Havana with Tony Wheeler – Lonely Planet Travel Video
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Havana is the capital city, major port, and leading commercial centre of Cuba. The city is one of the 14 Cuban provinces. The city/province has 2.4 million inhabitants, and the urban area over 3.7 million, making Havana the largest city in both Cuba and the Caribbean region. The city extends mostly westward and southward from the bay, which is entered through a narrow inlet and which divides into three main harbours: Marimelena, Guanabacoa, and Atarés. The sluggish Almendares River traverses the city from south to north, entering the Straits of Florida a few miles west of the bay. In 1959 the city halted its growth, and since then has suffered a net loss of living units, despite its population increase.
King Philip II of Spain granted Havana the title of City in 1592 and a royal decree in 1634 recognized its importance by officially designated as the “Key to the New World and Rampart of the West Indies”. Havana’s coat of arms carries this inscription. The Spaniards began building fortifications, and in 1553 they transferred the governor’s residence to Havana from Santiago de Cuba on the eastern end of the island, thus making Havana the de facto capital.
The importance of harbour fortifications was early recognized as English, French, and Dutch sea marauders attacked the city in the 16th century. The sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana’s harbor in 1898 was the immediate cause of the Spanish-American War. Present day Havana is the center of the Cuban government, and various ministries and headquarters of businesses are based there.
The city extends mostly westward and southward from the bay, which is entered through a narrow inlet and which divides into three main harbours: Marimelena, Guanabacoa, and Atarés. The sluggish Almendares River traverses the city from south to north, entering the Straits of Florida a few miles west of the bay.
The low hills on which the city lies rise gently from the deep blue waters of the straits. A noteworthy elevation is the 200-foot- (60-metre-) high limestone ridge that slopes up from the east and culminates in the heights of La Cabaña and El Morro, the sites of colonial fortifications overlooking the bay. Another notable rise is the hill to the west that is occupied by the University of Havana and the Prince’s Castle.
- Fortaleza San Carlos de la Cabaña, a fortress located on the east side of the Havana bay, La Cabaña is the most impressive fortress from colonial times, particularly its walls constructed (at the same time as El Morro) at the end of the 18th century.
- El Capitolio Nacional, built in 1929 as the Senate and House of Representatives, this colossal building is recognizable by its dome which dominates the city’s skyline. Inside stands the third largest indoor statue in the world, La Estatua de la República. Nowadays, the Cuban Academy of Sciences headquarters and the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural (the National Museum of Natural History) has its venue within the building and contains the largest natural history collection in the country.
- Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro is a picturesque fortress guarding the entrance to Havana bay, constructed because of the threat to the harbor from pirates.
- Castillo San Salvador de la Punta, a small fortress built in the 16th century, at the western entry point to the Havana harbour, it played a crucial role in the defence of Havana during the first centuries of colonisation. The fortress still houses some twenty old guns and other military antiques.
- El Cristo de La Habana, Havana’s statue of Christ blesses the city from the other side of the bay, much like the famous Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro. Carved from marble by Jilma Madera, it was erected in 1958 on a platform which makes a good spot from which to watch old Havana and the harbor.
- The Great Theatre of Havana, famous particularly for the acclaimed National Ballet of Cuba, it sometimes hosts performances by the National Opera. The theater is also known as concert hall, Garcia Lorca, the biggest in Cuba.
- Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Art Deco National Hotel.
- El Malecón Habanero, the avenue that runs beside the seawall built along the northern shore of Havana, from Habana Vieja to the Almendares River, it forms the southern boundary of Old Havana, Centro Habana and Vedado.
- Museo de la Revolución, located in the former Presidential Palace, with the yacht Granma on display behind the museum.
- Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón, a cemetery and open air museum, it is one of the most famous cemeteries in Latin America, known for its beauty and magnificence. The cemetery was built in 1876 and has nearly one million tombs. Some of the gravestones are decorated with the works of sculptors of the calibre of Ramos Blancos, among others.
Havana, by far the leading cultural centre of the country, offers a wide variety of features that range from museums, palaces, public squares, avenues, churches, fortresses (including the largest fortified complex in the Americas dating from the 16th through 18th centuries), ballet and from art and musical festivals to exhibitions of technology. The restoration of Old Havana offered a number of new attractions, including a museum to house relics of the Cuban revolution. The government placed special emphasis on cultural activities, many of which are free or involve only a minimal charge.
Before the Communists, Havana cinema rivalled New York City and Paris. As Guillaume Carpentier put it in a Le Monde article, “with nationalisation, they closed one by one, for lack of maintenance, films or electricity… Havana, Cubans complain, is a cemetery of cinemas. It is also a cemetery of bookshops, markets, shops…”.
Before the Cuban Revolution – and particularly from 1915 to 1930 – tourism was one of Cuba’s major sources of hard currency (behind only the sugar and tobacco industries). Havana, where a kind of laissez-faire attitude in all things leisurely was the norm, was the Caribbean’s most popular destination, particularly with US citizens, who sought to skirt the restrictions of prohibition America.
Following a severe drop in the influx of tourists to the island (resulting, primarily, from the Great Depression, the end of prohibition in the United States and the outbreak of World War II), Havana began to welcome visitors in significant numbers again in the 1950s, when US organized crime secured control of much of the leisure and tourism industries in the country.
This was a time when Cuba’s foreign minister boasted that Havana spent as much on parties as any major capital in the world, when the island was the mob’s most secure link in the drug-trafficking chain which culminated in the United States and when the country’s justified reputation for sensuality and dolce vita pursuits earned it the appellation of “the Latin Las Vegas”. Meyer Lansky built the Hotel Riviera, Santo Trafficante came to own shares in the Sevilla and a casino was opened at the Hotel Plaza during this time.
It was tourism’s association to the world of gambling and prostitution which made the revolutionary government established in 1959 approach the entire sector as a social evil to be eradicated. Many bars and gambling venues were closed down following the revolution and a government body, the National Institute of the Tourism Industry, took over many facilities (traditionally available to wealthy) to make them accessible to the general public.
With the deterioration of Cuba – US relations and the imposition of a trade embargo on the island in 1961, tourism dropped drastically and did not return to anything close to its pre-revolution levels until 1989. The revolutionary government in general, and Fidel Castro in particular, initially opposed any considerable development of the tourism industry, linking the sphere to the debauchery and criminal activities of times past. In the late 1970s, however, Castro changed his stance and, in 1982, the Cuban government passed a foreign investment code which opened a number of sectors, tourism included, to foreign capital.
Through the creation of firms open to such foreign investment (such as Cubanacan, established in 1987), Cuba began to attract capital for hotel development, managing to increase the number of tourists from 130,000 (in 1980) to 326,000 (by the end of that decade).
As a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies in 1989 and early 90s, Cuba was plunged into a severe economic crisis and saw itself in desperate need of foreign currency. The answer, again, was found in tourism, and the Cuban government spent considerable sums in the industry to attract visitors. Following heavy investment, by 1995, the industry had become Cuba’s main source of income.
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