Havana possesses one of the best natural harbors in the Caribbean and has long been strategically and commercially important. The original settlement, called San Cristóbal de la Habana, was founded in 1515 by the Spanish explorer Diego de Velázquez on Cuba's southern coast but was relocated to the site of present-day Havana in 1519. Spanish treasure galleons assembled in Havana's harbor for their return voyage to Spain, and the city tempted many English, French, and Dutch buccaneers. It became the capital of Cuba in the late 16th cent. In 1762, during the French and Indian Wars, Havana fell to Anglo-American forces, but the following year it was returned to Spain in exchange for the Floridas. By the early 19th cent., the city ranked as one of the wealthiest and busiest commercial centers in the Western Hemisphere.
The blowing up of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor in Feb., 1898, was the immediate cause of the Spanish-American War. U.S. troops occupying Havana in the wake of their victory there improved sanitary conditions and eliminated yellow fever from the city. Until 1959 the close political and economic relations between Cuba and the United States were strongly reflected in the commercial and cultural life of the city. After the Castro government took control, the U.S. presence in Havana was replaced by that of the Soviet Union, with which the Cuban government maintained close ties.
Castro's policy of directing economic resources toward rural areas resulted in the deterioration of Havana, particularly the old city, but restoration efforts began in the 1980s. The old city is dominated by Morro Castle and other fortresses and is also known for its narrow streets, numerous churches, and fine examples of colonial architecture. The modern section of the city has wide boulevards, impressive public buildings (notably the lavishly decorated capitol), and magnificent residences. Havana Univ. was founded in 1721. The city has many cultural facilities.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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