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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Early Histories
  • Urban History and Urbanization
  • Architecture
  • Urban Planning
  • Debates in Tourism and Historic Preservation
  • Race and Slavery
  • Travel and Other Accounts
  • Edited Collections

Latin American Studies Havana
Guadalupe García
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0241


The Cuban city of San Cristóbal de la Habana has been a nodal point of economic, commercial, political, and cultural exchange since its 1519 founding on Cuba’s northern shore. Residents’ decision to locate the city next to the natural deepwater harbor that became today’s harbor, illustrates the importance of geography, space, and environment in Havana’s early history. Through the distinct environs of Havana, enslaved, free black, Spanish, immigrant, criollo (and later Cuban) residents defined and gave new meaning to a geography marked by the city’s colonial origins. The end of the 19th century and early 20th century marked the end of Spanish colonialism in Cuba (1898) and the beginning of the US occupation of the island (1899–1902). The political transition solidified the importance of Havana as the economic and political center of Cuba. The city became a broker of a new set of cultural, social, and political exchanges as the country’s economic prosperity—the result of an affinity for US and global capitalist markets—also inaugurated a booming and pervasive tourist economy. Western influence and a neocolonial relationship between Cuba and the United States engendered an urban renaissance that emphasized cosmopolitanism and a dynamic, highly mobile urban population. Havana’s built environment oriented residents and visitors alike to its modern architecture, seaside resorts, and dynamic nightlife. The city’s concentration of wealth, however, underscored continued disparities between Cuba’s urban and rural populations as well as within sectors of the urban population. There is a well-developed body of scholarship that addresses the complicated history of the city, especially for the colonial period and the early 20th century. Until recently, there was a scarcity of literature on the city following the revolutionary transition of 1959. This changed, however, with the onset of the 1980s. In 1982 UNESCO declared the colonial core city of Havana a World Heritage Site. Urban renewal and preservation became topics of scholarly discussions around administrative efforts to preserve, restore, and orient the direction of the city. Then, in the early 1990s, urban development in Havana (like all development in Cuba) come to an immediate halt after the dissolution of the USSR ended Soviet subsidies and precipitated one of the worst economic disasters in Cuban history. The country’s political and economic situation and the liberalization of the economy and the growth of tourism brought an ever-increasing interest in the issues and environment of the city, with scholars taking up the now familiar themes of access to the city, political inclusion and exclusion, and urban patrimony in their scholarship. As a field of study the literature on Havana mirrors the frameworks found in the broader field of urban history. The literature breaks down into two distinct subfields; those studies that examine “the history of the city” and those that examine “histories that unfold within cities” (See Brodwyn Fisher’s article Urban History in Oxford Bibliographies). The former has long dominated the literature on Havana, and only recently has new scholarship begun to approach the city as a subject in its own right or from the vantage points of disciplinary perspectives outside of history, architecture, and planning. In this essay I have chosen to introduce readers to the vast literature that centers explicitly on the development of the city, much of which was published in Cuba from the 19th century onward. This literature forms part of a well-known cannon in Cuba (including work in the Spanish-language press produced outside of the island) but might be lesser known to non-specialists. I have also included well-established, as well as recent and emerging, works where Havana assumes a central role in the narrative. I have done this in order to broaden the categorical analysis of what constitutes a history of or about Havana. As with any bibliographic essay, I have excluded much in order to provide an overview of Havana and familiarize readers with scholars who explore thematic interests in questions of race, slavery, or culture through the social fabric of the city. Where appropriate, I have organized the essay according to time period or publication date (in order to give the reader an idea of the scholarship on colonial architecture, for example). Finally, most titles on this list can easily be placed in more than one of the categories listed in the Table of Contents; for the sake of space I have cross-listed only a few of these works, but indicated when readers might find other sections of the essay useful.

