In the immediate aftermath of a successful revolution, every nation probably experiences a combination of anguish and optimism. In Cuba at the beginning of the 20th century these feelings became uniquely channeled by a movement best described as “medical nationalism.”
The newly independent nation’s large medical community, influenced both by the excitement of the era’s scientific breakthroughs and the fresh memory of tens of thousands of starved corpses fouling the streets of Havana, developed a zeal to make health care a matter of Cuban national pride. The doctors and others pushed the new government to build hospitals and embark on national campaigns to reduce infant mortality and tackle diseases like tuberculosis. But perhaps their biggest accomplishment was swaying the new government to establish the world’s first ministry of public health.
In his doctoral thesis at New York University, and in an upcoming book, Daniel Rodriguez, whose parents immigrated to Boston from Cuba, describes the momentous importance of health and medical science in the aftermath of Cuba’s independence from Spain. It’s a way of examining the social and political history of the island, not just from the rarefied vantage of political elites, but also from the perspective of the urban popular classes.
“Insofar as you can reconstruct what it meant for someone to be in a hospital in 1914, scared and sick with a horrifying disease like the bubonic plague, insofar as you can reconstruct those experiences, that’s what I want to do as a historian,” he said, referring to research he conducted as a postdoctoral scholar at Kenyon University. “I’m interested in medicine and public health because I believe that they can tell us something important about Cuban society and about how people were thinking about questions of political independence and modernity.”
Rodriguez, assistant professor of history at Brown, never intended to study the politics of health in Cuba. When he began his thesis work, he figured he’d focus on gender and sexuality in post-independence Cuba. But while at the Cuban archives looking through a series of turn-of-the-century medical studies of Cuban prostitutes, he happened across the medical nationalism that informed these studies.
“As I got into reading these reports what really struck me was how often they were framed in explicitly nationalist terms,” he said. “They were framed as a ‘blessed formula for progress for the Cuban nation.’ It was the idea that medical research itself could form a blueprint for a modern, progressive, healthy Cuban nation.”
The lens of medical nationalism helps for understanding Cuba’s relationships with other countries such as the United States and Spain. It wasn’t all fueled by idealism and optimism. Medical nationalism was also a reaction to the U.S.-imposed Platt Amendment to the Cuban Constitution, which allowed the United States to intervene in Cuba’s affairs if the United States perceived a health threat emerging from the island.
Health politics also continued to shape Cuban-Spanish relations. In 1914, Spanish merchants opposed Cuba’s efforts to fight an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Then in the 1930s, Cuban health workers from doctors to midwives took the activist step of going on strike to protest Spanish-run hospitals that dominated Havana’s medical market, and kept wages down for Cuban medical workers.
In his book project, Rodriguez also looks at the racial dimensions of both tuberculosis and efforts to combat infant mortality in Cuba. In related work, he has looked at the history of transnational philanthropy in U.S.-occupied Cuba, examining how well-meaning American charity efforts to return displaced Cuban farmers to the land became a debacle in which the U.S. occupation government put much of Cuba’s farmland into the hands of Americans instead.
At Brown, one project Rodriguez hopes to take on is an investigation of the ways that American philanthropy and Cuban state institutions addressed the enormous problem of orphan children — a particularly marginalized community — from the abolition of slavery in 1886 through the early decades of the 20th century.
“In focusing on the state’s relationship and private philanthropy’s relationship to orphan children, what does that tell us about these broader arcs of Cuban history?” he asked. “What does it tell us about the character of the American relationship with Cuba during this period of need around the war of independence and afterwards?”
Rodriguez said he’s excited to join the Brown faculty, especially given the vibrant community of similarly interested scholars he’ll become part of.
“As a historian of Latin America this is a fantastic place to be,” he said. “Especially now with the expansion of the Latin Americanists cohort within the history department, it’s a really exciting place to be.”
There is much more to the Cuban revolutionary history than the alleged sinking of the USS Maine and Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill. Rodriguez’s work avoids those clichés to depict the struggles, movements, and achievements of a society of people — not myths — of consequential human frailty.