Eusebio Leal, the city's historian, speaks during the celebration marking the 499th anniversary of Havana's founding in Havana, Cuba, Nov. 16, 2018. Considered a city with a long history and tradition and great charm in Latin America and the Caribbean, Havana celebrated on Friday its 499th anniversary of founding with the sights set on its half-millennium in 2019. (Xinhua/Joaquin Hernandez)
by Raimundo Urrechaga
HAVANA, Nov. 16 (Xinhua) -- Considered a city with a long history and tradition and great charm in Latin America and the Caribbean, Havana celebrated on Friday its 499th anniversary of founding with the sights set on its half-millennium in 2019.
The Cuban capital, a city that for many seems stuck in time, is today a place featuring major restoration of its emblematic colonial buildings and the opening of new social facilities for thousands to enjoy.
To kick off the celebrations, shortly after midnight on Friday, a group of children accompanied the city's historian, Eusebio Leal, from the Palace of the General Captains, the former seat of government, to the founding site known as "El Templete."
There, in 1519, the first mass and council took place, in the shade of a "ceiba," a blossoming tree whose mystical symbolism transcends time and is a unique place to visit for thousands of Cubans.
Despite the passing of centuries, Havana residents maintain one of the oldest traditions -- walking around the tree three times and requesting three wishes.
"Keeping up with this tradition is valuable and it has passed from generation to generation," Cristobal Gonzalez, a local resident told Xinhua.
This Cuban feels greater pride as his birthday coincides with the anniversary of the city, which "has an extremely important and valuable meaning" for him.
In 2018, he turned 70 years old, an age which he is thankful for while walking around the famous "ceiba."
Just as the city's 500th anniversary of founding draws near, Havana's historian said this commemoration is a "starting point" to continue working on the complex problems the city currently faces.
"This is a city that does not have to be ashamed of its past, but on the contrary take pride in its history. We don't see the 500th anniversary as a goal to achieve, but rather a starting point for continuing to work for the people," Leal said.
Leal, architect of the restoration of Havana's Old Town, said that the Cuban capital is not only a city of traditions and legends, but also values its people.
"Everything we have been able to do has been done in difficult years, but I am convinced that there is always much more to be done for Havana," he added.
Hundreds of residents of the Cuban capital listened attentively to Leal from the outskirts of the historical site where they stood since the afternoon to attend the traditional "ceiba" ceremony.
"I come here to ask for the health of my family, for the peace and tranquility of our country and the world, in addition to celebrating the 499th anniversary of this city of San Cristobal de La Habana," Caridad Segura, a state worker, told Xinhua.
Despite fatigue, many Cubans decided not to miss the tradition which is a manifest part of national culture.
"Today is a day of joy for all Havana residents as we must keep our traditions. I am happy to come once again to go around the 'ceiba' along with the Cuban people," Juana Perez, a retired Cuban, told Xinhua.
In recent weeks, as part of the celebrations for the city's founding anniversary, numerous social facilities have been inaugurated and several cultural events will be held until November 2019.
The restoration and improvement of several historical buildings and museums, libraries, schools and a housing program that will benefit 700 residents of the historic center are some of the actions that will be implemented during the next year.