Following the first visit by a US Secretary of State in 70 years, this photo feature reflects on the changing face of Cuban society. Magnum photographer Michael Christopher Brown travelled across the country to separate myth from reality.

  • Words + Photography: Michael Christopher Brown

These photographs were taken in the month following President Barack Obama’s December 2014 announcement of a US policy shift toward Cuba. I photographed street life in Havana and then travelled through the provinces of Pinar del Rio and Matanzas, wondering what this announcement would mean for the average Cuban.

Americans have a distant idea of Cuba. Most of us don’t really know what to think of the place, as most never visited due to the embargo – or blockade, as the Cubans see it – so we chalk it up to be the ‘paradise’ we have seen in pictures or heard of: beautiful architecture, 50s-era automobiles, cigars, beaches, women, rum.

Havana, Cuba. 26 December 2014. Barbershop in Central Havana.

My initial impression was not far from this picture, as it does exist here, but the truth is that our tiny neighbour to the south is much more complex, living a reality that involves all the above, though in different measures.

Havana, Cuba. 22 December 2014. Joaquã­n, 55.

During my second trip in March, I met a group of DJs of electronica music in Havana, born during the 80s, who came of age during Cuba’s ‘Special Period’, which began with the collapse of the Soviet Union. I hung out with them for several weeks, learning of their Cuba and living the electronica music scene while sleeping much of the day. Whether a result of the blockade, the Special Period, the Cuban system of government or a combination of the above, Cubans have a brotherhood and spirit of resilience that is palpable.

Havana, Cuba . 5 January 2015. The Russian Embassy.

Last week, mid-way through my now third trip to Cuba, I spent another evening with the DJs, and the following morning, as John Kerry landed in Havana, walked back to my casa to sleep. I missed the flag raising at the US Embassy but did see him, later that afternoon, wave goodbye with a wide grin to a small crowd gathered inside the Hotel Nacional; and then he was gone.

Cubans have a brotherhood and spirit of resilience that is palpable.

I thought about what his visit meant for the average Cuban. A block in any direction, Cubans carried on as normal. Some knew he was in town, the first visit by a US Secretary of State in 70 years, and watched his speech on TV, discussing what it meant. But most excitement that day seemed to take place just down the street, where for several weeks Cubans had accessed the Internet via a Wi-Fi connection. It has become a party at some of these hotspots, now scattered throughout Havana, with masses of young people, music and vendors selling Internet cards, food and drinks. This was not possible when I left Havana in May.

Havana, Cuba. 6 January 2015. Watching a parade in Old Havana.

These new relations with the US might totally change Cuba, and they might change little except for those elite with wealth, connections and power. Much of what is necessary for survival is provided to Cubans by their government. But is it enough? How much benefit does a $30 average monthly wage really help a Cuban family of four? Are Cubans allowed to freely leave their country? Paradise exists in Cuba, for the elite and the tourists. But for most Cubans it is about surviving the paradise.

Michael Christopher Brown is a Magnum photographer who lives in New York City

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