Celebrating the 500th Anniversary of Havana
Havana commemorates its 500th anniversary with music, dance and fireworks: read the reflections of a Habanero.
Nearly a year-long preparation for the 500-year celebration of the founding of Havana, Cuba’s capital, culminated over the mid weekend, with enthralling dance and music on the steps of the Capitolio: a majestic edifice said to be taller than the Capitol building in Washington. This celebration was attended by notable figures such as Cuba’s president, Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, special guests from various countries, and the diplomatic corps.
Havana's Capitolio building is lit blue and white during the central act celebrating the 500th anniversary of Cuba's capital, on November 16, 2019, in Havana, Cuba. (Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty Images)
The festivities were a tribute to continuity and change that the city has embraced. The city of Havana was founded by the Spanish conquistador, Diego Velázquez who accompanied Christopher Columbus on Columbus’ second voyage to the Caribbean. His lust for displacing and killing native populations was unparalleled in the Caribbean. The extermination of the native populations in Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico and Cuba by the conquistador abuses and European diseases brought from the Old World is well documented.
Media outlets have been covering the celebrations of Havana for the past many weeks. For someone who lives far away from Cuban reality, it could be just another celebration. For us Havana citizens, or "Habaneros”, this commemoration is a way of reaffirming our identity and to continue the historical fight for our beliefs. This occasion is also a form of expressing what defines the citizens of this island. Thus, it might be nice to share some of our reasons to celebrate Havana.
Ballet dancers perform on the stairs of Havana's Capitolio building during the central act celebrating the 500th anniversary of Cuba's capital, on November 16, 2019, in Havana, Cuba.
The city’s history, despite the brutal beginnings, is the first reason. Even though it was not one of the first settlements founded by the Spanish colonialists in Cuba, it quickly became the most developed and visited one of all those within the island. The natural deep-water port and protected harbour made the port of Havana an attractive site for the settlers. The development of trading through the port of Havana and its strategic position, turned the city into a coveted capital that needed to be protected: a city where unparalleled patriotism started to emerge, becoming the ultimate venue to stage every one of our fights for freedom and independence. This 500-year celebration also means paying homage to those heroes who fought for freedom from Spain or against the dictatorship of Batista like Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Antonio Maceo, José Martí, and Celia Sánchez, not to mention those who fought to protect national integrity against the US military and economic threats.
After years of guerrilla struggle, on New Year’s Day 1959, Fidel Castro, Ché Guevara, and their companions rode triumphantly into Havana to take over the seat of power. Ironically, Hilton Hotel that was opened a year before was converted into Fidel’s office and the hotel was renamed as Habana Libre (Free Havana). Dictator Batista’s office became the Museum of Revolution.
The King of Spain, Felipe VI (R) and Cuban President Miguel Diaz Canel (L) walk in front of the Guard of Honor during the official welcome ceremony in the Cuban State Council, on November 12, 2019, in Havana, Cuba. The Spanish King and Queen were on a 4-day visit to Cuba on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Havana, which was celebrated on November 16.
The city’s beautiful architecture is another reason to love the city. Havana is home to some of the oldest stone fortifications in the Americas, which were built by the Spanish colonials. Old Havana, or Habana Vieja, has one of the most impressive collections of historic and beautiful monuments in the Americas. It is also a city marked by diverse architectural and architectonic influences. Fabulous colonial houses stand next door to neoclassic palaces and Art Deco or Art Nouveau buildings, just down the street from contemporary buildings and very often surrounded by magnificent banyan trees (ficus benghalensis). Walking down our streets and enjoying this panorama is a serene and spiritual experience: a unique gift from Havana´s cityscape. Prince Charles, an avid admirer of urban architecture, was here last July, strolling around the city and taking in the beautiful landscape. Later on, King Philippe of Spain visited Havana on the eve of the commemoration and it was the first visit to Cuba by a Spanish king. Many other leaders from all over the world have been in the city as well, contributing to the joyous celebrations.
