Havana History Essentials
Brief Historical Description
It is one of the cities with more historical tradition in the New World.
It was founded in 1515 by Diego Velázquez, with the name of San Cristóbal de la Habana in a place of the southern coast, near the current population of Surgidero de Batabano, a few years later towards 1519, his inhabitants moved to the northern part of the island.
Due to its privileged situation it became an important point in the route between America and the Peninsula and for this reason it frequently attracted pirate attacks.
In order to defend it, a defensive system based on fortresses was built in the 15th century and completed in the 17th century.
In 1592 it was declared a city by Philip II and in 1607 it became the capital of the island by Royal Decree, an honor that was held until then by Santiago de Cuba.
In 1762 it was conquered by the English and was returned to Spain by the peace of Paris (1763), in exchange for the territory of Florida.
During the 18th century it began its economic growth that continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
In 1898, taking as a pretext the bombing of the battleship Mane, in its port, the United States declared war on Spain and on 1 January 1899 the island proclaimed its independence under American occupation.
The city acquired a modern physiognomy and until the communist revolution it was a paradise for American tourism.
Since 1959 it became one of the revolutionary centers of Latin America and Africa.
The fall of communism in the USSR and the American Blockade give it an uncertain future.
Havana History : The Foundation
Sebastián de Ocampo, the first sailor to approach the area of the future Havana in 1508, made a stopover in the bay which today houses the port of the capital.
In 1511, Diego Velázquez left to take possession of Cuba, accompanied by Hernán Cortés.
A merciless conquest began, pursued in Mexico in the name of the sovereigns of Spain.
In 1519, Pánfilo de Narváez, commissioned by Diego Velásquez, founded the city of San Cristobal de La Habana.
The first mass and the first cabildo (ecclesiastical council) were held on November 12, 1519, under a ceiba, on the very spot where El Templete, a monument erected on the Plaza de Armas, still stands today in memory of these events.
Aware of the exceptional configuration of the bay, the Spaniards set up a large port, where all the ships loaded with the riches of the New World would stop on their way to the Iberian Peninsula.
Very quickly, the city established itself as a major commercial centre and one of the bridgeheads of the conquest of America.
Havana History : when it became the capital
Havana became the capital in 1553 (after Santiago), and it was a magnet for corsairs, freebooters and other pirates in Caribbean waters.
In 1555, Jacques de Sores, a famous French pirate, attacked Havana, seized the fortifications and plundered the city.
All the archives disappear in the fire.
In response to this disaster, the first governor of Cuba, Hernando de Soto, ordered the construction of a vast defensive complex including several fortresses: Castillo de la Real Fuerza (1558), San Salvador de la Punta and Los Tres Reyes del Morro (1589-1597).
In 1561, the Spanish Crown ordered the concentration of ships from the colonies of the New World in the port of Havana, now secured: Veracruz in Mexico, Portobelo and Nombre de Dios in the Central American isthmus, and Cartagena de Indias in the Viceroyalty of the New Grenada (Colombia).
From these faraway lands, gold and silver, plants for dyeing fabrics or alpaca wool for weaving sumptuous capes decorated with the feathers of exotic birds, arrived in Cartagena de Indias.
The precious woods were destined for the carpenters of Granada and the skins for the tanners of Cordoba.
All these riches are accumulated in the port’s warehouses and are added to the fruits and vegetables, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, manioc and cocoa, and then shipped.
The most important import from Cuba is undoubtedly tobacco, which is gradually being introduced into the brilliant salons of Madrid, Seville and Toledo.
Strategic, Havana is as much strategic for the colonies of America as it is for the East.
From 1565 onwards, ships from Manila and the Philippines unloaded porcelain from China, embroidered silk coats, pearls, perfumes, ivories and lacquers.
In 1592, King Philip II of Spain wanted to make Havana the key to the New World.
In 1598, there are nearly 4,000 inhabitants.
In 1665, the governing queen Marie-Anne of Austria recognized the coat of arms of Havana, to which was added the motto Siempre fidelísima ciudad (City Always Faithful).
The coat of arms is composed of three castles in silver on a field of azure, symbol of the three fortresses that watch over the port, and a golden key that was to open the road to the Indies.
Prosperous capital in the heart of the sugar and tobacco industry
The increase in the cultivation of sugar cane and tobacco intensifies labour requirements.
From the second half of the 17th century, Havana became one of the major centres of the Caribbean slave trade.
Between 1600 and 1862, the number of slaves on the island rose from 4,000 to 445,000.
With the boom in sugar production in the 19th century, Havana enjoyed the benefits of prosperity.
The downtown area was transformed.
New arteries are built such as the paseo de Carlos III (current Salvador Allende), Balascoain, Galiano, Alameda de Isabel II (current Paseo del Prado), Infanta.
The streets were lit and the first section of the railway, linking Villanueva, Havana and Bejucal, was inaugurated in 1837.
The telegraph began to operate in 1853, and the expansion of the
The telegraph came into service in 1853, and territorial expansion made it necessary in 1863 to demolish the wall surrounding the capital.
A true pearl of the Spanish Empire, Havana is endowed with splendid palaces.
