Habana Vieja - A historic Caribbean city frozen in the 1950s (31 May)
Interesting Facts about Habana Vieja
FEW PLACES IN THE WORLD offer a more romantic sense of decay than Habana Vieja, the once walled, ancient heart of Havana, capital of Cuba, the Caribbean’s largest island. Faded pastel-hued stucco facades crumble, brick bases are exposed, corners are edged with black from the humid weather. Laundry dries on column-adorned balconies, their French doors and window panes cracked, opening into worn-wooden interiors that catch lazy harbor breezes. Ironically, there would be no Habana Vieja without Cold War tensions between the United States and the former Soviet Union, and without the ensuing embargo put in place in the time of John F. Kennedy. Shortly before he was deposed in 1958, Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar began an urban renewal program, with plans to raze much of the Old City and replace it with modern structures aimed at foreign tourists. Fortunately, this never came to be and Cuba went into a period of economic stagnation, leaving the city center locked in the ’50s.
Now, despite the end of the embargo, Habana Vieja remains a time capsule from half a century ago. Russian Ladas and 1950s American Chevys cruise the Malecón, the roadway and promenade along the Caribbean sea, taking tourists to clubs like the Tropicana cabaret, or El Floridita, the bar where Papa Hemingway lazily whiled away his days.
The city was founded in the early 1500s by Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez on one of the Caribbean’s best formed natural harbors. Likely named for native chief Habaguanex, who once ruled the area, Havana grew into one of the empire’s most important ports. A series of castles protected the harbor, including 16th-century Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, where dissident writer Reinaldo Arenas was imprisoned by President Fidel Castro, and Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, where Argentine-born revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara once had an office (now a museum in his honor). Every night at 9 p.m., a ceremonial cannon is lit by a soldier in 18th-century military garb—in the days of Spanish rule, this signaled that the harbor and city gates were closing. In early days, a chain was also stretched across the inlet to keep out enemy ships.
Cuba’s once strong American ties are embodied by the district’s most imposing structure, Capitolio Nacional and its iconic dome, a 1929 replica of Washington’s own Capitol Building. With those ties reforming, Habana Vieja and all of Cuba have become a destination for vacationing Americans, meaning massive changes are ahead for the city.