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Visit La Havana

History and Culture La Havana

The city of La Havana was founded in 1515 by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, a Spanish Conquistador. Before 1519, there is evidence of the original settlement having numerous different locations such as in the now nearby town of Surgidero, the banks of the Mayabeque River, the mouth of the river, the neighbourhood of Puentes Grandes and finally, at Puerto de Carenas or 'Careening Bay', the present day site of Havana's harbour.

La Havana was the sixth town formed by the Spanish on the island and they named it 'San Cristobal de la Habana'. Its name is thought to be a combination of 'San Cristobal', the patron Saint of La Havana and Habana, after a native chief who controlled the area in ancient times. Havana was primarily used as a base for the Spanish to organise themselves during the years of the conquests of the colonies, but Havana quickly developed in to an important trading port. Heavy fortification for the city was developed following repeated pirate and buccaneer attacks and also in an attempt to reduce the amount of contraband trade that had taken off due to unsparing trade restrictions that had been placed on the New World countries by the Spanish.

Growth of La Havana

Despite all this, Havana flourished and as all the ships gathered in its port before their lengthy trip to Spain, they needed to stock up on food and other supplies,leading to a growth in agriculture and production in the city. In 1592 it was named the capital city of the island and continued to work on its defences. It became known as the 'Key to the New World' and the 17th Century saw huge expansion on the island and especially in the main city. Buildings were constructed in Spain's architectural image, using new, imported materials.

In the year 1649 an epidemic that arrived from Cartagena in Colombia wiped out a third of Havana's population, but it still managed to weigh in as the third biggest city in the Americas at this time, bigger even than New York and Boston. During the seven year war (a series of battles and conflicts involving many of the principal world powers at the time during the period from 1756 to 1763) Havana was captured by the British, who quickly set about converting it into their own. However, their influence was not to be long lasting as less than one year later, the British were given Florida in place of Havana in the War's eventual Peace Treaty. Following this scare, Havana became on of the most heavily fortified cities in the Americas. The remains of Christopher Columbus rested here for a while, before they were transferred to the Cathedral of Seville following the Spanish removal from Cuba.

The early 19th Century brought with it a prosperous time for Cuba and Havana developed into a fashionable and cultural capital, nicknamed the 'Paris of the Antilles'. In 1837 the first railroad in any Spanish-speaking country was constructed and ran for 51 kilometres between Havana and Bejucal. As slavery was still legal in Cuba this attracted many rich land barons, especially form North America following the defeat of the Confederate States in 1865 in the American Civil War.

In 1863 the city's fortification walls were knocked down in order for the city to expand and it became the final stronghold of the Spanish who saw out their lastdays in the Americas in Havana before independence was declared. Following independence from the Spanish, Cuba became occupied by the United States of America up until the installment of their first president, Tomás Estrada Palma in 1902. Under the subsequent string of Republican Governments Cuba developed into a wealthy country, with Havana its hedonistic capital city. Casinos, luxury hotels, theatres and fancy marinas were built and the middle class reigned supreme amongst the gangsters and the gamblers. Everyone from the Ernest Hemingway to Frank Sinatra and the mafia big dogs came to Havana to see and be seen. Tourism boomed and it became a destination especially popular with American tourists - ironic considering what was to come.

The Cuban Revolution

Following the 1959 Revolution, despite promises for further prosperity and social development, Fidel Castro's rapid privatisation of companies brought all to an abrupt halt. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 many though Cuba's regime would follow it down the drain, but Castro and his Communist ideals hung on in there and the regime in Cuba lasted well into the 90s. The fall of the Soviet Union cut any form of funding for Cuba and this followed a period of economic downturn caused by the intense privatisation. Things did not look very healthy. It was for this reason that the Cuban communist Government began to look to tourism to generate funds and stimulate the economy. They permitted the construction of new hotels and facilities and reformation of parts of Old Havana, essentially stuck in a time warp for the last half a century, began at a slow pace.

Life has been difficult in Havana over the past decades due to the Communist regime and the embargo by North America, but modern day Havana, beginning to truly bloom and develop again as it emerges from the dictatorship, is a true delight of a city and one with history and culture abound and the remnants of the Communist regime providing the city with a nostalgic film-set feel. Havana would be a great place to experience while learning a bit of the language during a Spanish language course in the city as you are not only picking up linguistic skills but you are becoming a art of this wonderful city and learning something of its past through simply wandering its streets and talking to its warm and intruiging inhabitants.