The commercial activity intensifies, combined with a very rich social and intellectual life.
Corollary of these evolutions, it is at this time that the independence claim emerges.
Nothing goes any more between the colonial power and the Criollos, descendants of the Spaniards, who now reject the guardianship of Madrid.
More info : Havana History Wikipedia
Havana History : the Independentist aims
In 1810, the first conspiracy against Spain was fomented in Havana.
Severely repressed, it did not prevent the rise of the protest.
Nearly 60 years later, in 1868, the first Cuban War of Independence broke out, which ended in 1878 (Ten Years War).
A new war of independence led by José Martí began in 1895.
On February 15, 1898, the explosion of the American cruiser Maine in Havana’s roadstead served as a pretext for Washington to intervene, although before them, Spanish troops had to surrender to the Cuban indpendentists.
On January 1, 1899, the Republic of Cuba was proclaimed.
Havana History : American playground
The Spanish domination was followed by that of the United States.
The already well-off social classes enjoyed renewed prosperity, but misery persisted among the most disadvantaged strata.
Many Americans made Cuba “their playground” in the 1920s, while the United States was undergoing Prohibition.
Bars, cabarets and casinos were established in Cuba, especially in Havana.
Corruption, gambling and prostitution hit the Cuban capital hard.
Faced with the social disintegration aggravated by the economic crisis of 1929, anger and discontent gained ground.
The Revolution triumphs in Havana
After their exile in Mexico, the revolutionaries clandestinely landed in December 1956 on the south-eastern coast of the country and began the armed struggle from the Sierra Maestra.
Havana history : The revolution will finally triumph in 1959
Camilo Cienfuegos was the first to enter Havana, at the head of his men, followed by Ernesto Che Guevara on January 4, and Fidel Castro on January 8.
As soon as he came to power, the government tries to build Cuba Nueva.
Assets belonging to foreign companies are nationalized.
Cuba continues its march towards the communist dream
The 1970s, a period of Soviet domination
A heavily centralized economy and the failure of the industrial growth project of the 1960s, combined with the long and heavy embargo imposed by the United States, are helping to curb Cuba’s economic development.
The country barely avoided suffocation thanks to Soviet subsidies estimated at 5 billion dollars.
Havana is directly affected by these financial difficulties and the daily lives of its inhabitants are affected.
Período especial and extreme poverty in Havana
At the end of the 1980s, the disappearance of the socialist camp – with the end of the USSR in 1991 – led to a sharp worsening of economic difficulties.
Lacking everything (food, electricity…) the inhabitants of Havana try as best they can to cope.
The inhabitants of the capital who lived this period tell that the cats and rats of the capital disappeared because the Cubans were dying of hunger, and that the melted cheese of the pizzas was replaced by melted plastic to fill their bellies so much the fridges were empty…
This period is modestly referred to by the authorities as the “special period”.
The economic crisis strikes Havana
Despite the end of the period of specialization made possible by the market reforms of 1993 to 2000 (self-possession of foreign currency, establishment of small agricultural cooperatives, development of private employment, opening up to foreign investment) and a certain return to growth, Cuba is still experiencing serious economic problems.
The situation is aggravated by the financial crisis of 2008-09.
The dismissal of at least a quarter of the country’s civil servants, which will begin in 2011, bears witness to this difficult situation; 1.3 million employees will be laid off from state-owned enterprises by 2013.
Havana, where the main state-owned enterprises are located, is particularly hard hit by these redundancies.
Raúl Castro’s reforms
Reforms with a liberal tendency were launched by Raúl Castro in August 2010 to save the Cuban economy, and this shift was confirmed at the VI Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in April 2011.
It is now legal to set up a small business on one’s own.
Hundreds of private companies are starting to emerge in Havana, boosting the local economy.
The capital now has an exponential number of privately owned businesses, and new ones are opening every day.
These range from manicure shops, paladores, private chauffeurs and fitness clubs to privately owned businesses.
Everyone in Havana wants to have their own business!
The city today
A mixed city.
Resolutely colourful, like the rest of the country, Havana mixes whites, blacks and mestizos, who live together in harmony on the same territory.
In this area, the results obtained by the Revolution are quite clear.
The racism that prevailed up to the 1950s has been replaced by a new kind of racism.
This has been followed by an unprecedented and fertile social mix, unfortunately sometimes tinged with prejudices firmly rooted in mentalities.
A rehabilitated historic district.
Over the past thirty years or so, the historic district, the Habana Vieja (Old Havana), has been continually restored and the results are remarkable.
A rehabilitation which may seem miraculous but which can be explained by the government’s pragmatic awareness of the tourist manna that Habana Vieja represents, a real architectural and historical jewel of the capital and the country.
A safe city.
Despite the crisis, however, Havana remains a particularly safe city because of a severe crackdown on crime.
If a Cuban steals from a tourist, he or she can face very heavy penalties, usually up to prison.
In Vedado, for example, the busiest streets are filmed 24 hours a day.
However, even if thefts are severely punished, and remain quite rare, it is necessary to remain vigilant.
There is little risk of robberies, but if you don’t look after your belongings, they can be stolen from public places.
