At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Afro-Cuban sector accounted for approximately 30 percent of the total Cuban population. Early in the nineteenth century, the proportion had attained nearly 50 percent, as imported African slaves formed the vital manpower requirements for the constantly expanding and ever-exhausting sugar industry. While the foundations of a viable Cuban nation were being constructed, Afro-Cubans, enslaved as well as free, contributed significantly to every aspect of colonial Cuban society, politics, economy, and culture. But with the attainment of political independence, the young nation’s leading intellectuals and politicians began to reassess the role of the Afro-Cuban. The African heritage increasingly became a liability, not only to individuals, but also to the state. And this reassessment reached a climactic point in 1912, when the Cuban government, with the support of the United States of America, decided that its black population should be seen and not heard.

Política y color en Cuba, somewhat inappropriately subtitled La guerrita de 1912, surveys the frustrating and eventually frustrated attempts of segments of the Afro-Cuban population to establish themselves as fully free and equal citizens of the Cuban state. The book covers the period from the Ten Years War (1868-1878) to the abortive attempt of Pedro Ivonnet and Evaristo Estenoz to fashion a revolutionary political party based on race, color, and a few of the ideas of Jose Martí. The narrative flows swiftly and smoothly, and touches just about all the basic concerns of the black Cuban population during that stormy period: slavery, war, political enfranchisement, the intrusive, dominating influence of the United States of America, and the aggressive, often violent, politics that were the nature of the new state.

Rafael Fermoselle devotes about one quarter of the book to the uprising of 1912, an event about which very little has previously been written. For Fermoselle, the war was symptomatic of the state of Cuban society and politics. Personal and political ambitions were high. Administrative efficiency, integrity, and honesty were scarce. Expedience suffocated principles. Bureaucrats from the United States as well as Cuba considered public office a prerequisite for private gain.

In this situation, the Afro-Cuban faced a particularly agonizing dilemma. The Cuba of that time was neither the place, nor was the early twentieth century the time, to articulate a policy of party politics based on color and race. The size, variety, and geographical distribution of the Afro-American population militated against that. But within the imposed form of political democracy introduced by the North Americans, only such an appeal could consolidate and effectively elevate the vast majority of the Afro-Cubans to the level of political sophistication necessary for efficacious political participation. Moreover, the black Cuban found himself in a vicious political circle: the more his political aspirations became frustrated, the more he appealed to color as the basis for mass action. The more the appeal to color, the less general sympathy he evoked from either blacks or non-blacks. This, in any case, was the experience between 1902 and 1912. The ultimate resort in the latter year to force as a political catalyst was a desperate move, which was doomed to failure.

This book does provide a convenient, if at times unreliable, review of the struggle and status of the black population in Cuba during a critical period of its development. Its shortcomings, however, are manifest. It is much too descriptive at the expense of explanations. The author has a tendency to be assertive without substantiation. And, overall, there is very little new information for anyone reasonably specialized in the field. One problem, of course, derives from the nature of the study. Black politics was often conspiratorial politics—and consequently the published manuscript sources are extremely scanty. Even so, some available sources were not consulted (though it is admitted that they might have had merely peripheral impact on the conclusions), and this reviewer does not share the confidence of the author in the value of Esteban Montejo’s memoirs. Fermoselle adds little to the vague information available on Estenoz, and even less on the background and thinking of Ivonnet. Despite its title, then, this work will be somewhat disappointing to those seeking an explanation for the war of 1912, and the failure of the Black Cubans to assert themselves in the political arena before 1959.