With a population of 935,650 inhabitants, 1945 Havana covered an area of 724 square kilometers.
The city was composed of six counties or municipios: La Habana, Marianao, Regla, Guanabacoa, Santa Maria del Rosario, and Santiago de las Vegas.
The six municipios had quite different characteristics. Like most cities in the developing world, post World War II Havana reflected several divisions.
- First, the city demonstrated the vast differences in quality of life which separated the Third World from the more advanced industrialized nations.
- Second, the city flaunted its position as the primate city of Cuba, revealing vast discrepancies between life in urban versus rural areas of the country.
- Finally, inside its boundaries, the city exhibited a variety of internal divisions which could be observed within the various municipios.
La Habana contained the colonial core known as La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), as well as the main shopping district, Centro Havana, with its elegant 19th century promenade. It also included the working-class industrial areas of Cerro and Diez de Octubre and, in contrast, the neighborhood of Vedado which housed the 20th century hotel and entertainment district.
Marianao contained Havana’s most fashionable residential suburbs prior to the 1959 revolution while Guanabacoa and Santa Maria del Rosario were old colonial towns.
Santiago de las Vegas was more sparsely populated, while the small municipio of Regla was home to many followers of the Afro-Cuban religion, santeria. Long before the 1959 revolution, Regla was known for its revolutionary traditions.
Havana was home to both the privileged and the marginalized, reflecting both Las Vegas style glamor and the struggle of hardworking residents.
Social divisions were exacerbated by geographical divisions.
The older and more densely populated sectors of Havana were separated from the more affluent and suburban areas of the city by the Almendares River.
The prosperous suburbs west of the Almendares were in close proximity to Camp Columbus, the military installation designed and funded by the United States. The camp dominated and protected the city’s moneyed periphery.
Havana was greatly affected by World War II. At its outbreak, Cuba was considered almost a territory of the United States.
The island’s participation in the war on the side of the Allies served to further solidify the relationship, facilitating trade agreements as well as loan and credit programs between the two countries.
In 1941, the US and Cuba signed a lend-lease agreement whereby Cuba received arms shipments in exchange for expanded North American use of Cuban military facilities.
Wartime agreements, however, did not bring prosperity to Cuba or to its capital city Havana. Instead, many sectors of the economy suffered and shortages were widespread. This was due, in part, to restricted trade with Europe resulting from hazards associated with trans-Atlantic shipping.
Cuban exports to Great Britain and Spain declined, those with Germany and Italy ended altogether and, after the German occupation of France in 1941, Cuba lost the French market.
The cigar industry suffered the most, and many of Havana’s cigar factories were forced to close.
A lack of steel and iron disrupted the construction industry, causing widespread unemployment in the building trades.
Tourism declined markedly from 127,000 visitors in 1940 to 12,000 in 1943. Many hotels were forced to close and restaurants greatly reduced their services.
On the other hand, railroad traffic increased when the threat of German submarines forced sugar producers to haul their sugar by rail to Havana. From there, the product was shipped under convoy to the United States where it sold for below market prices.
Surprisingly, wages rose during wartime. Nevertheless, prices rose more quickly and the tax structure changed as new taxes were imposed and old ones were raised. As conditions worsened, by the mid 1940s, public office offered the greatest opportunity for individual enrichment. According to Louis A. Perez, Jr., “embezzlement, graft, corruption, and malfeasance of public office “permeating every aspect of municipal government.”
By war’s end, Havana was disheartened and demoralized.