In this historic seaport, long known as the Key to the New World, classic American cars clatter along streets lined with Spanish architecture and pulsating with African and Caribbean rhythms. Old Havana's baroque facades, massive-columned palaces, and lush patios whisper tales of Cuba's colonial past. Everywhere, Spanish, African, Caribbean, and American flavors boil in a dynamic and sensual brew.
"If I get lost, look for me in Cuba…" wrote Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. If you visit Havana, you'll soon understand why. The city is an intoxicating mixture of opulence and decay, Old World and New, socialism and capitalism, Europe, Africa, and America.
Once-elegant buildings crumble behind Corinthian columns, while an increasing number are undergoing renovations and restorations that previsage what will be a new, and hopefully glorious, unique historic city. Meanwhile rickety 1950s Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles crisscross the capital, acting as economical community taxis while tiny motor scooter-powered coco-taxis and ciclo-taxis, bicycle rickshaws roll by. Many things here are in disrepair; yet all this seems only to add to Havana's rough allure. Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway drank deeply of it and were inspired; Ava Gardner and Winston Churchill—to name a few—were enchanted.
For almost 250 years the maritime hub of Havana was little more than a staging area for Spanish convoys loaded with New World treasures and bound for Europe. Cuba's campaign for independence began along with its 19th-century prosperity, and Havana was often in the eye of the storm. During the Ten Years War (1868-78), Cuba's first attempt to break free of Spain, the city was a haven for conservatives loyal to the mother country. Havana would later become a hotbed of liberalism and the nerve centre for phase two of the independence movement—sparked by the eloquent revolutionary José Martí—which led to the Second War of Independence (1892). In 1898, Havana harbour was the last port of call for the Maine, a major U.S. military vessel, which was blown up (depending on whose history books you read) by accident, by Americans, or by pro-annexationist Cubans. This event led to the Spanish-American War, the end of Spanish sovereignty, and the beginning of heavy U.S. involvement in Cuban affairs.
Though the 1950s Revolution against dictator Fulgencio Batista began on the eastern end of the island, Fidel Castro's most charismatic moment was his triumphal entry into Havana on January 1, 1959. Castro's regime improved the quality of life for most Cubans, especially in the areas of education and medicine. But the collapse of the Soviet Union combined with the long-standing U.S. blockade has caused severe shortages of goods. A steady flow of visitors from Canada and Europe have helped to improve matters. Havana today is a work in progress, rough and real, caught in its own history and struggling toward an uncertain future.
Since the handing over of the strings of power from an ailing Fidel Castro Ruz to his comrade and brother Raúl, there has been a quiet anticipation of impending change. A cat-and-mouse game has begun as Raúl nervously attempts to hand some private business models to Cubans. But so far, far-reaching reforms have yet to occur; while regular Cubans have seen some easing of their situation. This, in addition to the less confrontational attitude of U.S. President Barack Obama, leave many wondering if we are approaching a turning point.