General Overviews

There are several synthetic, scholarly works on Havana, mostly in Spanish. This is partly the result of the importance that the Cuban academy has placed on the study of history, architecture, and urban planning. The emergence of Office of the City Historian (Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad de La Habana) during the 1930s marked the beginning of a collaborative relationship between urban professionals and scholars. During his tenure in office as the first City Historian, Dr. Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring pioneered publication of Cuadernos de historia habanera, a series dedicated to historical themes in Cuba that marked the beginning of a careful examination of issues of historical importance to habaneros specifically (the more problematic conflation of Cuba with Havana, on the other hand, is an enduring problem that scholars of both Havana and Cuba have had to contend with). Under Roig de Leuchsenring’s direction the City Historian’s Office would facilitate a number of publications dedicated to examining the development of Havana, beginning with his own studies (Roig de Leuchsenring 1963, first published in 1939. The tradition of collaboration between Cuban scholars and institutional officials would continue long after Roig de Leuchsenring. Celebrated scholar Julio Le Riverend Brusone (Le Riverend 1960, Le Riverend 1992), for example, held various official and institutional positions in Cuba, including at the University of Havana and at the Biblioteca Nacional José Martí. The English-language press has only recently rejoined the scholarly conversations taking place in Cuba, often in collaborative directions. The multi-disciplinary work of Mario Coyula Cowley, Joseph L. Scarpaci, and Roberto Segre (Scarpaci, et al. 2002) is perhaps the most comprehensive general overview of the city and has set a definitive tone for future work on the city’s urban and architectural development. Cluster and Hernández 2006 and Kapcia 2005 are works that have recently added to this literature, with the result that there is now a developing body of work for those without Spanish language skills.

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

    This is a collaborative study that provides a thorough but accessible history of Havana from 1519 through the 1990s. The book is accessible to non-specialists and geared toward undergraduates or those seeking a broad familiarization with the role of revolution, art, economic development, and social diversity in Cuban history. Its publication is indicative of the growing US demand for knowledge and access to Cuba.

  • Kapcia, Antoni. Havana: The Making of Cuban Culture. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2005.

    In this concise history of Havana, Kapcia sets out to provide readers with a sweeping history of the city and its historical importance in Cuba. Kapcia’s academic focus on cultural history sets it apart from most overviews. The author’s emphasis on examining distinct periods of Havana’s development makes this an accessible read for those seeking a broad introduction to Havana.

  • Le Riverend, Julio Brusone. La Habana, biografía de una provincia. Havana, Cuba: Imprenta El Siglo XX, 1960.

    One of the most comprehensive and definitive works on Havana to date, the author set out to write an exhaustive “biography” of Havana province. Le Riverend surveys political, social, economic, and cultural developments from the region’s pre-Columbian origins through the early 20th century, complete with maps and illustrations. The over five-hundred-page volume is a necessary reference for in-depth studies of the city.

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

    This is one of the earliest “urban histories” of Havana. While many general overviews of Havana linger on common historical themes related to the city’s founding, its colonial architecture, and its role in political development of Cuba, Le Riverend divides the book into four parts, engaging with the environmental and social factors that catapulted the city to colonial prominence. The last parts of the book contend with Havana’s concentration of resources and the impact of the revolutionary government.

  • Roig de Leuchsenring, Emilio. La Habana, apuntes históricos. 3 vols. 2d ed. Havana, Cuba: Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad, 1963.

    Written by the former City Historian of Havana, this work provides a comprehensive overview of the city from the 16th century through the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959, with illustrations. Importantly, the author also includes the Havana suburbs. The second edition of the work is significantly expanded from the original, published in 1939.

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

    This is a multiauthored, multidisciplinary book from the perspectives of architecture, history, geography, and planning. It focuses on Havana’s urban history from the colonial period through the 1990s, with most of its attention devoted to growth and planning of the city after 1959. Although it is largely focused on built environment, the work will be important for anyone seeking to identify the scholarly debates around Havana. The book engages debates about Havana’s origin, purpose, and the relationship between built environment and history.

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