The Statesman’s Yearbook Online

edited by Dr Barry Turner


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Situated on the northwest coast of Cuba, Havana is the island's capital and the largest city in the Caribbean. Founded in the 16th century, it is one of the oldest cities in the Americas and is the political, commercial, economic and industrial centre of Cuba.


Havana was founded on the south coast of Cuba in 1514 by the Spanish colonist Diego Velásquez as San Cristóbal de la Habana. However, the swampy location was soon abandoned for its present site (then called Puerto Carenas) in 1519. With its natural harbour, Havana attracted colonists on route between Spain and the New World. The strategic and commercial importance of the harbour soon brought Dutch, British and French invaders. By the mid-16th century Havana was one of the most important centres of the Americas and in 1592 King Philip II of Spain granted Havana city status. In 1607 Havana replaced Santiago de Cuba as the country's capital and it became the third largest city in the Spanish empire after Mexico City and Lima.

During the 17th century Havana grew to be the principal trade centre in the Caribbean. Made rich by trading in sugar and African slaves, elaborate buildings, plazas and parks were created. Havana was captured by British troops in 1762 but the Spanish regained the city in exchange for Florida 11 months later. In 1776 the newly independent USA started trading directly with Cuban merchants.

Havana's prosperity attracted English, German and French immigrants in the 18th century. By the 19th century the city was ranked as one of the wealthiest commercial centres in the Western Hemisphere, rivalling New York and Buenos Aires. In 1898 the mysterious sinking of the US warship Maine in Havana's harbour signalled the beginning of the Spanish/American War and in Dec. Spain relinquished control of Cuba to the United States. Havana was made capital of independent Cuba but was occupied by American troops until 1902. American influence and money flowed into the city during the first half of the 20th century. With newly built casinos, strip clubs, hotels and sports clubs it soon gained a reputation as an 'anything goes' destination until a rebel force led by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos succeeded in overthrowing the dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Under Castro, Havana's heritage was neglected in favour of development outside the capital. Historic buildings became dilapidated until renovation started in the 1980s. By the end of the 20th century Havana was once again a popular tourist destination.


The city is divided into 15 municipalities or boroughs, which are further subdivided into 105 wards. Havana consists of three main areas: La Habana Vieja, Centro Habana and Vedado. Habana Vieja, with its cobble-stone plazas, fortifications and 16th century architecture, is the historical core of the city and is the most popular region for tourists. The less popular Centro Habana, consisting of crumbling buildings, potholed streets and overcrowded housing, is home to the city's Chinatown. Vedado, developed in the early to mid 20th century, occupies the western half of the seafront promenade, the Malecón, and is the commercial hub and political centre of Havana. The more affluent residential and industrial districts, including Miramar, are spread out to the west while the city’s beaches, Playas del Este, are located to the east.

Havana had a population of 2,141,993 million inhabitants in 2009 (1,032,687 men and 1,109,306 women) and it spans a total of 726·75 sq. km. The capital has five times as many inhabitants as the country's next biggest city, Santiago de Cuba.


Havana is administered by a city-provincial council, with a mayor as chief administrative officer. The current mayor is Marta Hernández. Born in Santiago de Cuba, Hernández is a member of the ruling Communist Party of Cuba (PCC). She was elected president of the Cuban capital's Provincial Assembly of People's Power in March 2011, replacing Juan Contino, who had been mayor for eight years.

Although the city government has an influence on Havana's education, health care, public transport and small industry, the city is dependent upon the national government for much of its budgetary and overall political direction. The Communist Party is the only political party.


The centre of Cuba's commerce and economy, Havana is also the country's principal port with a substantial fishing industry. Food processing, chemical and pharmaceutical operations, shipbuilding, vehicle manufacturing, textiles, sugar refining, alcohol (notably rum) and tobacco are all important industries. Havana's exports include cigars, coffee, sugar and cotton.

Following the Soviet Union's economic collapse in 1991, Havana's economy was crippled. To alleviate the economic crisis the government introduced market-oriented reforms and sought to rebuild the economy by appealing to the worldwide tourist trade. Havana has since focused on new tourist facilities and on renovating historic structures to appeal to tourism. In 2010 the city had 1,176,627 visitors, an increase of more than 20 per cent from 2005.


The city is a rail and road terminus linking the rest of the island. The Metrobus serves the inner-city urban area, while the Omnibus Metropolitanos connects the adjacent towns and cities in the metropolitan area with the city centre. Havana's railways are nationalized and run by the UFC (Union de Ferrocarriles de Cuba). José Martí International Airport serves as the country’s international and domestic gateway and is 11 km south of the city centre.



Havana hosts several prestigious arts festivals. Havana International Jazz Festival, organized by the Cuban Institute of Music and veteran musician Chucho Valdés, takes place in Feb. The city's Carnaval is held at the end of July and beginning of Aug. and the Festival de Teatro de la Habana showcases classic and contemporary Cuban works at various theatres around the city in Oct. The Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano in Dec. is Havana's best known festival, combining the newest Cuban, Latin American and Western films with established classics.

Places of Interest

A network of old, narrow streets behind the port, Habana Vieja, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. The Plaza de la Catedral contains the Baroque Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana, one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas. The Plaza de Armas, once the seat of government, is Havana's oldest square and contains the former presidential palace, the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, now the Museo de la Ciudad. The Plaza de la Revolución in Vedado has statues of José Martí and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, heroes of the Cuban Revolution. One of the oldest of many tobacco factories, the Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas welcomes visitors. The Capitolio Nacional, inaugurated in 1929 by the dictator Gerardo Machado, was the home of government until 1959 and now houses a science academy. The Malecón seafront promenade winds for 7 km alongside the city's historic quarters and is one of Havana's outstanding features. The National Museum of Fine Arts (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes) houses one of the largest collections of paintings and sculpture from Latin America and is the largest in the Caribbean. Across the bay from Habana Vieja, Habana del Este includes a series of castles and fortifications that make up the Parque Morro-Cabaña, the city’s oldest defence system.


The highest circulation daily newspapers published in Havana all represent Communist Party or government interests. The main national newspaper, Granma, openly declares itself the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party of Cuba. Other prominent papers include Trabajadores, representing the workers' union, and Juventud Rebelde, founded in 1965 as the voice of Cuban youth.


Estrada, Alfredo José, Havana: Autobiography of a City (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

Kapcia, Antoni, Havana: The Making of Cuban Culture (Berg, 2005)

Cluster, Dick and Hernández, Rafael, The History of Havana (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)


The Cathedral of Havana

The Capitolio Building

Panoramic view of Old Havana

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