Old Havana and its Fortifications (1982)

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UNESCO (France) 1985. View of Old Havana and its monuments. 

Cuba 1957. Patio at the José Martí National Library in Havana.

Havana was founded in 1519 by the Spanish. By the 17th century, it had become one of the Caribbean's main centres for ship-building. 

Although it is today a sprawling metropolis of 2 million inhabitants, its old centre retains an interesting mix of Baroque and neoclassical monuments, and a homogeneous ensemble of private houses with arcades, balconies, wrought-iron gates and internal courtyards.

  • UNESCO (France) 1985. View of Old Havana and its monuments. 
  • Cuba 1957. Patio at the José Martí National Library in Havana. 

The Spanish founded Havana at its present site on the western margin of Havana Bay. after attempts to found a city by the same name on Cuba's south coast failed. The city's location was adjacent to a superb harbor at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico and with easy access to the Gulf Stream -- an ocean current that navigators followed when traveling from the Americas to Europe. This location led to Havana’s early development as the principal port of Spain's New World colonies. 

The city and its port quickly became the staging site for the departure and arrival of Spain's trading fleets, which sailed twice a year in massive convoys to and from Spain. 

Although not originally the capital of the Cuban colony, Havana became the effective capital in 1592 when the Spanish moved the governor's residence there from the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. In 1607 it was named as the official capital. 

  • Cuba 1929. The Capitol of Havana. 

Cuba 1929. The Capitol of Havana.

Wealth and power concentrated naturally in the city because of its dual role as Cuba's colonial capital and as the focus of the Spanish colonial trading system. Havana soon boasted much monumental architecture and many lavish colonial mansions. 

Cuba 1957. Havana Fortifications.

However, as a major seaport and trading center, it also had dangerous, rough-and-tumble quarters replete with bars and brothels. During most of the colonial period, Havana was the third largest city in Spanish America after Mexico City and Lima, Peru.  

The "Pearl of the Caribbean," as Havana was sometimes known, was a frequent target for attack by pirates who were often commissioned by Spain's colonial competitors -- the French, the Dutch, and the English. The city experienced major attacks in 1538, 1555, 1622, 1623, and 1638. As a consequence, the Spanish built walls around the city and four massive forts, which survive to this day. 

  • Cuba 1957. Havana Fortifications. 

Spain allied with France against Great Britain during the Seven Years' War (1756-1763). As a consequence, English military forces attacked Havana. After a three-month siege the city fell. The English occupied and administered the city for a scant six months, but they initiated a major change. They eliminated the restrictive trading rules imposed by the Spanish crown, which had permitted trade only with Spain. This opened the city to international trade, revolutionized its commercial life, and promoted even greater economic growth. These new regulations remained in effect even after the English exchanged Havana for Spain’s Florida territory at the end of the war. 

Cuba 1967. Castle ofthe Royal Forces, Havana. Cuba 1967. St. Francis de Paula Church Havana. Cuba 1967. St. Francis Convent, Havana.

While most of Spain's American colonies achieved independence in the early decades of the 1800s, Cuba did not; Havana remained a Spanish colonial city throughout the 1800s. Its population stood at about 100,000 in 1800, growing to over 160,000 by the 1860s, when the government tore down Havana’s colonial walls to make room for expansion of the city. Railroad construction, focusing on Havana, began in the 1830s, and major water aqueducts were completed in 1835 and 1893. The city boomed during the 1800s, due in large part to the country's profitable sugar industry. 

But it was also the scene of increasingly violent confrontations as Cubans struggled to gain their independence from Spain during the Ten Year's War (1868-1878) and the War of Independence (1895-1898). 
  • Cuba 1942. "Unmask the Fifth Columnists". 
  • Cuba 1942. "Be Careful. The Fifth Column in spying on you". 
Cuba 1942. "Unmask the Fifth Columnists".

Cuba 1942. "Be Careful. The Fifth Column in spying on you".

Cuba 1942. "Destroy it. The Fifth Column is like a serpent". Cuba 1942. "Fulfill your patriotic duty by destroying the Fifth Column".  Cuba 1942. "Don't be afraid of the Fifth Column. Attack it".

