The Right to Live in Health: A Blessed Formula for Progress

Recently, we published a recommended reading list in support of Cuba’s most recent demand for liberation. Today we chose to publish an excerpt from one of the titles from that reading list, Daniel A. Rodríguez’s The Right to Live in Health: Medical Politics in Postindependence Havana. Out of the many reasons people in Cuba have chosen to protest, medical resources was one of the major issues; so this excerpt is very fitting for the current times.

On May 15, 1902, just days before the Cuban Republic was formally inaugurated, the social, political, and scientific elite of Havana gathered to celebrate the new home of the Cuban Academy of Science. That evening, many “elegant ladies and distinguished men of science” crowded into the academy’s stately dark wood lecture hall illuminated by the warm glow of electric lights. At the front of the room sat the guests of honor, including the military governor of Cuba Leonard Wood and president-elect Tomás Estrada Palma, alongside two of the evening’s invited speakers: the noted bacteriologists and physicians Juan Santos Fernández and Enrique Barnet. They came together that evening to celebrate the recent renovations that transformed the former San Agustín convent into this “new temple of science” for the Cuban people. The timing of the event and the symbolism of its location seemed to suggest that an age of rationalism and national science had eclipsed colonial superstition and empiricism. Science and medicine would no longer be relegated to the margins of public consciousness or the nation’s political priorities. Indeed, they could no longer be ignored, for the reality of tropical disease and Cuba’s uneasy relationship to the United States required that the Cuban people embrace science, modernity, and the responsibilities of hygienic self-discipline. At the cusp of independence and the dawn of a new century, medicine represented more than a set of healing practices and technologies: it was a blueprint for a modern and healthy republic, a “blessed formula for progress” for the Cuban nation.

For the men and women gathered that evening, medical science and a government committed to public health action were the keys to the redemption of a tropical island long known as a hotbed of disease and death. As Juan Santos Fernández reminded his audience, “Our country, until yesterday, was considered on par with others in the tropical Americas, as poisoned ground that made civilized men pay with their lives for daring tread” upon Cuban soil. Just months before, a joint effort of Cuban and U.S. scientists and health officials had finally managed to rid the island of yellow fever, the disease that targeted the foreign-born and had since the eighteenth century done profound damage to Cuba’s economy and international reputation. The extirpation of yellow fever proved that environment was not destiny, that the tropics were not necessarily coterminous with disease, death, and backwardness.

For Cuban health advocates, the success of the yellow fever campaign was vivid proof that once the cause of disease was determined, concerted state action could reduce or even eliminate infectious disease. For Enrique Barnet, this meant that governments had a responsibility to do everything in their power to protect their citizens from disease, for “society has the right not to have … disease in their midst.” But this right came with its own responsibilities, for Cuban citizens would have to assimilate the new lessons of the laboratory and adopt the hygienic bodily practices that would protect them and one another from infection. Barnet warned that citizens would have to be led, by force if necessary, into this hygienic modernity, for “the neglect of personal habits, [and] lack of cleanliness and personal hygiene are very common among the ignorant classes.” He therefore urged his audience to embrace the task of popular health education, likening it to a religious calling, “so that science comes to be like the priesthood” for those that preached the life-saving “good news” of modern hygiene.

If medicine was to have a privileged place in postcolonial Cuban life, however, it was not just because it could help Cuba achieve health and national modernity. Not far from the surface of this discussion was the pervasive threat that disease could pose to Cuban independence under the provisions of the Platt Amendment, imposed on Cuba as a precondition for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Its fifth article required the Cuban government to maintain “acceptable” health conditions in its cities in order to prevent the spread of disease to southern U.S. ports. Failure to do so risked another military intervention. With the Cuban president-elect standing before him, Santos Fernández demanded that the new political leadership “turn their attention even more than they have to the importance of our health problems,” for with the loss of sovereignty hanging over the island, “one would have to close their eyes to reason to not grasp that we will not have a country if we cannot maintain our public health.”

Daniel A. Rodríguez is assistant professor of history at Brown University.