Psychiatry and Politics in Cuban History

By Jennifer L. Lambe

344 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 20 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-3102-8
    Published: February 2017
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3101-1
    Published: February 2017
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-3103-5
    Published: December 2016

Envisioning Cuba

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On the outskirts of Havana lies Mazorra, an asylum known to--and at times feared by--ordinary Cubans for over a century. Since its founding in 1857, the island’s first psychiatric hospital has been an object of persistent political attention. Drawing on hospital documents and government records, as well as the popular press, photographs, and oral histories, Jennifer L. Lambe charts the connections between the inner workings of this notorious institution and the highest echelons of Cuban politics. Across the sweep of modern Cuban history, she finds, Mazorra has served as both laboratory and microcosm of the Cuban state: the asylum is an icon of its ignominious colonial and neocolonial past and a crucible of its republican and revolutionary futures.

From its birth, Cuban psychiatry was politically inflected, drawing partisan contention while sparking debates over race, religion, gender, and sexuality. Psychiatric notions were even invested with revolutionary significance after 1959, as the new government undertook ambitious schemes for social reeducation. But Mazorra was not the exclusive province of government officials and professionalizing psychiatrists. U.S. occupiers, Soviet visitors, and, above all, ordinary Cubans infused the institution, both literal and metaphorical, with their own fears, dreams, and alternative meanings. Together, their voices comprise the madhouse that, as Lambe argues, haunts the revolutionary trajectory of Cuban history.

About the Author

Jennifer L. Lambe is assistant professor of history at Brown University.
For more information about Jennifer L. Lambe, visit the Author Page.


"A definitive account of the ups and downs of this institution, as well as a tour of the horizon of Cuban psychiatry in general, documenting the arrival of psychotherapy, psychopharmacology, and the other great tides in the history of international psychiatry that washed up on these Latin shores."--Isis

“An important contribution to the understanding of Cuban history that bridges many historiographies, from scholarship of state formation and imperial politics to histories of gender and sexuality to the history of medicine.”--American Historical Review

“Destined to become mandatory reading for all of those interested in the history of psychiatry in Latin America and also, more broadly, for the general public interested in Cuban history.”--Hispanic American Historical Review

“Will serve as a launching pad for future researchers.”--Bulletin of the History of Medicine

Madhouse is a great study of one of the most important psychiatric institutions in the Americas. It is not only beautifully written in lively prose, but it displays depth of knowledge in medicine and science studies and great familiarity with all domains of Cuban culture and history. The book is also refreshing in the way it overcomes the typical division in Cuban studies among the colonial period, the U.S. occupation, the first republic, and the revolution. Jennifer Lambe's long view, spanning modern Cuban history, proposes an always contested and often tragic psychiatric institution, propelled by intrigue and experimental transformation, as a lens for viewing the fate of modern Cuba itself. The compelling results have immense implications for all areas of Cuban studies, from the history of sexuality, gender, and medicine, to the politics of reform, revolution, and everyday life.” --Steven Palmer, University of Windsor

"In 1857, a house intended for the social exclusion of insane Cubans was established on the lands owned by the slave trader Jose Mazorra, and a century marked by wars, corruption, and revolution turned the asylum into a 'pantomime in miniature' of an independent yet occupied island called Cuba. Mazorra was a racially complex and 'impure' social setting that doctors and politicians felt the need to rewrite as a morally uplifting journey towards physical health, if not democracy. That Jennifer Lambe has opened the archives of this tropical madhouse is our good fortune, because the story is so engrossing that readers will inevitably wonder whether these events are real. Madhouse is historical research at its best."--José Quiroga, Emory University