In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Havana in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Research Guides
  • Primary Sources
  • Travel Narratives
  • Pictorial Works
  • Journals
  • Modern Histories of the Republican and Revolutionary Eras
  • Women and Gender History

Atlantic History Havana in the Atlantic World
Evelyn Jennings
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0239


From the mid-1500s onward the strategic importance of Havana in imperial trade shaped its development and attracted a diverse and cosmopolitan population, both enslaved and free. Its role as the gathering point for silver fleets also forced the Spanish Crown to invest heavily in defense, which shaped the urban landscape and architecture. Among Havana’s distinctive features is its system of fortifications, which grew to become one of the most extensive and complex in Latin America, especially after a British siege and occupation of the city from 1762 to 1763. Havana’s export profile consisted of animal hides, wax, and tobacco until the 18th and 19th centuries, when sugar production expanded to dominate the island’s economy. Thereafter sugar continued to dominate Cuba’s economy and Havana’s profile until overtaken by tourism in the 21st century. Another major force for change to Havana’s population, buildings, and footprint came with the US occupation from 1898 to 1902. US military officials began an ambitious program of public works that included street paving and an electric street car system. In the early republican period the city’s population expanded rapidly; the famous seawall, the Malecón, was extended, and paved streets spread to the west and south to accommodate auto traffic. By the 1930s Havana had become an international business and tourist destination with high-rise apartment and office buildings, luxury hotels, casinos, and nightclubs, often owned by foreigners. As the political, economic, social, and cultural capital of Cuba, Havana embodied the concentration of all those functions in both its built environment and its people. The triumph of the Cuban Revolution in January 1959 brought a new vision of the role of Havana in Cuba’s development that focused on diverting resources to rural areas to redistribute wealth and power away from Havana and discourage tourism. Many wealthy Cubans and foreigners left the island and their homes often were converted to schools and other public functions or subdivided into housing. In 1982 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared Old Havana a World Heritage site, which attracted more foreign aid and capital to restoration projects and rekindled the government’s focus on tourism development in the city. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 provoked a deep economic crisis in Cuba and Havana’s crumbling infrastructure suffered further deterioration. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Cuban government allowed even greater foreign capital investment and joint ventures to build new hotels and restore older buildings, though finding adequate housing remains a challenge for residents of Havana today.

General Overviews

The overviews included here fall into two main types: histories of Havana itself or histories of Cuba. Because Havana has been the de facto capital of Cuba since 1553, the city’s history is a major component of the island’s overall history. Hence, several overviews, such as Pérez 2015 and Marrero 1972–1992, are of the entire island. Pérez 2015 offers the best, concise overview of Cuban history and introduction to a relevant bibliography, and it constitutes a good starting place for students and researchers alike. The temporal focus of Marrero 1972–1992 is narrower than Pérez 2015, ending in the late 1800s. However, it is a sprawling compendium of material on Cuban history and development consulted by virtually every scholar, especially those outside Cuba, due to its extensive quotes and images reproduced from primary sources. For overviews of Havana itself, two efforts in the 20th century to preserve the city’s architectural heritage have produced significant publications on its history. The first movement in the 1930s and 1940s resulted in the creation of the Office of the Official Historian of the City, along with plans for restoration and publications. The most extensive overview by Havana’s first official historian, Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring, is included here (Roig de Leuchsenring 1963). The 1982 UNESCO declaration of Old Havana as a World Heritage site and greater international investment in tourism in the city are reflected in several publications by the second official historian, Eusebio Leal Spengler, and these works are listed under Colonial Histories and Pictorial Works. Le Riverend Brusone 1992 is an often-cited history of Havana’s human and physical development that critiques its monopoly of island resources before the revolution. Cuevas Toraya 2001 may be of greatest interest to historians of urban construction given its detail on projects from the colonial era onward. Since the 1990s a marked trend toward collaboration among scholars in and outside of Cuba has appeared; three examples are listed in this section. García Díaz and Guerra Vilaboy 2002, an edited collection, is an excellent introduction to historical writing on Havana, comparing its development with that of Veracruz, Mexico, with essays by some of Cuba’s most accomplished historians. Scarpaci, et al. 2002 provides the best introduction in English to Havana’s development in the 20th century, especially the socialist era. Kapcia 2005 is an excellent introduction in English to the city’s role in the development of a national cultural identity. Cluster and Hernández 2006 constitutes a history that is the most accessible in style to the general public and to readers who are not specialists, but it is well grounded in scholarship on Havana. Kurlansky 2017 is similar to Cluster and Hernández 2006, but more impressionistic and literary, and therefore less useful as a classroom text. Most of the authors cited have written other works on Havana’s history and development; thus, those listed here can serve as an entry into the broader bibliography.

