Fulgencio Batista - Why History Will Absolve Him

Fidel Castro’s death in late 2016 has focused attention on the former Cuban dictator’s career. Castro’s success in establishing and maintaining a Communist dictatorship 90 miles off the coast of the United States was a remarkable achievement. Unfortunately, this and associated successes were achieved at the Cuban people’s expense. By examining the history of the proceeding Batista regime, a perspective will hopefully emerge which illustrates how Castro deceived the Cuban people and the world at large to establish a cruel and unnecessary totalitarian dictatorship.

 This biography, of Castro’s predecessor, Fulgencio Batista is based on an earlier version written by David Paul Bennett which appeared in August 1996 in the Melbourne based publication, The Sentinel.

One of the myths perpetuated by the extreme Left since Fidel Castro came to power in January 1959 is that contemporary Cuba is a dynamic and politically vibrant nation. Whatever Castro's past and present successes in promoting international discord, the current domestic Cuban political scene is staid and uneventful, as befits a totalitarian nation where all politics were controlled by Fidel Castro and subsequently his brother Raul. This situation starkly contrasts with the fluidity, passionate dynamism and complexities of pre-Castro Cuba, which were personified by the major figure of that by-gone era, Fulgencio Batista.

Because the Castro regime's political repression is too brazen and apparent to deny, apologists for it have asserted that this has been offset by the tremendous achievements that have allegedly resulted in higher living standards. To help justify this warped logic, the excesses of Fulgencio Batista's career have been grossly exaggerated, his positive achievements ignored and in the process his important role in Cuban history negated. It is the purpose of this article to redress this historical vilification.

Spanish Colonial Rule and 'Yankee' Intervention: Their Respective Legacies

Until 1958 Cuba had a potent political tradition of competing political parties and activism. This tradition can be traced back to 1876 with the promulgation of a new Spanish constitution. Mid to late nineteenth century Spanish politics were immersed in dynastic struggles and ensuing wars of succession. The only substantive issue that lay outside this paradigm was that of Cuban autonomy. Cuban representatives in the Spanish Cortes (Parliament) were successful in drawing attention to the cause of Cuban Home Rule. A notable figure who took exception to this constitutionalist approach was the poet Jose Marti, of whom Castro claims to be a disciple. Such a claim, while ridiculous and insulting, is not surprising, because the major ideological issue in Cuba up until 1958, was not that of free market economics versus state intervention, but what Marti stood for and which party and/or leader could claim his mantle. It was his death in combat in 1895 which sparked Cuba's War of Independence.

The United States' military intervention, at the point at which Cuba was about to break free from Spain and the ensuing four year occupation (1898-1902), became a tremendous source of national frustration which is still to be fully exorcised from the Cuban psyche. Upon terminating its occupation, the United States retained the right to intervene in Cuban affairs so as to protect American properties and investments under the notorious Platt Amendment. If the aim of this amendment was to provide stability, then it proved to be counterproductive. 

The new nation was polarized between the Liberal and the Moderate parties (the latter metamorphosised into the Conservative and eventually the Democratic Party). Consequently, a pattern developed whereby the losing party in an election, instead of accepting the result, would stage a revolt in order to provoke American intervention. Despite the economic boom that Cuba enjoyed following the First World War (which spawned a not inconsiderable middle class), American dominance, both real and imagined, as well as racial unrest amongst the Black African minority, served to retard Cuba's development of a positive national identity.

Frustrated Nationalism Spawns the Dictatorship of Gerado Machado

A milestone in Cuba's struggle for self-assertion was seemingly reached in 1924, when a successful businessman, independence hero and retired general, Gerado Machado of the opposition Liberal Party was elected president. He pledged that his business acumen would raise the standard of living and, most importantly, that he would bring true independence to the island republic. Machado launched a vast and unprecedented public works programme.  A less benevolent innovation of his was the establishment of Cuba's first secret police and the subsequent imposition of a dictatorship in 1927. The trappings of democracy were maintained but their hollowness was evident in Machado's purge of the ruling Liberal Party and of the opposition Conservative Party. Machado justified these dictatorial acts on the basis that they promoted stability thereby denying the Americans a pretext for intervention.

