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Unearthing the Rebel Island: An Interview with Jennifer Lambe

Image via Cuban Research Institute

Jennifer Lambe (PhD, Yale University ’14; AB, Brown University ’06) is an Associate Professor of Latin American and Caribbean history. She is the author of Madhouse: Psychiatry and Politics in Cuban History (2017) and co-editor (with Michael Bustamante) of The Revolution from Within: Cuba, 1959-1980 (2019). 

Hiram Valladares Castro-Lopez: Your Rebel Island class analyzes the events, agents, and pressures that unfolded throughout centuries of history ultimately culminating in the emergence of the Cuban identity we know today. In a few words, what was the main message you wanted students to take away from your course? 

Jennifer Lambe: I think the message of the class, if I were to put it simply, is condensed in the title; it’s really an effort to understand the relationship between this small Caribbean island and its outsized global presence, as well as to understand why it is that over and over again Cuba seems to capture the world’s attention. I would say the argument of the course is that because so many powerful imperial actors have taken an interest in Cuba—in turning it into a model, colony, or site of intervention—from the British in the late 18th century to Spain, the United States, the Soviet Union, Venezuela, and beyond. Further, the course aims to highlight that these actors have both prompted and channeled domestic articulations of a distinctly Cuban revolutionary sensibility that is unimaginable without those foreign incursions and yet also has an ideological, even metaphorical autonomy with its own touchstones and figures. 

Matteo Papadopoulos: In July of 2021, Florida Senator Marco Rubio claimed that “There is no embargo on Cuba. Cuba is not isolated, and those who say otherwise either don’t know what they’re talking about, or they’re liars.” Do you agree or disagree with the senator’s statement?

JL: Well, I think we can safely say that the claim is not accurate. It would also be useful to note that when it comes to so many aspects of binational US-Cuba policy, there is the law and then there is the political discourse around the law. I think traditionally, when we want to deconstruct a claim that seems inaccurate, our first recourse is to say, well, “what is the law?” and then marginalize the political discourse around the law. But what I would say when it comes to the embargo, like almost everything else, is that the political discourse actually does work—it creates knowledge. And so, in part, I don’t think it’s an accident that what we know about the embargo and the travel ban is mediated by this long-standing political debate that has brought in constituencies all over the Western world and beyond. I would continue by noting that the embargo is, even as a term, disputed. In the United States, we call it the embargo; in Cuba, it’s called the blockade. And that might seem like a semantic difference, but it actually reflects two different understandings of what the embargo does: Does the embargo prevent US companies from economically engaging with Cuba, or does the blockade prevent other countries from economically engaging with Cuba? 

HVCL: As you mentioned in your class, negotiations between the United States and Cuba have occurred almost exclusively under tensions surrounding defense and migration. Currently, which of the two–defense or migration–do you believe is the main driver for negotiations? Do you foresee any other factors influencing diplomatic talks in the future? 

JL: Right now it’s all about migration—I don’t think there’s any question about that. We are now witnessing the largest out-migration from the island since 1959, or ever, maybe. As a result, we are seeing a limited resumption of US diplomatic consular services in Havana to do some of the processing of visas and other things that have, in essence, been suspended since Trump for a variety of reasons. As such, I think both sides see it as being in their own best interest to come to some kind of agreement as to what to do about this historic migration. What that usually means is the United States agrees to do the things that it was supposed to be doing anyway when it comes to processing visas and the Cubans in turn agree to accept deportees. So that’s the two-sided piece of this. 

This has happened multiple times before in the revolutionary period, where the two governments, in light of an overwhelming and kind of unfathomable out-migration, as we are seeing now, realize that they have to make some kind of common cause to deal with this pressing human problem. So it’s starting to happen now, and I think we’ll see the fruits of that very soon. Does it really deal with the underlying question of why 250,000 mostly young people have left Cuba in the last year? You can go to some lengths to stop them from leaving, but clearly there’s something else going on there that no level of international or binational communication is going to solve. 

HVCL: In the 21st century, Cuba’s presidency underwent two transfers of power for the first time since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution: first in 2006 with Raul Castro and later in 2018 with Miguel Díaz-Canel. What do these signify for the Cuban people and for the future of the island? 

JL: When Raul Castro first stepped into power, I think many assumed that he would not be a steward of important political and economic change, yet that is more or less what he became. He initiated a cautious economic opening that allowed, at least for a time, limited opportunities for economic self-assertion. When the normalization initiated under Obama came to an end, so much of what had begun to develop in this kind of interstitial period disappeared just as quickly as it had emerged. And it disappeared because of the pandemic, maybe above all; so much of US-Cuba relations depended on those bilateral flows of people and capital, which came to a complete halt. Relations were also extremely negatively affected by the tightening of remittance rules by President Trump. 

I think what the formal transfer of power means always has to be interpreted through the tangible effects it had on ordinary Cubans’ lives and political possibilities. So that’s one piece of things. I think the other thing to note is that Díaz-Canel does represent to me a pretty significant break. Raul Castro was not Fidel, but he was continuity. Díaz-Canel is one kind of continuity in that he was anointed from above rather than chosen by popular will. But he’s not a figure who enjoyed any particular sympathy or even name recognition among Cubans when he came to power. So I think it’s been pretty easy for Cubans to turn him into the face of everything that they believe to be wrong, which is not to say that Cubans don’t understand all the structural reasons for the predicament that Cuba finds itself in—they certainly do. But the fact that “Díaz-Canel Singao” became one of the slogans of the protest against Miguel Díaz-Canel is telling because something like that would have been unfathomable under Fidel. 

MP: What conditions do you believe need to be met on both the Cuban and American sides in order for the embargo to end? How do you think your students, as political denizens of the world, can help promote this change? 

JL: I think that the most categorical thing I can say is: Be informed, be wary of media sound bites, and understand that the Cuban media sphere has become so much more diverse and pluralistic than it used to be—not because the government has given the space for that to happen, but because people have seized that space. I would point to important outlets, like El Toque and others, that we can amplify in attempting to get to perspectives on the ground—that is to say, what life is like for ordinary Cubans. 

I don’t think the embargo is going to be lifted anytime soon, barring any major changes in Cuba, which, to be fair, could happen; I think there are many things we can’t anticipate. No one anticipated the “Cuban thaw,” and then, all of a sudden, there it was staring us in the face. It’s just difficult for me to see any action on the embargo right now given the challenges that the Biden administration is going to face for the next two years with a House under Republican leadership. I also think it’s unlikely that there will be any significant policy change when it comes to Cuba because, frankly, Cuba is an afterthought. I hate to put it that way, but that’s where things stand for the US government right now.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.