In early 1898 the U.S. battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor. A U.S. Navy study published in 1976 suggested that spontaneous combustion in the ship’s coal bunkers caused the explosion; however, many Americans blamed the Spanish for the explosion. Reaction to the sinking led the United States to declare war on Spain in 1898. The Spanish-American War concluded before the end of the year and left Havana in American hands until 1902, when Cuba achieved independence. 

During their time in Cuba, the Americans initiated a series of public health measures. With the help of a Cuban doctor, Carlos Finlay (1833-1915), yellow fever was eliminated as a major health hazard on the island. Infrastructure projects were also begun, notable among these was the construction in 1901 of the famous Avenida Malecón along the city's waterfront. American influence grew throughout the next 50 years, as American investors and businessmen increasingly dominated much of the economic activity of Havana and Cuba. 
  • Cuba 1934. Dr. Carlos Finlay. Centenary of birth. Physician-biologist who found that a mosquito transmitted the Yellow Fever. 

Cuba 1934. Dr. Carlos Finlay. Centenary of birth. Physician-biologist who found that a mosquito transmitted the Yellow Fever.

Cuba 1951. José Raúl Capablanca.

Cuba 1951. Capablanca Club, Havana.

By the 1930s Havana had become a popular destination for American tourists, and luxury hotels, nightclubs, and casinos grew up in response to their increasing presence. 

Gambling and prostitution played an important role in the tourist trade, and the influence of organized crime groups from the United States was significant. 

  • Cuba 1951. José Raúl Capablanca. 
  • Cuba 1951. Capablanca Club, Havana. 

In 1958 about 300,000 American tourists visited the city. One of the most well-known to the world was the American author Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), who wrote several of his famous novels there. 

Cuba 1963. Ernest Hemingway, on the background of an illustration to "The Old Man and the Sea". Cuba 1999. Centenary of Ernest Hemingway. "The Old Man and the Sea".

Beginning in the 1920s a string of dictatorial leaders governed the country. As opposition groups tried to overthrow the dictators, Havana was the frequent site of political violence. Finally in the 1950s a range of revolutionary groups sought to rid the island of dictator Fulgencio Batista. Revolutionary forces led by Fidel Castro gained the upper hand in 1958, and Batista fled the island on January 1, 1959. Throughout Cuban history, tobacco industry has been one of the most prolific trades, and the best tobacco is still known under the brand name Tabacos Habanos. 

Cuba 1937. Ciboney Indian with cigar. Cuba 1937. Globe and a Cigar. Cuba 1937. Tobacco plant and a box of Tabacos Habanos.

Since the revolutionary government took control in 1959, Castro has instituted fundamental changes in the nation’s social and economic systems. American economic influence and control disappeared, as did the hundreds of thousands of American tourists that once visited Havana annually. The national government actively sought to reduce the dominance of the city, cutting investment and maintenance of its basic infrastructure. Much of the city has taken on a dilapidated and decaying air as a consequence. 

Cuba 1985. Havana World Heritage. Havana. Royal Army Castle, c. 1558. Cuba 1985. Havana World Heritage. Havana Cathedral, c. 1748. Cuba 1985. Havana World Heritage. Havana. Captains-General Palace (Havana City Museum), 1776. Cuba 1985. Havana World Heritage. Havana. The Temple, 1827.

However, the government has also diversified the city’s economic base, promoting a range of industrial activities. In addition, it provided a more equitable distribution of housing, education, and health services to the population, reducing the extreme economic differences between social classes that existed before the revolution. 

Cuba 1963. Mail box in Havana, designed as an Indian Mask. Cuba 1958. Special Delivery stamp. Mail-man on a motorbike in front of Havana Capitol.

Nevertheless, life in Havana in the late 1990s was difficult for most citizens. The U.S. trade embargo, the loss of economic support from the USSR, and the inefficiencies of Cuba's state-directed economic system combined to make living conditions austere. Food was in short supply, basic commodities such as soap and toilet paper were often unavailable, and public and private transportation were almost non-existent. Foreign tourism increased considerably in the 1990s, as a result of government efforts to attract additional revenue. For most Habaneros, however, this did little to improve their daily lives. 


Other World Heritage Sites in Cuba (on this site). Please refer to the UNESCO-listing, Cuba-section, for further information on the individual properties. 

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Revised 03 aug 2006  
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