Paradiso: Photographer Michael Christopher Brown and change in Cuba Acclaimed photojournalist Michael Christopher Brown reflects on the changing face of Cuban society

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

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. 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.

Old Havana. Joaquan
Cuba. Havana. December 22, 2014. Old Havana. Joaquan, 55.

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.

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

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.

Words: Michael Christopher Brown
Images: Michael Christopher Brown / Magnum Photos.

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