange for Florida. To protect the city from further invasion, the Spanish immediately built a much a bigger fortress, Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, the most expensive building financed by the crown outside of Spain. King Carlos III allegedly asked for a telescope to look at the fortress, saying a building so expensive could surely be seen from Madrid.

During the 19th century there was a major migration from China to the Americas, including to the Caribbean. The Chinese migrants to Havana settled in an area now known as Chinatown.

In the mid-19th century, trade was so successful that the first Spanish railway was built, just 50km linking Havana with Güines to transport sugar and tobacco to the port. That was also when many of the palaces, theatres and classical mansions for the burgeoning middle class still standing today were built. During this period Havana became known as the ‘Paris of the Antilles’.

At the same time, ideas of independence were brewing among the Cuban landowners. Fed up with the taxes and iron control maintained by the Spanish crown, during the 19th century they launched two wars of independence. However, by 1840 black slaves, Africans and their descendants made up around 45 per cent of the population of Cuba. Many white Cuban-born wealthy landowners and the Spanish-born elite feared slave uprisings if they pushed for independence. Also, the United States, fearing an independent Cuba would lead to the end of slavery with repercussions in the Southern states, let it be known that it would block any move to liberate Cuba from Spain, anticipating that Cuba would eventually fall into its lap.

In 1898 the US battleship ‘Maine’ exploded in the port of Havana, which led to the Americans entering the war. On 20 May 1902, Spain signed an agreement granting independence to Cuba, but the United States had already begun to control the government of the island from the shadows. From then on, Havana became a kind of Las Vegas of the Caribbean: luxurious hotels and casinos were built and mafia deals were done there, maintaining the US-style ‘whites only’ policy in many establishments.

The building now known as the Museum of the Revolution was built in 1920 as the Presidential Palace by US contractors. The floors and staircase are marble, and the decor is by New York’s Tiffany & Co. The Hall of Mirrors imitates the gallery in the Palace of Versailles.

The Hotel Nacional was built by Americans in 1930. In 1946 mafia bosses Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky used the hotel for a conference to discuss business plans and policies with crime families from across the US, with the blessing of Cuban president Batista.

Hotel Nacional, Havana

Although now famous for speeches by Fidel Castro and crowds on May Day, the memorial and giant statue at Revolution Square/Plaza de la Revolución, paying tribute to Cuba’s national hero José Martí, were actually the result of a public competition organised in the 1950s before the Revolution. The tower marks the highest point in Havana.

It was not until January 1959 that the revolutionaries commanded by Fidel Castro ended the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, the president supported by the US. The new socialist government nationalised the businesses and properties of the upper class, with many palatial buildings becoming state-run institutions.

During the 60s and 70s the Revolution focussed on development across the whole island rather than just the capital – investing in the development of agriculture, industry, homes, hospitals, schools and colleges, cultural and community resources. From the 90s, Cuba turned to tourism, which has become the country’s major source of income.

In 1976 the Cuban government declared the historic centre of the capital a ‘National Monument’, and UNESCO named it ‘Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ in 1982. In June 2019 UNESCO also declared the original documents detailing the founding of Havana as ‘World Heritage’. The documents are held in Old Havana, amongst the historic colonial buildings systematically restored over the last 25 years.

The Restoration of Historic Havana and the Master Plan

Since 1981, the process of restoring Old Havana has been led by the Office of the City Historian headed by Dr Ernesto Leal Spengler. After Old Havana was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Cuba designated it as a Prioritised Preservation Zone in 1993.

Dr Spengler has said his aim has always been “the preservation of the city’s history, heritage and traditions, without turning the city into a sterile, living museum”.

The first building to be renovated by Spengler, in 1967, was the Museum of the City. Dating from 1776, it is the most important baroque building in Cuba, the former old Palace of the Captain General (the highest representative of the Spanish Crown in Cuba during colonial times). From 1898 to 1902 it served as the headquarters of the US government in Cuba.

In 1993 the Cuban government passed a special law introducing a new economic and management model, which empowered the Office to control the use of land, use of buildings and self-employment in the area, to license construction work and direct the investment process, and to receive income from hotel, commercial and service facilities for reinvestment. Armed with this new model the Office developed a ‘Master Plan’ for the Preservation Zone, bringing together institutions and specialists to study the problems and outline the strategies for its recovery. This started with the historic centre, Old Havana, but later included the Malecón and Chinatown.

The plan is not just about the restoration of buildings and public spaces, but also addresses housing, education and health. In fact since the 1990s the restoration of Old Havana has been recognised internationally as a model of innovation, economic sustainability and inclusive development, avoiding gentrification or social exclusion.

Recent major restoration works have included the Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso, and El Capitolio. The process of reconversion of buildings around the port for use as cultural and leisure facilities began with the warehouses of San José, built in the late 19th century.

Restored Alicia Alonso Gran Teatro
REstored Alicia Alonso Gran Teatro
Restored interior of El Capitolio building

In addition to the restoration project, in late 2017 a programme was put in place for local institutions and government agencies to work together intensively to complete more than 16,000 work projects by the 500th anniversary this November, especially renovation works in the areas of public health, education, sports, shops, restaurants and the railway station, as well as street interchanges, parks and fountains.

The preparations have been ongoing since 2017. The initial stage focused on changing the aesthetic of the city and restoring the infrastructure with community involvement. More than 600 buildings have been restored and green spaces expanded. But the celebrations and restoration do not end this November – the government insists that this work will continue after the 500th anniversary to make the city even better for its inhabitants.

This article appeared in CubaSi Autumn 2019 magazine published by Cuba Solidarity Campaign.

Read more in the book: A history of Havana by Dick Cluster and Rafael Hernandez

About the Restoration and rehabilitation Master Plan see