Posted November 10, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Culture.
By Armando Portela
Following the rearrangement of Cuba’s administrative divisions in 1976, Havana and its immediate suburbs were detached from the rural areas of the old province of La Habana to form the new province of Ciudad de La Habana.
The City of Havana is the island’s smallest province, covering only 724 sq kms (280 sq miles), or barely 0.6% of Cuba’s land area.
Havana is the heart of the nation. It’s not just the decision-making and economic center of the island but has also been a political and cultural reference point in the Americas for centuries.
Originally founded in 1514 by Diego Velázquez, Havana was original-ly located along the soggy southwestern coast of the island, near the present town of Batabano. But mosquitoes and poor access forced those early settlers to move five years later to the current location around the port of Carenas, as Havana’s bay was originally named. The city is one of the earliest settlements in the Americas and has served as Cuba’s capital since mid-16th century.
The province of Ciudad de La Habana is comprised mostly of
the developed lands of the capital and its outskirts. Nevertheless,
one-third of its territory is devoted to agriculture - mainly to
grazing lands, but also to sugar cane and vegetable cultivation.
Havana is built on top of gentle rising marine terraces carved out of
limestone along the shoreline. These terraces are more evident in
the neighborhoods of El Vedado and Miramar to the west and Cojímar,
Alamar, and Guanabo beach to the east. A hilly landscape predominates
inland, where the neighborhoods of El Cerro, Luyano, La Víbora,
Lawton and Guanabacoa rise. Farther to the south, the city is built
over a high plain covered with red soils where the neighborhoods of
El Cotorro, Fontanar and Santiago de las Vegas stand.
Through a relatively deep and narrow canyon in the coastal
terraces, the Río Almendares - the largest river in the province -
splits the city in two distinct regions. The customary dumping of
untreated wastewater to the streams has turned the Almendares and
also other small creeks of the urban areas into stinky, lifeless
Likewise, careless port activities and improper industrial
and urban waste disposal for decades around Havana Bay have converted
it into one of the most polluted ports in the world. Frequent
spillage from surrounding factories merges with the hundreds of tons
of garbage, used oil and other wasts regularly dumped in its waters.
Environmental rules are rarely enforced and cleanup costs will
probably run into the billions of dollars and last for decades.
In the past few years, however, water quality in Havana Bay
has improved noticeably, as a result of Cuba’s industrial slowdown
and a government program to collect floating garbage and petroleum
products from the water.
A scenic coast with 9 km (5.6 miles) of white-sand beaches to
the east is a favorite resting place for Havana’s residents. However,
intense erosion since the 1970s have depleted the quality of the
The plains south of the city hold a rich aquifer exploited
since 1893, when the Acueducto de Albear was completed to supply the
freshwater needs of the population and its industry. But overuse and
pollution have dramatically depeled its quality and reserves.
Today this aqueduct still supplies 19% of Havana’s freshwater
needs. The rest comes from the freshwater reservoirs east of the
capital (La Coca, La Zarza and Bacuranao dams) and from underground
sources outside the province. Water and sewer services to Havana are
a chronic nightmare for authorities. Shortage of fresh water,
spillage through the aging system and improper wastewater disposal
As of 2001, Havana had an estimated 2.18 million inhabitants,
or 19.5% of the island’s population. That makes the city the largest
in Cuba, and one of the largest in the Caribbean. The population of
Havana equals that of all other provincial capitals combined.
Unlike other cities or provinces in Cuba, Havana’s population
has been shrinking by 0.2%, after peaking at 2.204 million dwellers
in 1996. This results from the capital’s low natural growth - the
lowest in the country - and a relatively high rate of emigration
abroad; half of all Cubans leaving the island are habaneros. In
addition, the Castro regime has imposed severe restrictions against
country folk wishing to settle in the capital, with punishments
including forced deportation to their original provinces.
Population density averages 3,019 per sq km, but it this
unevenly distributed. In the crowded Centro Habana district - where
most dwellings are two or three stories high - population density can
reach as high as 44,000 people per sq km, while in the relatively
rual municipality of Guanabacoa, it drops to 837 per sq km.
Havana’s critical housing shortage has plagued the capital
for decades. New housing projects are at best far below the city’s
needs, while more than half of Havana’s 556,800 housing units are in
urgent need of repair, and one in 10 dwellings is officially
classified as non-repairable.
According to the official media, dozens or even hundreds of
houses collapse partially or totally every year, mainly in the oldest
sectors of the city during the rainy season. In 1996, some 21,000
families (3-4% of the total population) were living in government
shelters. Other basic urban services such as public transport,
telephones and garbage collection are in terrible shape.
Havana accounts for over half of Cuba’s industrial output.
The most important activities are electric power generation and
crude-oil refining, along with breweries, dairy plants, canneries and
other food industry operations. The province’s two steel mills are
the most important on the island.
Manufacturing of cigars and cigarettes is a long-established
industry in the capital, where most of the legendary tobacco brands
are made. Havana also has textile, apparel and shoe factories and
tanneries. The well-known pharmaceutical and biotech industries,
largely based in Havana, have become a leading source of hard
currency, with some $40 million per year in exports during the late
The capital city also has several chemical plants, paper
mills, machi-nery shops, print shops and construction plants, among
other industrial facilities.
The only sugar mill within the province, Manuel Martínez
Prieto (formerly known as Toledo) has been dismantled.
Havana is also the national center of commerce,
communications, transport, tourism and culture. Furthermore, it
boasts the best institutions of learning and the most comprehensive
medical services in Cuba, thus helping to attract a constant stream
of immigrants from the countryside.
In addition to the University of Havana, founded in 1728,
Havana also hosts the Higher Polytechnic Institute, the Higher
Pedagogic In-stitute, the School of Medicine, the Higher School of
Arts and others. The Academy of Sciences and a number of
state-of-the-arts research institutions in biotechnology are also
found in Havana.
As the principal site of government, most of the official
ministries are concentrated in and around Plaza de la Revolucion.
Havana draws nearly half of all tourists to Cuba. The city
has 12,000 hotel rooms, or 29% of the island’s total; only Varadero
Beach has more hotel rooms. Most tourists visit the historic core of
Old Havana and the beaches of Playa del Este, to the east.
Havana is Cuba’s leading commercial center; as such, all the
island’s transport and communications systems radiate from Havana to
the east and west to reach all important economic centers in Cuba.
The new eight-lane National Expressway, the old two-lane
Central Highway and the Central Railway are Havana’s main links to
the rest of the country. Havana is also the center of the national
transmission network of radio-electronic and digital communications.
The port of Havana has 25,700 feet of berthing capacity and
supports the largest maritime traffic in the country. Its versatile
facilities handle all kinds of cargo and include the largest cranes,
dry docks and refrigerated warehouses in Cuba. Likewise, Jose Martí
International Airport, just south of Havana, is by far Cuba’s busiest
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