Cuba's New Class: 'The Generation of 1933'

Machado (as is the case with Castro) was only interested in holding power for the sake of having it. His regime's brutal suppression of student demonstrations in September 1930 spawned the 'Generation of 1933'. This caste would maintain their profile in Cuban politics for a quarter of a century between Machado's fall in 1933 and Castro's rise to power in late 1958. In the aftermath of the suppression of the student demonstrations, a clandestine and predominately middle class organisation called the ABC was founded. Between 1931 and 1933 both actual and suspected members of the ABC were hunted down by Machado's secret police.

Sergeant Batista's Emergence

Some of the dissidents that were apprehended were tried (if they were relatively fortunate enough) by military tribunals. It was as a court stenographer, that a young Sergeant Batista was first exposed to and gained an invaluable insight into the dark side of Cuban politics. In 1921, at the age of twenty, Batista entered the Cuban army and by 1928 he had risen to the rank of sergeant, which was as far as someone of his humble background could expect to reach.

The ill effects of the Great Depression, combined with the corrupt Machado's unpopularity, precipitated massive and violent ABC-instigated riots in July 1933. In the face of this explosion of unrest and the Roosevelt Administration's hostility, Machado resigned and fled to Miami.

Due to the strong intervention of the American Ambassador Summer Wells, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes (whose father had led an abortive bid for independence from Spain from 1868 until his death in 1874 (the bid for independence continued until 1878) was chosen as the new provisional president. His elevation to the presidency was supported by the ABC, the National Union (an anti- Machado organisation which had emerged from a split from the Liberal Party) and other smaller parties. Cespedes’s assumption of the presidency was accepted, (but not actively supported) by the Conservative Party.

Despite Machado’s fall there was still a strong public groundswell for a radical break with the past and this was manifested by the lynching of Machadistas. The students at Havana University were at the forefront in demanding a significant shift. Their capacity to affect change depended on their success in making common cause with the disgruntled elements within the army.  During the unrest against Machado, a group of Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) were killed. As the chief orator at their funeral, Batista was able to project himself, and to gain acceptance as the champion of NCO concerns. From this position Batista helped lead a NCO mutiny demanding higher wages and better living conditions as a pretext to take part in the anti-Machado revolution.

The Revolution of 1933

Taking advantage of this discord, a newspaper editor, Sergio Carbo, made contact with the mutineers and helped persuade them to make common cause with the students to depose the faltering Cespades government. A five member junta (‘the Pentarquia’) succeeded Cespedes on an interim basis. However due to internal tension the Pentarquia did not function properly and the initiative subsequently passed to the Student Directory (Directorio Estudiantil), the leading student political organisation, which with Batista’s support, appointed the former Dean of Physiology, Dr Grau San Martin as president in September 1933. In his four-month stint as president, Grau made a profound impact on the public. His myopic, if not effeminate persona attracted widespread popularity because it contrasted with Machado's brutal machismo. The new president's declaration of 'Cuba for the Cubans' and his advocacy of what he termed 'Cubanism', which was essentially Yankee bashing, revived memories of the 1898 Revolution. For many, Grau had assumed Marti's mantle.

For Colonel Batista,(a promotion he received for 'services to the revolution' and which he would hold until promoted to the rank of General) Grau's first presidency provided a breathing space during which he could consolidate his hold over the army. This was accomplished in October and November 1933, when Batista crushed respective revolts by the army's hostile officer corps. By January 1934, with middle class opposition to Grau galvanizing and the continued threat of American intervention, the provisional president resigned. 

Grau's Resignation

Grau’s resignation and departure into exile polarized the nation. . For many people, Grau became an idol. Carlos Prio Socarras, who had been a prominent leader of the Student Directory, helped found the Revolutionary Party (later to be popularly known as the Autentico Party), which derived its popularity from its stated commitment of restoring Grau.  Another avowed adherent of Grau's, Antonio Guiteras, (who despite being lionized in contemporary Cuba, was in fact a vehement anti-Communist) organised the Joven Cuba, a militant revolutionary organisation which was also committed to restoring Grau. Needing a shield, Batista installed Carlos Mendieta, the leader of the National Union, as the new president.

Fulgencio Batista:  Cuba's New Strongman

The Mendieta regime was primarily composed of the more moderate elements of the anti-Machado opposition and they regarded Batista as a pliant tool who would help underwrite their rule. As army chief of staff, Batista concerned himself with bettering the living conditions of armed forces personnel (most of whom had received rapid promotion) and their families. Thus barracks were upgraded, pay hikes granted, health services and night school literacy classes provided for armed forces personnel.