History of the streets of Havana
The first survey of the town was carried out by decree in 1763 by the Count of Ricla, who then delimited four districts. At the same time, the streets were named and the houses numbered. In Havana, as elsewhere, most of the names have been borrowed from illustrious people. See below for details on the origin of some of the names.
- Aguacate (lawyer). There grew a generous avocado tree with tasty fruit, unfortunately shot down in 1837.
- Aguiar. From Don Luis José de Aguiar, Royal Councillor and illustrious citizen of the city.
- Amargura (bitterness). During Lent, the Passion procession left the Franciscan residence every evening and went to the Church of Cristo, where the faithful did penance. Avenida de los Presidentes (Avenue of the Presidents), or Calle G, one of the main arteries of the Vedado district. All along the avenue, statues of the presidents of the Republic were erected by them and then unblocked after the victory of the revolution.
- Baratillo (flea market). This is where the first retail outlets were located.
- Callejón de Justiz. This alley owes nothing to justice, but to the residence of the Marquis de Justiz y Santa María, at the corner of Baratillo.
- Callejón del Chorro (water jet alley). Fountain where the Havanese used to get water.
- Callejón de San Juan de Dios. One of the walls of the Hospital San Juan de Diós overlooked this alley.
- Calzada de San Lázaro (Saint Lazarus Causeway). This paved street led to the Hospital de San Lázaro, built in 1746.
- Camino Militar (Military Way). It linked the city directly to the Castle of Príncipe.
- Capdevila. The name of the Spanish soldier who defended the medical students, who were shot in 1871 by decision of the Council of War.
- Cárcel (prison). One of the walls of the enormous prison that occupied the present Parque de los Mártires overlooked this street.
- Carlos Tercero (Charles III). This wide avenue, built in 1835, was the site of the statue of Carlos III a year later. It kept this name until 1974, when it was renamed Salvador Allende in homage to the assassinated Chilean president.
- Compostela. From Bishop Don Diego Evelino de Compostela, who had his house built there at number 155.
- Cuarteles (barracks). Its two extremities were bounded by the San Telmo barracks and the Artillery barracks.
- Cuba. This homonymous street of the country still gathers a large number of historical buildings, cultural institutions and public services.
- Desamparados (abandoned). It ran along the wall of the southern zone, the loneliest part of the city.
- Empedrado (paved). This is the first cobbled street in Havana, and it is believed to have been paved before 1770. It connects the cathedral to the San Juan de Diós square.
- Galiano. In reference to Don Martín Galiano, the Minister of Fortifications, who had a bridge erected, which was named after him and which was destroyed in 1839.
- Lamparilla. A devotee of souls used to light a lantern there every night, in his room, in the house on the corner of Habana Street… It was on this same street that the vacuum cleaner dealer and his capricious daughter of Our Agent in Havana, Graham Greene, lived.
- Luz (light). No more luminous than any other, but this is where Don José Cipriano de La Luz, General Councillor of the Postal Service and, as such, an illustrious figure in the city, lived. Located between Cuba and Damascus, it is home to beautiful colonial houses with tiled roofs. You can also see the Art Deco buildings and the housing of the médico de la familia (the local family doctor), a post-modern glass construction.
- Mercaderes (merchants). Before the revolution, when private trade was allowed .
- Morro. From this street, before the royal prisons were built, you could see the Morro castle.
- Muralla (wall). The gate of the royal wall was opened here in 1721.
- Neptuno (Neptune). Named after the Neptune fountain, once located on Isabel II’s promenade. Today it is located on the Malecón River, opposite Old Havana.
- Obispo (Bishop). Attended by the bishop of the city at the time the streets were baptized.
- Obrapía (pious work). The most illustrious of its inhabitants, Martín Calvo de Arieta – commander of the cavalry companies – included in his will a sum of 5,000 pesos (in 1679, a colossal fortune!) which was to be used to provide the dowry for five orphan girls each year.
- Oficios (trades). It was in this street that the craftsmen’s stalls were concentrated. In 1584, when Havana had only four streets, this was the main one.
O’Reilly. General O’Reilly was the first to enter Havana through this street after the English surrendered the city to the Spanish crown in 1763.
- Peña Pobre (poor hill). From here one could see the loma del Angel (Angel Hill), which itself had been named Peña Pobre.
- Refugio (refuge). In the 19th century, Captain General Mariano Rocafort, surprised by a big storm, took refuge in the apartments of a mulatto widow. The sun had long since reappeared while he was still there.
- San Ignacio. This was the name of the Jesuit college and the church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, which later became the seminary and the cathedral. It was formerly known as Calle Ciénaga (Swamp).
- Tejadillo (small roof). In this street there was a house with a small tile roof, which was to serve as an example to its neighbours with its (too) modest cow dung covering.
- Teniente Rey (Lieutenant Rey). Nothing to do with the king… At the corner of La Habana, lived the lieutenant of a governor of the island named Felix de Rey.
- Zapata. In homage not to the famous Mexican revolutionary, but to Dr. Salvador José Zapata who donated his property (8 houses) to contribute to the education of Cuban youth.