Taking Cuban values and bringing them to the British Musical

As we build up to Fidel, our next Workin Process concert this November, its writer Dr Denise Baden is opening up about her experiences writing a brand new musical. You can find out more about Fidel right here


I’m thinking again about how some people who read the script on its own terms got swept along by it and loved it, whereas those who read it and matched it against the formula for script writing had more problems with it  This reminds me of similar issues often encountered when doing research in Cuba.

If you go in with a template of what an ideal country is and should be – say, a multi-party liberal democracy with an open market and an adversarial press, then any questions asked to Cubans will get unpalatable replies:

“Do you have more than one party?”

“No.”

But, if you attempt to understand Cuba on its own terms you can get a very different picture. For example if you ask a Cuban:

“Do you have opportunities for political participation?
“Are policies affected by public wishes?’

“Yes!”

And if you probe further you’ll find out that there are systems to ensure that the public are consulted on important policies. For example, during the last economic reforms, 95% of the population was directly consulted, and only a third of the policies remain unchanged as a result – the rest were adapted based on the consultation. Suddenly, Cuba looks like a model of direct participative democracy!

America may only be 90 miles away from Cuba, but the differences in the concepts and assumptions and language used can really hinder understanding.

For example, ‘marketing’ in the US means getting people to buy stuff. In Cuba, the term means ensuring everyone has equal access to the goods and services they need. I often see examples of mutual mistrust occurring due to different ideologies. When US governments and business talk to Cubans in the language of the market – with its amoral overtones – it creates distrust. But when language such as reciprocal agreements are used, with more cooperative implications, then communication is easier.

Similarly, the term ‘solidarity’ has slightly worrying connotations in the West – implying stroppy unions and large scale strikes. It is a core value in Cuba, and as far as I could see underlies all policy – and this includes international solidarity. I’ve been doing research interviewing Cubans about Fidel’s leadership style and there’s a lovely quote that shows this:

I believe that’s the main thing about Fidel, he gave Cuban people a purpose, he gave Cuban people a social conscience, and trust, and people that believe that not only a better country but a better world. So, with Fidel we had this global conscience, each time there is a crisis in the world. Whether it’s Ebola in Africa or Katrina in the United States of America, it doesn’t matter because we know that the Cuban people will be there to support in any way they can. So that’s the thing about Fidel, it is not a person, it’s an idea. It’s a process. It’s a force. A political force. That’s represented in each and every Cuban.

This brings me on to another reason to honour how things really were and put values first. I have seen first-hand how insulted Cubans are when they are misrepresented and the damage ignorance can do. I visited Cuba in November 2014 and was invited to a party hosted for a UK diplomat who was visiting Cuba to build trade relationships. The final toast given was so ignorant I felt embarrassed to be British. He raised a glass and said “to the three best things about Cuba: its cigars, its rum and its women!”

There was a hush.

I personally felt demeaned as a woman to be likened to an object of consumption. But nothing to how the Cubans must have felt. Cubans are fiercely proud of their health care system, which despite their poverty is one of the best in the world. They are proud of their biotechnology and pharmaceutical sector – which produced the first lung cancer vaccine – they are proud of their international solidarity, their doctors abroad programme, for fighting against apartheid in Angola, for their exemplary record of equality, cultural and political literacy, gender and racial equality, the revolution.

Fidel once joked “what better way to deal with our enemies than sell them cigars?” but actually Cubans are secretly rather ashamed of their tobacco exports because of their emphasis on health – they live with it because they need the money.

One of my hopes is that the musical will give people a better insight into Cuba and overcome this kind of ignorance.


Fidel runs for two performances only on Thursday 16th November 2017 at St Paul’s Church. You can get your tickets here.

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