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Cuba: vibrant culture & huge potential, but slow change

Following Mark Menzies MP’s excellent account of the BGIPU visit to Cuba from 16-21 September 2018, I would like to add a few personal words. The visit provided us with a great opportunity to learn about political, economic and social aspects of Cuba in a short period of time, and I was especially struck by two or three things.

The first was the exceptional cultural richness in Cuban society. This was manifested in music, dance and a wish to preserve the heritage of its architecture and public spaces. I had not been to Cuba before but was well aware of the strength of its national ballet, run for many years by the great Alicia Alonso, whose commitment to excellency led to its international reputation. Sadly, it was not performing during our visit. However, we were able to see the leading Cuban contemporary dance company Danza Contemporanea in rehearsal. They were working with the British choreographer Lea Anderson, supported by the British Council as part of their Creative Islands project. Cultural links of this kind between the UK and Cuba are a valuable way of developing contacts between the two countries and of forging mutual understanding. The determination of Carlos Acosta, who is supported by Sadler’s Wells Theatre, to use his extraordinary talent and star quality to help develop more great classical ballet dancers in Cuba and to build relationships between Cuba and the UK in his art form all add to what is already well done.

I was impressed by the quality of the modern dance performed for us at a community arts project in Matanzas Province which we visited. This was a long way from a city of any size and demonstrated the extent of the commitment in Cuba to developing talent. The same could be said of music, where the young people we observed were reaching high standards in instrumental playing and as singers. Live music in restaurants and on the streets was widespread in Havana, contributing to the quality of everyday life in Cuba in a way I have rarely witnessed elsewhere. On the heritage front, what has been achieved in Old Havana is invaluable, but it needs to be replicated elsewhere in the city, especially along the seafront. I wondered whether UNESCO might support a project to restore some of the crumbling 19th century buildings and whether British Heritage architects and craftsman and others could become involved in the work.

The second issue I was struck by was how little change seemed to have occurred since the death of Fidel Castro. I had thought before the visit that we would see more innovation in both the political and the economic spheres. I was wrong. I was surprised by how little reference there was to the new President and to what he stands for. He seemed to be in the shadows and with a low political profile. I regret not having asked more about him and what his objectives are. Does he encourage debate about possible change and reform? Is he challenged by members of his Government or by other interests in state industries or in the universities for example? We know there is neither a free press or free media, but dissent can have other forms. Were I to be lucky enough to go to Cuba again I would be interested in exploring this further.

Lastly the example we saw of bio-tech and medical research and the development of new drugs was interesting and impressive. I, like the rest of the group I suspect, have no expertise in this area so cannot really assess how successful they are. However, since returning I have learnt that pharmaceuticals is one of the few areas where Cuba has made some impact internationally. This seems to be an area where there is scope for British investment or for joint ventures and might be worth pursuing. Of the many young Cubans attracted to medicine as a career some will probably be interested in medical research, including the development of new drugs and their testing. I was sorry we did not visit a mainstream medical school or indeed a university much like the specialised University of the Arts to see for myself how Cuban doctors are trained. Another time perhaps.

Nevertheless, we crammed a lot into five days and any visit which leaves us wanting to learn more must be judged a success! I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to see a little of this fascinating country and to meet so many warm and friendly people. I have been telling everyone who asks me about it that they should go. I hope someone will influence President Trump and tell him to end the blockade. As we all agreed it will be as much in the USA’s interests as Cuba’s own.

Baroness Blackstone