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December 2014. The National Cuban Capitol Building in Havana is seen during restoration work.
December 2014. The National Cuban Capitol Building in Havana is seen during restoration work.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
December 2014. The National Cuban Capitol Building in Havana is seen during restoration work.
December 2014. A little boy gets his haircut in a barbershop in Regla, a suburb of Havana.
January 2015. Imported to Cuba before the revolution, vintage American cars are often popular with tourists cruising around Havana.
January, 2015. A young Cuban, wearing shorts decorated with the American flag, walks his dogs past a softball field in the Jaimanitas neighborhood of Havana.
Jan. 1, 2015. Members of the military celebrate the New Year at the San Carlos de la Cabana Fort in Havana. The day also marks the anniversary of the day Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959.
January, 2015. Children ride in a private taxi in Havana. Taxis, both shared and private, are the main form of transport for many Cubans.
Jan 2015. The Malecon, a promenade along the waterside in Havana, is a meeting place for locals and tourists.
January 2015. The so-called "Ladies in White," a group of wives and mothers of 75 jailed dissidents, march through Havana.
January 2015. A boy plays ball in Mariel, Cuba, the closest port to the United States. In 1980, Fidel Castro allowed 125,000 Cubans to emigrate from Mariel, in what became known as the Mariel boatlift.
A ferry transports passengers between Havana and Casablanca, across Havana Bay, Jan. 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
A family gathers outside of their home in Havana, Cuba, Jan. 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
January 2015. Men clean fish, while children play by the shore, in the Jaimanitas neighborhood of Havana.
December 2015. Young girls play on the grounds of the Arcos building, an iconic building in the El Vedado neighborhood of Havana.
December 2014. Naomi, age 40, has lived as a female since she was 17 in Havana. Members of the LGBT community are often marginalized in Cuba. Today, Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raoul Castro, is a prominent LGBT activist and a hero to many in the community.
January 2015. A former drummer for the popular Cuban rock band "Qva Libre" sits in his home in Guira de Melena, Cuba.
December 2014. In a state run market, a portrait of Fidel Castro is seen among fruit and vegetables. Because of limited food supply, Cubans depend on monthly rations for basic staples like rice and beans.
A theater and conference room inside the headquarters and museum for the "Committees for the Defense of the Revolution" (CDR), which was established in 1960 as "the eyes and ears of the Revolution." In all parts of the country, neighborhood watch groups act as a network of information for the police, Dec. 2014.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Jan. 2015. Newlyweds ride in a vintage American car through the streets of Guira de Melena. In this prosperous area outside Havana, weddings can cost as much as $20,000 dollars.
December 2014. The National Cuban Capitol Building in Havana is seen during restoration work.
Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
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Take a Walk Through the Streets of Cuba

Mar 26, 2015

Cuba has light. Cuba has shadow. Cuba has decaying colonial grandeur. But what really matters is that Cuba has Cubans. Almost any place in the Caribbean contains the strains of African, Spanish and Anglo tradition that come together on its largest island. But nowhere else do they come together to such effect. Maybe it’s the land—after the Revolution uprooted the capitalists half a century ago, tobacco growers packed up seeds on their way out to plant them in Central America, but it turned out it wasn’t the seeds that made a cigar Cuban. It was the soil of Pinar del Rio, on the island’s western reaches. Apparently there is no place on earth like it.

The people are like that, too: Lively, sensual, verbal—the fastest-talkers in the Americas, some say—they project optimism as well as pride. Their country is poor and, without doubt, a security state, but also safe, literate and healthy. People enjoy life in Cuba as in few other places.

The question, now that the island is poised to receive Americans in substantial numbers, is whether Cuba itself will change. U.S. flags have begun showing up around Havana. Immigration to the States has been allowed since 2013, and remittances—cash via Western Union—accounts for a substantial portion of the economy. If reaction to U.S. meddling in Cuba was a factor in the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, a half century of defiant separation has done its work. The walls have been lowering for a while, the estrangement subsiding.

At this point, Cubans say they are ready to engage again. Yuri Kozyrev, a TIME contract photographer, spent 10 days there over the New Year holiday. The surprise of the Dec. 17 announcement by Presidents Obama and Raul Castro was still fresh, and hope was in the air. The Communist icons appeared a bit more iconoclastic after the news of impending change, the fading slogans a bit more faded. But the essential appeal of the place remained—nowhere more so than in Havana.

“A city is made by people,” Eusebio Leal, the official in charge of restoring the Old City, once told TIME’s Dolly Mascaernas. At the time, money was beginning to pour into Havana’s colonial core, funding restorations that pushed residents into the streets (where they had always half-resided anyway, the charm of a walk through Old Havana being life spilling out of the buildings on either side). Leal said a lesson was learned, one relevant to a country on the cusp of change.

”Beautiful buildings need life,” he said. “There is nothing more lively than the people that live in them. Cubans love the center of Havana. It is full of life and it will continue to be like that. There is no point in lifeless beautiful buildings. That is not a city, it’s a museum.”

Karl Vick is a TIME correspondent based in New York. From 2010 to the autumn of 2014, he was the Jerusalem Bureau Chief.

Yuri Kozyrev is a TIME contract photographer represented by Noor.

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