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State of Ambiguity: Civic Life and Culture in Cuba's First Republic.

State of Ambiguity: Civic Life and Culture in Cuba's First Republic, edited by Steven Palmer, Jose Antonio Piqueras, and Amparo Sanchez Cobos. Durham, Duke University Press, 2014. 376 pp. $94.95 US (cloth), $26.95 US (paper).

The historiography on Cuba's republican period (1902-1958) has long languished alongside the growing historiography on the Wars of Independence and the revolutionary period. True, there are a few clusters of excellent studies on labour, race, and to a lesser extent, women and gender in the republican period. But for the most part, the period has either been caricatured as a failed experiment in democratic politics and a "neocolony" groaning under the weight of US exploitation, or else has been studied merely in order to understand the underlying structural conditions that gave rise to the revolution of 1959. (Eminent Cuban historian Jorge Ibarra's 1995 book on the republican period, translated into English as Prologue to Revolution (Boulder, 1998), epitomizes this approach.)

The new anthology State of Ambiguity: Civic Life and Culture in Cuba's First Republic happily makes an important intervention into this lacuna. The volume draws on historians from an unusually wide geographic base, particularly scholars based in Cuba, Canada, and Spain, and it thus benefits from engagement with a broad swath of historiography. The collection showcases the new themes and methods that characterize the emerging scholarship on the republican period, such as environmental history, urban history, the history of science, the politics of memory and memorialization, and various approaches to popular and elite culture. Collectively, the articles give us a sense of the richness of the period and the important historical work that still needs to be done.

Editors Steven Palmer, Jose Antonio Piqueras, and Amparo Sanchez Cobos provide a thought-provoking introduction that asks us to take republican history on its own terms. They ask that we see the republic "in terms of ambiguity rather than betrayal, failure, domination, or liminality" (11). Bookended by the end of Spanish colonialism and US occupation in 1902, on the one hand, and the 1959 revolution that would soon declare itself socialist, on the other, the period has defied easy categorization. Yet the editors quickly dispense with standard assumptions about Cuban exceptionality. Instead they point out the many parallels between Cuban history and that of other Latin American countries in the same period. They even find fruitful comparisons with interwar Germany, suggesting we view Republican Cuba as a "tropical Weimar" (7)--that is, a political experiment rich with possibility yet also circumscribed by political instability, the ascendancy of foreign capital, and the threat of foreign intervention. They highlight the remarkably promising set of political, social, and economic conditions that the newly independent nation enjoyed. Understanding why democracy ultimately did not flourish in the Cuban Republic should be, they suggest, a question rather than a foregone conclusion.

The diverse essays that follow are all interesting, which makes it hard to choose which ones to discuss here. Two particularly original contributions are the chapters by Marial Iglesias Utset and Alejandra Bronfman. Iglesias Utset's essay on the afterlives of the destroyed US battleship Maine explores the way memory and international relations intersected in the politicized memorialization of the ship's remains. Bronfman's creative exploration of early radio in Cuba charts the transition from a collective and public experience of listening to a private, domestic, and commercialized one.

Other essays return to existing questions in the historiographical literature through underexplored topics, new sources, and nuanced analyses. Reinaldo Funes examines the modernization of the capital through the lens of the regulation of slaughterhouses and dairies. Amparo Sanchez Cobos provides a reassessment of anarchism in the early twentieth-century labour movement. Rebecca Scott and Robert Whitney each draw on oral histories to show the ways Afro-Cubans and Antillean migrant workers respectively asserted their rights. Maikel Farinas' essay on Cuban rotary clubs raises important questions about the urban middle class, civic society, and statecraft. Ricardo Quiza's chapter on the Cuban Folklore Society sheds new light on intellectual life and culture in the 1920s, a "critical decade" in which racial and national identities were being rethought.

The volume might have benefitted from a conclusion to help readers reunite the various thematic threads that run through the essays. The editors might also have more explicitly justified why the volume explores only the so-called first republic (1902-1933) rather than the 1940s and 1950s, a period equally or perhaps even more neglected in existing literature. Still, these are minor quibbles. The book is an important addition to scholarship on an understudied yet crucial period in Cuban history.

So overall, what do we learn about the republic here? The essays give us greater insight into urban and rural class formation, racial and national identity, and the experiences of Afro-Cubans and Antillean migrants. Several authors note intriguing continuities as well as ruptures between the colonial and republican periods. And in general the volume captures the fact that culture and politics in this period were more complex and contested than we often allow. In the end, perhaps the principle lesson we come away with is that we will need far more scholarship on the republican period in order to fully understand it.


Michelle Chase, Bloomfield College
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Author:Chase, Michelle
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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