As US-Cuba relations begin to be restored, a new musical education programme aims to show what the world can learn about sustainability and self-sufficiency from the small island state. Project organiser and researcher Denise Baden explains

The small island of Cuba has a lot to teach the rest of the world, myself and other researchers from the University of Southampton are discovering. And as a result, we’re experimenting with a different way of engaging the wider public in our research.

Despite a GDP that’s a fraction of the US and UK, Cuba scores more highly than the US on many measures of wellbeing such as health and education. For example, according to the UN Development Index, Cuba was ranked as ‘very highly developed’ with a life expectancy of 79.3 years, better that of the US (78.9). This is despite the US embargo against Cuba which has been in operation for over 50 years. Cuba was also ranked as the only truly sustainable country by the World Wildlife Fund in 2006.

Together with the director of the International Institute for Cuban Studies and a colleague interested in Cuba’s successes in biotechnology and medicine, I made several trips to Cuba to find out the secrets of how it has managed to perform so well with so little.

Cuba is a great example of how an extremely negative political and economic situation has been turned into an advantage. Cuba is unique in having developed almost entirely independently of US-based financial institutions and multinational corporations, and thus this small island has a lot to teach us about alternative approaches to many of our sustainability challenges.

Cuba is unique in having developed almost entirely independently of US-based financial institutions and multinational corporations, and thus this small island has a lot to teach us about alternative approaches to many of our sustainability challenges.

“Cuba is unique in having developed almost entirely independently of US-based financial institutions and multinational corporations, and thus has a lot to teach us about sustainability challenges.”

Necessity has been the mother of invention in Cuba. Due to lack of access to resources, Cuba has had to be efficient and resourceful. Lack of fuel, for example, has led to policies of local food production, and the state encourages agricultural worker-owned co-ops to provide for their local population. In addition, the state provides support for urban farming, encouraging roof-top gardens and community gardens to grow their own produce, resulting in food security at both the national and local level. The lack of access to chemical products has also led to an organic culture. The result is that while Cuban agriculture cannot meet the high productivity of industrial agriculture, neither does it incur associated problems of soil depletion, loss of biodiversity and pollution, leading to an agricultural system that is local, organic and sustainable.

It is hoped that as the relationship between the US and Cuba gradually thaws, we will have a greater opportunity to gain insights into the distinctively Cuban solidarity economy that is so different from our own.

During my research trips I became aware of how much there was to learn about this fascinating island. As an academic I also felt I was in a good position to challenge some of the ideologically-motivated misinformation that prevails in relation to Cuba. This sparked a desire to communicate some of the exciting history of this island to a wider audience. So an unexpected outcome from this research is a new musical educational project launched as a means to raise the profile of this island that has played such a big part in Cold War politics over the last 70 years.

In collaboration with the School of Music at Southampton University, we are developing a musical called Fidel, about Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. It is operating foremost as an educational project for schools, colleges and universities, with any proceeds going to charity. The idea is for students to engage with the plot and characters to compose songs for the musical themselves which they then submit into a free competition – the winning songs will make it into the musical. A website has been recently developed, which provides a plot outline and basic script and sufficient background information for students to compose songs. This project launched after Easter and already schools, colleges and universities are signing up. Educational institutions are encouraged to take part in the summer and/or autumn term and the final deadline is 6 November.

The project is especially relevant to music students, but also to students studying English, history, politics, international relations or Spanish, who can contribute lyrics. Students get to learn about cult figures such as Che Guevara and events such as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis. They also get to learn more about Cuba’s vibrant music, dance and culture, as well as their historical and political role as a small island caught up in Cold War politics, and the ethical dilemmas of leadership.

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Currently any school, college or university that takes part will have the right to put on the musical themselves free of charge, but it is also hoped to raise funds later to put on a professional production. Our School of Education is also involved as we expect to find that summarising characters, events and issues into song lyrics draws upon many skills, and leads to deep learning.

Cuba is going through a reform process at the moment, trying to reduce the role of the state in employment and enterprise, and moving towards a distinctively Cuban form of market socialism. They hope to pull off the difficult trick of harnessing market mechanisms and private enterprise to ensure greater economic development and efficiency, while staying true to their socialist ideals of equity and justice. It will be interesting to see how far the relaxation of the US embargo towards Cuba will help or hinder them in this process.

As the capitalist model is increasingly under attack on the basis of issues such as exploitation, lack of sustainability and inequity, it will be of interest to see how a very different culture is addressing such issues their own way. And who knows, maybe a musical is as good a way as any other of engaging people in this research.

Photo title: The Cuban flag

Photo credit: © Alex Graves