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Reviewed by:
  • State of Ambiguity: Civic Life and Culture in Cuba’s First Republic ed. by Steven Palmer, José Antonio Piqueras, and Amparo Sánchez Cobos
  • Jane M. Rausch
Palmer, Steven, José Antonio Piqueras, and Amparo Sánchez Cobos, (eds.) State of Ambiguity: Civic Life and Culture in Cuba’s First Republic. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.

The first Cuban Republic came into existence on May 20, 1902. It was organized by a constitution that accepted the principle of U.S. intervention in its internal affairs (known as the Platt Amendment) and was ruled by Tomás Estrada Palma. A few months later, in December, the Cuban government signed a Reciprocal Trade Act with the United States, tying ever more closely the fortunes of the republic to the U.S. economy. Created after nearly four hundred years as a Spanish colony, the new independent nation managed to survive under this somewhat unwieldy republican framework until it was replaced by the Constitution of 1940, but historians have generally considered this thirty-eight year era as a “failed” experiment. As the editors of this revisionist anthology explain, traditional scholarly assessments of the period fall into one of three categories and tend to frame its development in terms of what did not happen: first, that Spain failed to find a reformist solution to the colonial question; second, that the United States stopped Cuba from finding a route to national independence and social revolution; and third, that Cubans failed to attain clear independence or to build a robust democratic nation (p. 6). The main premise of this collection is “a need to revisit the Cuban republic on its own terms, in its own time, and with an eye to all segments of society, and to do so in a way that bridges the three historical solitudes discussed above” (p. 7).

To achieve these goals, the editors have assembled eleven essays by distinguished Spanish, North American, and Cuban scholars that offer new ways of thinking about the island’s late colonial and early republican period. Marial Iglesias opens the collection by demonstrating how the monumentalization of the wreck of the USS Maine, whose mysterious sinking in 1898 triggered U.S. intervention in Cuba, became a symbol of the fusion of the cultural experiences of the two nations, as well as the object of Cuban love/hatred for the U.S.-backed dictatorial manipulation [End Page 286] of public space. Following her essay are four studies that explore important continuities connecting the late colonial period to the republican era. Steven Palmer reviews changes in medical, health, and natural science research that built on discoveries between the 1870s and 1920s. Rebecca Scott shows that despite North American racism, the republic offered new possibilities for mid-level black and mulato leaders in addition to providing full voting rights for Afro-Cuban males. Reinaldo Funes discusses the ways that changes in milk and meat processing in Cuba brought dramatic gains in life expectancy and decreased infant mortality, while José Antonio Piqueras demonstrates that the traditional emphasis on so-called “Americanization” of Havana’s architecture overlooks the city’s rediscovery of Spanish colonial styles.

Amparo Sánchez Cobos analyzes the struggle of the working class that was infused and radicalized by massive immigration from Spain. Imilcy Balboa takes on the question of whether or not the absence of a rural middle class doomed republican democracy; Maikel Fariñas offers a pioneering study of the establishment of a Rotary Club network across the island that developed the capacity to intervene in local, regional, and national issues; Alejandra Bronfman considers the emergence of a public for radio broadcasting; and Ricardo Quiza’s study of the Cuban Folklore Society shows how it made possible the creation of new symbols that expressed the complex racial and gender reformulations of the public sphere. The final essay by Robert Whitney is an examination of the way Afro-Antillean migrants were kept from the enjoyment of labor and political rights during the Batista-dominated regimes of the 1930s, despite the successful implementation of the nationalization of labor laws passed by the revolutionary government of 1933.

Professors and graduate students concerned with the background to the Cuban...


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