Consequently when the Joven Cuba led by Antonio Guiteras took advantage of a teachers' strike in 1935 the army was committed and steady enough to crush the revolt. (Guiteras died in a shoot out with the army during this revolt). This abortive revolution highlighted the depth of the chasm between the Cuban government and the Cuban people.

Reform From Above

As a result of this repression, the congressional and presidential elections held in January 1936 were of little meaning to many Cubans. Nonetheless the restoration of constitutional processes was a positive development in that it helped promote a framework for later democratic progress. Meanwhile Batista was confronted with the dilemma of commanding a largely inactive army, which faced a substantial component of the populace which was hostile.  To surmount these interrelated challenges, Batista had over one thousand Escuelas Civico Rurales (Rural Public Schools) built to educate peasant families and these schools were also built in the most remote parts of the island. Army officers were active in establishing these schools and in teaching in them. Despite the much-heralded advances attributed to the Castro regime in eliminating illiteracy, Cuba already had a literacy rate of 80% in 1958.

By exerting pressure on the Congress, Batista ensured that the tax base was broadened so that social and public works programs (including the construction of Tuberculosis sanatoriums in the remote parts of the country) could be increased. Much of the military's reformist stance was influenced by the Roosevelt Administration's New Deal policy.  American/Cuban relations were considerably bolstered in 1934 with the repeal of the Platt Amendment. In the area of race relations, Cuba at this time was more advanced in this area than the United States. Batista (who probably had African ancestry) took strong exception to racial discrimination.  An important reason why Batista was not fully accepted by the political establishment and some of the middle class (even into his second presidency) was due to his mixed race ancestry.  

Nevertheless, by supporting the Association of Cane Growers Batista was able to mollify middle class reservations about his progressive orientation, whilst also undercutting American influence over Cuba's vital sugar industry. Consequently, in overall terms during the 1930s, Batista was able to reposition the role of the military from being the force that underwrote an unpopular elite, to an intermediary body which safeguarded the public interest.

Democratization and Reconciliation

Nonetheless, the high rate of voter abstention in the March 1938 mid-term congressional elections was a warning to Batista of continuing public discontent against the oligarchic political parties represented in the Congress. Realizing that new alliances had to be made, Batista legalized the Cuban Communist Party, which eventually constituted itself in the pre-Castro era as the Popular Socialist Party (PPS). Accordingly, the PPS was given a free hand to organize amongst trade unions and the Communists entered into a strategic alliance with the Batista regime. Of greater significance in terms of political re-alignments was Batista's reconciliation with the Autentico Party with Grau’s return from exile and his party taking part in Constituent Assembly elections which were held in November 1939. This Assembly was charged with the task of writing a new constitution.

These elections, in contrast to the previous year's congressional elections, were a positive milestone. The parties that took part ranged from staunch Machadistas to Communists. The party which made the greatest gains was the Autenticos as a result of the  personal popularity of the recently returned Grau. The Constitution of 1940, which the Constituent Assembly subsequently drew up, was highly democratic. It contained provision for a president elected for a four-year term, who was banned from succeeding himself for eight years. A quasi-parliamentary system was provided for with the creation of the post of prime minister. Provisions were made enshrining the right to strike, collective bargaining and compulsory paid holidays.   

Batista retired from the army in December 1939 and subsequently presented himself as a candidate for president under the 1940 Constitution. (Batista’s retirement laid the groundwork for an abortive military revolt in February 1941 by army officers who were alienated by their loss of power). The non-Autentico parties formed an alliance called the 'Democratic Socialist Coalition' which consequently rallied around Batista because he was considered to be the only figure that could defeat Grau. After fairly winning the June 1940 presidential election, Batista formed a broad-based cabinet, representing the parties which had backed him.

The most remarkable appointment was that of Dr. Juan Marinello of the PPS as Minister Without Portfolio. Marinello’s post was assumed in 1942, by another PPS stalwart, Carlos Rafael Rodriguez as part of a cabinet re-shuffle that occurred that year. The appointment of the then 27 year old Rodriquez was subsequently to become all the more amazing because he would later hold the position of vice-president of Cuba under Castro and for a time he was the third most powerful man in the country after Castro and his brother Raul. The PPS’s willingness to take part in the Cabinet of National Unity was due to the Soviet Union’s alliance with the United States during the Second World War. (The ABC Party also took the opportunity to join this new cabinet). As president, Batista strictly adhered to the new Constitution. Cuba's relations with the United States were strengthened by her declaration of war on the Axis in 1941. The onset of the Second World War generated a strong economic recovery and there were increased demands for Cuban exports, particularly sugar. Allowing US warships and aircraft to use Cuba as a base to refuel fostered further goodwill in terms of Cuban/American relations.

