Known for many things – from the Bay of Pigs fiasco to rum and cigars to Hemingway’s famous Finca Vigia – Cuba remains unseen and unknown to most Americans. The embargo began in 1960 and affected business, trade, and travel relations between the two countries. To date, the Department for Trade and Integration at the Centre for World Economics Studies estimates the damages of the embargo, known as the blockade in Cuba, at over one trillion dollars. While certain restrictions have recently been lightened and loosened, the embargo remains in place and has negative effects on everything from housing development to tourism and education. Though the UN General Assembly repeatedly votes to end the embargo (this year with an astounding 188 against and 2 for), the vote is not binding and the United States continues to renew the embargo.

Increased remittances mean more money can be fueled into Cuba from family members residing in the United States, and current Cuban president Raul Castro has changed much economic policy to create a private sector and market economy. As with any societal change, there are pros and cons. While financial freedom leads to opportunity for many, it is increasing the racial divide. The majority of remittances that come from the United States go to white Cubans, who in turn start small businesses or programs that benefit whites. And many black and mixed race Cubans continue to experience inequality when applying for jobs or seeking higher education.

Access to the outside world remains limited, but the country is notably progressive in many areas. Education and healthcare are free to all, and Cuban medical training has arrived at the forefront of global medicine with a focus not only on education but also patient interaction and treating underserved communities. Additionally, they are leading the way in LGBT rights in Latin America. Led by Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela, the nation supports a growing and thriving gay culture that includes free gender reassignment surgeries and full care for those living with HIV and AIDS.

Cuba is home to its own flourishing arts and culture and has access to globally renown cinema, theater, and the arts. The joy and spirit of Cuba is captured by children dancing in the streets and the culture’s emphasis on family and community. The people are proud and energetic, outspoken and passionate, and just as beautiful as the land they inhabit.

Photography by Adam Allegro