Madhouse: Psychiatry and Politics in Cuban History

Madhouse: Psychiatry and Politics in Cuban History

Madhouse: Psychiatry and Politics in Cuban History

Madhouse: Psychiatry and Politics in Cuban History


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.


Before the days of shock treatment
and needles, píldoras and juice,
this place in Havana, banana plants
outside its windows, housed
the infirmed of spirit, the politically
incorrect. Everyone abandoned
here in this place, the house
of the incorrigible, lost more than
track of time …

—Virgil Suárez, “Mazorra, or House for the Incorrigible” (2005)

One December day in 1956, at a hospital just outside the city of Havana, the march of time came suddenly to a halt. The government hastened to cover it up, draping artificial lights in the sky to substitute for the sun and stars. The pretense appeared to work, at least for a while. Not until 1966 was the end of time recorded by a psychiatrist at the Hospital Psiquiátrico de La Habana, the mental hospital popularly known as Mazorra. The event was disclosed to him by a patient who had already declared herself responsible for several scientific innovations, including the atomic bomb and propulsion planes. Perhaps for that very reason, the Communists had begun to pursue her; the Russians, she was sure, had infiltrated her television and radio in order to steal her thoughts.

Just before time was brought to a halt, and a few months after she had first arrived at that hospital, the same patient had reported the existence of five dimensions, several of which were her exclusive domain among mortals. The fifth was a zone of particular interest: the terrain of indifference, “useful for everything.” There she was at once “Saint Barbara and all of the saints of the church; all of the virgins; Mary Magdalene, but unrepentant.” In the fifth dimension, she explained, “we have no life, we have nothing, and nothing,” she proposed enigmatically, “means everything.”

In the borderlands of indifference and on the margins of meaning lies Mazorra, primordial laboratory of the fifth dimension. Founded in 1857 in the twilight of the colonial period, Cuba’s largest psychiatric institution would become an icon of negligence and transcendence, a crucible of political . . .

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