Havana (Spanish: La Habana, lä ä-vä'nä), Cuba, the national capital. It is the largest city in the West Indies and the economic, cultural, and political center of Cuba. It constitutes one of the nation's 14 provinces.
Havana lies on the Gulf of Mexico near the western tip of the island, about 90 miles (145 km) southwest of Key West, Florida. A large, well-protected harbor has long been one of the city's chief assets. The climate is subtropical and strongly influenced by the Gulf Stream and the trade winds. Hurricanes occasionally strike the city.
Havana is Cuba's most important industrial, importing, and distribution center. Manufacturing and processing activities, located primarily in outlying areas, include food processing and the making of cigars, beverages, textiles, shoes, chemicals, cement, fishing boats, and buses. Havana cigars are famed throughout the world. Tourism is increasingly significant. José Martí International Airport serves Havana.
The old colonial section of the city, La Habana Vieja, lies just west of the harbor. It has narrow streets, plazas, and historic buildings of Spanish design. Especially notable are the Palace of the Captains General; San Cristobal, or Columbus, Cathedral; and the Armas Plaza. Overlooking the entrance to the harbor, near the sea, are four forts: Fuerza Castle, the oldest building in Cuba (1544); Morro Castle; Punta Castle; and Cabana Fortress. Many of the old colonial buildings are being restored, with financial support from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
West of the old section are the former capitol building, which now houses the Museum of Natural Science and the Cuban Academy of Sciences; the Palace of Fine Arts, housing the National Museum; and the Presidential Palace, with the Museum of the Revolution. The University of Havana is the leading institution of higher education in Cuba. Cultural organizations include the National Ballet and the Havana Symphony Orchestra.
Havana, founded as a Spanish stronghold by Diego Velásquez in 1514, was originally built on the south coast of Cuba. In 1519 the settlement was moved to its present site. Havana was burned by buccaneers in 1538 but was rapidly rebuilt.
The treasure galleons that assembled in Havana's harbor for the return trip to Spain invited many attacks by English, French, and Dutch pirates. Havana was looted in 1555 and in 1563, and was attacked by Sir Francis Drake in 1585. Havana's fortifications were continually strengthened, however, and it soon developed into the most important settlement in the Caribbean. It became the capital of the island in 1592.
Havana was captured by the British in 1762, but was restored to Spain the following year, in exchange for the Floridas. The Spanish governor of Cuba, Miguel Tacón, made many improvements in Havana in the 1830's.
The explosion of the United States battleship Mainein the harbor of Havana in 1898 led to the Spanish-American War. After the war, commissioners from the United States improved Havana's sanitary conditions, stamped out yellow fever, and rebuilt much of the city.
During the first half of the 20th century, the city developed as a resort center. Havana's fine climate, splendid beaches, elegant hotels, horse races, and jai alai exhibitions made it a gathering place for international society. Attractions that won the city fame as “the Paris of America” included the National Casino, a gambling palace; the Afro-Cuban pageants; open-air cafes; and lavish nightclubs.
After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 and established a Communist regime, most places of entertainment were closed. Hotels and the homes of the wealthy were converted into government offices and low cost housing.
Restoration of parts of the city began in the mid-1980's. Pope John Paul II delivered a mass at Havana's Plaza of the Revolution to 200,000 people in 1998.