Spain's Queen Letizia (R) and Lis Cuesta (L), wife of Cuban President Diaz Canel, walk in front of the Guard of Honor during the official welcome ceremony in the Cuban State Council, on November 12, 2019, in Havana, Cuba.
In the months leading up to the celebration, over 900 historical buildings, houses, and streets have been renovated. Eusebio Leal, the City's historian and driving force behind much of Havana’s renovation, describes these efforts as an “unstoppable work of human endeavour”. However, as many more historical areas (Cerro, Marianao, etc.) remain in downtrodden and poor conditions, Leal continues to work on the urban renewal of Havana. Walking along the avenues of Havana blessed by the gentle sun and a cool November breeze gives time to reflect over the essentials of the Cuban revolution: equity and social justice. Even though many achievements have taken place, there is still much to do in the city of Havana, especially for improving the retribution for professional work, the necessary infrastructural improvements and solving the lacks that the American embargo has provoked in most spheres of daily life. Nonetheless, we Habaneros love our city and recognize how far it has come in the past 500 years; we are motivated to see it flourish even more.
Furthermore, Havana is characterized by unique art of all forms, with dance being a popular form of entertainment. From the classical ballet at the Alicia Alonso´s Grand Theatre to the Contemporary/ Modern dances at the National Theatre and the Afro Cuban Folklore at Mella or America theatres, dancing is a form of self-expression for us.
People watch fireworks over the Capitolio building (L) and the Gran Teatro (R) as Cuba celebrates the 500th anniversary of its capital, on November 16, 2019, in Havana, Cuba.
Besides, music is a characteristic stamp of Havana. Wherever we go, music is there. Life, in joy, or even in sorrow, is made better by good music. Our cha-cha, rumba, mambo, salsa, trove, or numerous other melodies fill every empty space in our lives.
Havana is not only known for its remarkable music, but it nurtures a long-standing tradition of theatre arts. With many chains of theatres where it is possible to enjoy amazing performances by groups like El Publico and Pálpito, you can only experience such refreshing insightful theatrical perspectives in Havana.
The visual arts are also a significant part of the city’s culture. From the first slaves who painted such as Nicolás de Escalera to the first Spanish or French painters who captured our landscapes, Havana has experienced many waves of artistic styles and produced many notable artists. On top of this, Havana’s streets are full of galleries, graffiti, and people who paint in the streets, making it not only the capital of Cuba but the Caribbean capital of art and culture.
This culture is precisely what makes Havana such a wonderful place. While trying to define our culture one author that comes to mind is Alejo Carpentier, one of the writers belonging to a long tradition of scholars and intellectuals, who defined the concept of the “real-marvellous”. Havana is precisely that, one of those lands where the boundaries between reality and wonder have disappeared. The confluence of different cultural influences such as Hispanic, African, North American, and Russian, among others, has given place to a mixture of tastes, skin colours, flavours, and forms of expression. This cultural hybridism is evident at every corner of town, making Havana a very inclusive city. It is a city open to the world, where everyone can visit without the fear of fitting in.
Contributing to this atmosphere of inclusivity are Havana’s wonderful people: the jewel of the city. In an environment of tropical weather and exuberant nature, surrounded by beautiful beaches, where there is almost no violence, Havana’s people always wear a friendly smile while inviting you to have some rum or coffee.
While it might seem like our lives in Havana are unhindered and perfect, they are far from that. We experience adversity in many ways, but we choose to face our problems by coming together and laughing, singing, and dancing.
We thank all the good people from all over the world who join our festivities because celebrating the 500 years of Havana means not only to rejoice in a fascinating place and a wonderful culture, but also to admire the persistence, tenacity, and courage of the people that have decided to live life on their own conditions. It means to stand by those who face adversity, not with violence but with music, dancing, and smiles. It means to value and enjoy life, and to support the most precious values of human beings, our highest standards. Celebrating 500 years of Havana means celebrating life, creativity, peace, art, culture, nature, inclusivity, joy, happiness, and change.