A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba

A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba

A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba

A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba


After thirty years of anticolonial struggle against Spain and four years of military occupation by the United States, Cuba formally became an independent republic in 1902. The nationalist coalition that fought for Cuba's freedom, a movement in which blacks and mulattoes were well represented, had envisioned an egalitarian and inclusive country--a nation for all, as Jose Marti described it. But did the Cuban republic, and later the Cuban revolution, live up to these expectations?

Tracing the formation and reformulation of nationalist ideologies, government policies, and different forms of social and political mobilization in republican and postrevolutionary Cuba, Alejandro de la Fuente explores the opportunities and limitations that Afro-Cubans experienced in such areas as job access, education, and political representation. Challenging assumptions of both underlying racism and racial democracy, he contends that racism and antiracism coexisted within Cuban nationalism and, in turn, Cuban society. This coexistence has persisted to this day, despite significant efforts by the revolutionary government to improve the lot of the poor and build a nation that was truly for all.


More than thirty years had passed when, in the summer of 1993, a white, upper-class Cuban-American woman from Miami returned to the island for a visit. She was greeted there by her former maid, now retired, a black woman who was the mother of two children: an engineer and a medical doctor. It was an emotional encounter, full of common memories and mutual happiness. But when the unavoidable issue of a post-Communist Cuba came up during the conversation, the black ex-maid asked: “Will my children be maids again?”

Will her children be maids again? A reflection of the anxieties typical of the early 1990s conjuncture, when Cuban society entered its worst crisis since the revolutionary triumph of 1959, this question also reflects Afro-Cubans’ long-standing anxieties over political changes more generally. Together with other disadvantaged social groups, Afro-Cubans have been traditionally dependent on state actions for economic and social opportunities. Government policies can either create avenues for blacks’ and mulattoes’ inclusion in the nation or preclude their participation in areas of the country’s economic, social, and political life. Whereas some of the elements of the 1990s crisis were without precedent, the apprehension with which Afro-Cubans perceived the possibility of impending political changes was certainly not.

These anxieties were based not only on the impact that government changes can have on the daily lives of ordinary citizens but also on the knowledge that political transitions in Cuba’s modern history have often resulted in racially defined social tensions, even violence. Given the centrality of race in the construction and representation of the Cuban nation, this is hardly surprising. It is during periods of crisis and transformation, when competing visions of the nation and its people openly clash for legitimacy and consolidation, that the place of Afro-Cubans in society has been more vividly contested. Some social actors have seen these periods as opportunities to minimize blacks’ access to the polity and to the most desirable sectors of the economy. Others, including many Afro-Cubans, have seen them as possibilities to advance José Martí’s dream of a racially egalitarian republic, a nation with all and for all.

Although Martí’s vision remained an unfulfilled project in the early 1990s, the Cuban revolutionary government had taken significant steps toward turning his dream into a reality. The poor had enjoyed substantial social . . .

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