Helena Chavero Torres fixes her hair for her quinceañera photo shoot at Almendares Park in Havana. Like many going-on-fifteen-year-olds, she chose to wear trendy American clothes over a formal dress for her birthday shoot.
When U.S. President Barack Obama landed in Cuba, he greeted its people in a manner both earnest and unequivocally chill.
“¿Que bolá Cuba? [What’s up, Cuba?] Just touched down here, looking forward to meeting and hearing directly from the Cuban people,” he tweeted.
Obama’s visit is historic not just became it marks a renewal of diplomatic relations—which were severed in 1959 after Fidel Castro toppled Fulgencio Batista, who had seized power in a coup seven years earlier—but also because it marks the first time in 88 years that a sitting U.S. president has visited Cuba.
Although Congress has not yet lifted the trade embargo between the countries, Cuba is already awash with American fashions, media, and technology, says photographer Greg Kahn, who has been documenting Cuban youth with a grant from the VSCO Artist Initiative.
“When I get on the plane from Miami to go to Havana,” he says, “it’s chock-full of electronics and all kinds of appliances from the U.S. that people are bringing back to Cuba.”
Some people bring goods from the U.S. or Europe to give to their family, but some bring them to sell. Kahn recalls sitting in someone’s apartment and seeing a person come to the door with a bag full of U.S. clothing, asking if anyone wanted to buy some.
“Is this completely legal? Probably not,” he says. “But is it illegal, is it something that the government’s going to track down and try and stop? No. So this is that gray area.”
Some Cubans also subscribe to flash drive distributors, who—for a weekly fee—will regularly provide USB thumb drives that contain new movies, NFL games, telenovelas, and other media. One underground digital magazine distributed this way has even become so popular that businesses have begun to take out ads in its pages—this, in a country where public advertising isn’t allowed.
Though international technologies, media, and fashions are spreading among all Cubans, Kahn says that it’s the youth who are driving this change.
People born after 1989 “were born into the Special Period when the U.S.S.R. collapsed and withdrew from Cuba,” he says. “It was one of the worst economic crisis in their history; and these kids were born into that, so they didn’t get to see what it was like before.”
“They only know what it was like when they were born,” he says. “They didn’t have the realization of all this stuff that could happen.”
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