For many Cubans the real test of Batista's democratic sincerity was whether he would retire once his term expired in 1944. With the notable exception of the new Republican Party (which had split from the Democratic-Republican Party in 1942 and entered into an alliance with the Autenticos) the same parties that had backed Batista four years earlier, fell in behind his Prime Minister, Carlos Saladrigas, a one-time ABC stalwart and man of impeccable integrity.

Failed Expectations: Autentico Party Misrule - 1944 to 1952

Despite this united backing, Saladrigas unfortunately lost the 1944 presidential election to Grau. This upset victory can be attributed to the mystical, if not saintly mantle that had been attached to Grau's persona since his previous interlude as president. To general disbelief Batista handed power over to Grau and departed for four years of self-imposed exile. The nearly eight years of Autentico Party rule were to become the most corrupt that Cuba had yet experienced. Grau's unassuming personality conveyed the impression of humility and moral rectitude, but belied the fact that he was a highly manipulative and cynical character. During his four years in office, Grau and his sister-in-law extorted money and accepted bribes. This type of behaviour extended to the caste of the ruling 'Generation of 1933' and it became not uncommon for Autentico Party politicians to acquire palatial residences. 

In spite of high taxation rates during the period of Autentico Party rule, the government was often unable to service its commitments because taxation revenue was siphoned off to illegitimate activities. When Grau's term expired in 1948 his Education Minister, Jose Manuel Aleman brazenly absconded with millions of dollars. Having struggled mightily to gain power so as to advance the public good, the 'Generation of 1933' apparently regarded public money as their own. Grau's attempt to alter the Constitution to allow himself a second term caused a split within the ruling Autenticos and led to the foundation of the Cuban People's Party in 1947, which became popularly known as the Ortodoxo Party. Their leader was the charismatic but unstable Senator Eddy Chibas (whose oppositon to Grau had helped precipiatate his resignation as president in 1934).

Pressure from within the Autentico Party caused Grau to relent in his attempts to amend the Constitution and seek re-election. Grau then backed Prio's presidential candidacy as the Autentico Party standard bearer. Prio's presidential election in June 1948 was primarily because of his adroit distribution of patronage, rather than the electorate's endorsement of Grau's performance as president. A revealing aspect of the election result was that the runner up was not the flamboyant Eddy Chibas, but the Liberal Party's Dr. Ricardo Nunez Portuondo, a respected surgeon, who was supported by the then exiled Flugencio Batista who was elected in abstensia to the Senate.  It was also noteworthy that the PPS's candidate Juan Marinello came a distant fourth and last. Nunez’s strong showing was attributable to the exiled Batista. The corruption of Prio's regime exceeded that of his predecessor and the scourge of gangsterism continued to erode public life. It should be pointed out at this juncture that Batista has unfairly been portrayed as a front man for American and Cuban gangsters, (particularly with regard to his alleged links to Meyer Lansky). The caricature of pre-totalitarian Cuban politics as essentially a shell game for gangster bosses is inaccurate and insulting to the Cuban people.

The problem of gangsterism was derived from the deep involvement that crime gangs had in two ostensible student political groups at Havana University which were descended from Guiteras’s Joven Cuba the Socialist Revolutionary Movement (MSR) and the Insurrectional Revolutionary Union (UIR).  (Castro was a member of the UIL when he was a student at Havana University in the 1940s).  Grau’s action in bringing both the MSR’s and the UIR’s chiefs into the National Police in order to placate these gangs and subsequently align them to the Autentico Party was probably his worst abuse of power because it promoted an environment of general lawlessness and extortion.

Batista on his return to power in the 1950s terminated this private political gangsterism which subsequently resulted in some members of the UIR and MSR actually partaking in political activity by supporting anti-government insurrectionary groups (which were more often than not financed by the exiled Prio). In order to limit the scope of opposition to his regime Batista turned a blind eye to the gambling and smuggling of gangster bosses, such as the MSR chief Rolando Masferrer, in return for their foregoing extortion activities and not opposing his regime.


