Before you see this island nation, once off-limits to Americans, for yourself, you might find it useful to learn a bit about the history of its geography.
The 1600s and 1700s
Cuba began with just two jurisdictions: La Habana and Santiago. Each province held equal power and ranking. However, as La Habana grew, Santiago came to depend on it increasingly for protection.
In the late 1700s, nine jurisdictions were created:
6 Provinces of Cuba circa 1800s
The 1800s and 1900s
Around 1827, the Spanish Colonial government decided to break Cuba into three departments: the Occidental (to the West), the Central, and the Oriental (to the east). In the aftermath of the Ten Years War, the government split Cuba into six provinces:
•Pinar del Río
•Santiago de Cuba
In 1899, Puerto Principe became Camagüey. In 1905, Santiago de Cuba became Oriente. In 1940, when Cuba’s new constitution was written, Santa Clara became Las Villas. When the current government took over in 1959, various splits took place until the current 15 provinces and one special sector were created.
Modern Provinces of Cuba
The Modern Provinces
Today, Cuba boasts 15 provinces, plus the Isla de la Juventud, a special municipality. These provinces are:
•Pinar del Río
•Ciego de Avila
•Santiago de Cuba
Since the revolution, the provincial geography changed once, in 2010, when Matanzas was split, with Mayabeque to the south and Matanzas in the north.
Origin of Names (partial list)
Cienfuegos comes from the Spanish word for “a hundred fires.” However, it was actually named after Camilo Cienfuegos, a general in the Revolution who is revered in Cuba for his leadership in the education movement.
Granma was the yacht that carried Fidel Castro back to Cuba in 1956. To honor the occasion, he named a province after it.
La Habana is an ethnic name bestowed by Spanish conquistador Diego Velasquez. It seems to have come from the Middle Dutch word for “port.” Generally, “La Habana” refers to the province. It is only translated to “Havana” when people refer to the city within the province.
Oriente is a word used to refer to the East. This province was so named because of its location on the eastern side of the island.
Originally called Nueva Filipinas (“New Philippines,” after the many Filipinos who emigrated here centuries ago, Pinar del Río, at the westernmost end of Cuba, is now named for a municipality located within its borders.
Matanzas translates roughly to “massacre.” Legend has it that the region received its name when local fishermen thwarted Spanish marauders by tipping over their boats, easily drowning most of the armor-wearing soldiers. Happily, the province is better known today for its rich cultural roots.
Sancti Spiritus means “holy spirit,” and was likely named by traditional religious settlers from Spain.
Spanish-language students may recognize the word “ciego:” blind. El “Ciego de Avila” was likely a notable blind resident of the local Avila estate. However, his identity is lost. Today, the area is known for its produce production and is nicknamed “Pineapple Town.”
Baracoa’s name is said to have come from a local indigenous phrase for “presence of the sea.”