HAVANA (AP) — Hundreds of people in Cuba’s capital stood in line to kiss, touch or walk around a towering silk floss tree Saturday in a nod to tradition as they celebrate Havana’s 500th anniversary this weekend.

The event comes as Cuba deals with an ailing economy and increasingly tense relations with the U.S., concerns that were briefly cast aside as residents prepared for a gala event Saturday night featuring fireworks, music and international dignitaries.

As part of the celebrations, officials restored monuments, painted buildings, unveiled exhibitions and held book presentations.

“Havana grows, lives, sings, dances and dreams,” said Félix Julio Alfonso, a professor who spoke before granting the public access to the revered silk floss tree.

Many in the crowd shared their wishes with the tree, including requests for health or financial wellbeing. Some left money while others wore white as dictated by Afro-Cuban Santeria, the island’s predominant religion.

Irene Domínguez, a chemical engineer, said she had faith in the tree and asked that it watch over her sick relatives and her wellbeing, as well as that of the entire city.


“I was very excited, I yelled and was near tears,” she said, adding that she felt a great energy.

President Miguel Díaz-Canel greeted special guests around midday in Havana, which Spanish conquerors founded on Nov. 16, 1519.

“Havana, a city of science, dance, cinema, literature, sporting events and an example of resistance in the face of neoliberalism, is also the city of dignity, the bastion of resistance against the unjust (U.S.) blockade,” Díaz-Canel said in a meeting behind closed doors, according to official media.