  • Cluster, Dick, and Rafael Hernández. The History of Havana. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-230-60206-9

    Coauthored by US professor Cluster and Cuban writer Hernández, this work targets a nonscholarly audience in telling Havana’s history through the lives and times of famous or representative historical and fictional characters. Useful for readers seeking an entertaining narrative well grounded in historical scholarship. Good, brief bibliographic essay on primary and secondary sources.

  • Cuevas Toraya, Juan de la. 500 años de construcciones en Cuba. Madrid: D. V. Chavín, 2001.

    Large format, detailed descriptions of buildings in Cuba, covered chronologically from the 1500s to 2000. Individual towns, including Havana, covered separately in each time period; emphasis on post-1899 era. Especially useful on 20th-century construction of schools, hospitals, housing, and tourist sites; also details on building processes and materials. Includes biographies of public works officials, engineers, and scientists as well as a CD with pdf of the entire text.

  • García Díaz, Bernardo, and Sergio Guerra Vilaboy, eds. La Habana/Veracruz, Veracruz/La Habana: Las dos orillas. Veracruz, Mexico: Universidad Veracruzana, 2002.

    Excellent collection of essays comparing parallels in development and close ties between Havana and Veracruz as important Spanish Caribbean ports. Some of Cuba’s foremost historians summarize their decades of research on city life, the Afro-Cuban population, Havana’s fortifications, its sugar industry, US interventions, and cultural connections in music, dance, and baseball.

  • Kapcia, Antoni. Havana: The Making of Cuban Culture. Oxford: Berg, 2005.

    Theoretically informed study of Havana’s role in the search by Cubans for a national cultural identity. Focused on Havana’s cultural elites in colonial, republican, and revolutionary eras. Chapter sections describe historical and social changes in Havana over time in analyzing the development of cultural communities, actors, spaces, and institutions, both elite and popular. Covers literature, plastic arts, music, theater, and dance in each period.

  • Kurlansky, Mark. Havana: A Subtropical Delirium. New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2017.

    A breezy, anecdotal introduction to Havana by the prolific Kurlansky. Some history, some apocryphal tales, and a fair bit of romantic evocation, framed by quotes from writers both Cuban and not. Specialists will find little new here, though Langston Hughes’s translation of a Nicolás Guillén poem is a lovely surprise. A brief general bibliography, plus a more useful bibliography of habanero literature. Cluster and Hernández 2006 is better for classroom use.

  • Le Riverend Brusone, Julio. La Habana, espacio y vida. Madrid: MAPFRE, 1992.

    Marxian and nationalist synthesis of Havana’s history by a prominent Cuban economic historian. General argument consistent with the Cuban Revolution’s pre-1990 view of the city’s domination of its hinterland and the island. Ends with a chronology, biographies of political and cultural figures, a list of street names that have changed over time, and a bibliographic essay on key works.

  • Marrero, Levi. Cuba: Economía y sociedad. 15 vols. Madrid: Playor, 1972–1992.

    Useful for students unable to access archival sources because it contains excerpts from primary sources, maps, and illustrations from both Cuban and Spanish archives. Extensive bibliography in each volume, but difficult to find all volumes in a single library collection. Volumes cover precolonial indigenous peoples through the late 19th century. Marrero donated his library and papers to Florida International University, which are available online.

  • Pérez, Louis A., Jr. Cuba between Reform and Revolution. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    First published in 1988, still the best overview of Cuban history in English that is both comprehensive and concise. Fundamental introductory source for students, also contains a political chronology and excellent, ninety-seven-page bibliographic essay organized around key sources for understanding the state of the field on a wide range of topics, including Havana’s growth and development.

  • Roig de Leuchsenring, Emilio. La Habana: Apuntes históricos. 3 vols. Havana: Consejo Nacional de Cuba, 1963.

    History of the city with a decidedly revolutionary tone noting the effects of capitalism on the divisions of living spaces between rich and poor, though most of the text deals with the physical city rather than its people. Quotes from primary sources and earlier historians. Black-and-white drawings and maps.

  • Scarpaci, Joseph L., Roberto Segre, and Mario Coyula. Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis. Rev. ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

    Published originally in 1997. A collaborative effort by Segre and Scarpaci, Brazilian and US professors, respectively, and Coyula, a Cuban architect and urban planner. Offers the best overview in English of Havana’s growth and development in the 20th century, especially for the socialist era. Numerous maps, tables, and black-and-white photographs of buildings, streets, and monuments.

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