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  • "We Cubans Are Obligated Like Cats to Have a Clean Face":Malaria, Quarantine, and Race in Neocolonial Cuba, 1898-1940
  • Marc McLeod (bio)

In a paper presented to the Academy of Medical, Physical and Natural Sciences of Havana on December 14, 1923, Dr. Jorge LeRoy y Cassá identified the "unsanitary immigration" to Cuba of Haitians and British West Indians as his country's most pressing health problem. "Those undesirable elements," he contended, had introduced malaria, smallpox, typhoid fever, and intestinal parasites into eastern Cuba, maladies which then spread to the rest of the island. Through their "vices," "violent crimes," and "nefarious practices of brujería [witchcraft]," in fact, Afro-Caribbean immigrants constituted a "double threat"—moral as well as physical—to the health of the Cuban nation.1 Somewhat surprisingly, the man who was later hailed as the "Father of Cuban Sanitary Statistics" mustered no direct evidence to support his condemnation of West Indian immigration on medical grounds.2 But such proof was hardly necessary for his esteemed audience. Although the medical doctors and public health officials assembled before LeRoy y Cassá at the Academy of Sciences may have differed on the issue of prohibiting [End Page 57] Afro-Caribbean immigration outright, they agreed that mandatory quarantine of all black West Indians upon arrival in Cuba continued to be imperative. They promptly sent a delegation bearing LeRoy y Cassá's study to the Cuban president, Alfredo Zayas, alerting him to the "dangers" that such immigrants allegedly posed to the social and sanitary well-being of Cuba and to the responsibility that large sugar companies bore for importing such laborers into the country.3

The members of Havana's medical community appealed to the Cuban leader as the surge of laborers flooding eastern Cuba for the upcoming sugar harvest in 1924 was just commencing and, more importantly, in response to a growing debate over the practice of isolating, examining, and observing Antillean immigrants for a period of fifteen days after they arrived in Cuba. Compulsory quarantine was instituted in 1916 at the behest of public health officials amidst concerns that malaria was reaching epidemic proportions on the island. It applied only to black West Indians, not to any other immigrant group. Afro-Caribbean immigrants increasingly objected to the exclusive nature of the quarantine program as well as the conditions they were forced to endure at the main quarantine station located at Cayo Duan in the bay of Santiago. A string of complaints and violent incidents in 1923 prompted Haitian and British diplomats to protest the quarantine measures to the highest levels of the Cuban state, even threatening to prohibit further emigration of braceros (laborers) to Cuba.4 To many Cubans, however, conflict at Cayo Duan only confirmed that Antillean immigrants represented a severe threat to public order and health on the island, and that placing them under prolonged detention and medical observation prior to their entering the country was more than justified. "It is well known that these elements are the origin of infectious diseases, they cover the rooms they inhabit with filth, they live in infected and stinking cabins in their rags and tatters," claimed an article in one Havana newspaper. "Haitians and Jamaicans detest water, and hygiene for them is but a myth."5 The Cuban Secretary of Health and Welfare inspected the quarantine grounds in 1923, admitted that "sanitary arrangements were very defective" there, and promised to remedy the problem.6 Cuban officials eventually made improvements at Cayo Duan by the end of the 1920s, but the warnings issued by LeRoy y Cassá and his medical colleagues did not go unheeded. The controversial quarantining of West Indians continued until the end of the decade, when the flow of immigration to Cuba itself had all but ceased. [End Page 58]

Recent scholarship on the history of disease in Latin America has stressed that meanings of sickness and health are culturally constructed and open to contestation. In a review essay on the topic, Diego Armus identifies three strands of analysis that predominate in this subfield of Latin American historiography: the new history of medicine and epidemics, the history of public health, and the sociocultural history of disease.7 This study...


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