Batista Re-Enters the Fray

However, Batista’s return to power still lay in the future and in the interim Prio would prove to be a wily opponent. As president, Prio attacked Chibas and in the process began to win over the Liberal and Democratic parties from Batista.
Returning to Cuba in 1948, Senator Batista decided to run for president in 1952. To solidify his political base, Batista founded the Unitary Action Party (PAU) in 1949 as a vehicle with which to run for president. Rafael Diaz Balart, then Fidel Castro's brother-in-law led the PAU's youth wing. The PAU in contrast to the Liberal and Democratic parties identified with the Revolution of 1933, asserting that the corruption of the 'Generation of 1933' contrasted with Batista's positive record.

An important event during this period leading up to the scheduled 1952 elections which laid the groundwork for Castro’s rise to power in early 1959 was the suicide in August 1951 of the temperamental Eddy Chibbas which was precipitated by his failure to substantiate allegations of corruption against the government.

By contrast Fidel Castro, then a young lawyer and Orthodoxo congressional candidate was able to make credible charges of corruption against President Prio in January 1952. Castro did this with the calculation in mind that he could scare the president, who now feared that with public disgust against the corruption of his administration galvanizing in the wake of Senator Chibbas’s suicide, into aborting the 1952 presidential election.  Castro correctly calculated that a frightened President Prio would enter into an arrangement with Batista if the former president attempted to return to power in a coup before the 1952 vote. While a deposed Prio would subsequently have to go into exile for a period of time, he knew that Batista would leave his considerable property holdings untouched and allow him to later return from exile to again participate in national politics. For Castro, whose credible allegations of corruption against President Prio were aired in the Batistano newspaper Alerta, the benefit to him of a Batista return to power via a military coup was that he would then be able to consequently generate support for a revolution against an initially non-constitutional government.

As Cuba approached what would have been the historic elections of June 1952, the man who seemed to hold the balance of power was the Mayor of Havana, Nicolas Castellanos, the leader of the Cuban National Party (PNC). Batista reached an understanding with Castellanos that whichever party, out of the PAU and the PNC, had the most members would support the other party’s candidate for president in the 1952 elections. As the capital's mayor, Castellanos held the second most powerful and lucrative position in Cuba (after the presidency). Having declined Grau's offer to be the Cubinandad Party's (a short-lived Autentico breakaway political party) presidential candidate, Castellanos fell in behind the Autenticos.

With Castellanos’s return to the Autentico Party fold Grau re-united his party in February 1952 with the Autenticos. The previous month both the Liberal and Democratic parties pledged their support to the Autentico Party presidential candidate, Carlos Hevia. His glaring point of attraction was that he was about the only apparently honest senior Autentico Party figure. However, as Castro had anticipated due to the credible charges of corruption which he (Castro) had made against the president, Prio was now too frightened to risk the June 1952 elections from proceeding. Prio's fear that the opposition might win the 1952 election was also increased by the relentless anti-corrupotion campaign which was being waged by the Orthodoxo Party's presidential candidate, Roberto Agramonte.

   10th March, 1952: Batista's Surprise Return to Power and his Recycled Regime's Shaky Underpinnings

 Accordingly, as Castro had engineered and anticipated, President Prio entered into a secret deal with Batista whereby the latter returned to power on March 10th 1952.  This coup was launched by Batista from the Columbia Barracks  where he asked the assembled officers (most of whom were old comrades) to support his coup. For dramatic theatrical effect, Prio on hearing that the Columbia Army Barracks had raised the vertical five colour standard of the blue, white, red, yellow and green flag of the 1933 Revolution, fled to Matanzas Province. After Batista had taken control of the capital, Prio then returned to Havana from where he departed into exile.

 The coup was accomplished in seventy-seven minutes with only three (accidental) fatalities and this swiftness was due to the decadence of Autentico Party rule and Prio’s covert co-operation. Other than Prio's banishment (and a nominal ban on the PPS, so as to gain US diplomatic recognition) there were no arrests, let alone executions upon Batista assuming the post of Provisional President, although Castellanos was dismissed as Mayor of Havana.  The new government forged a close relationship with the Central Organisation of Cuban Unions (CTC) who, simialr to their leader Eusebio Majal, had previoulsy been aligned to the Autentico Party. The CTC, beside the army became the other pillar underpinning the regime. Meanwhile, Batista's second wife Marta established and headed a quasi-official charity. Despite the ease of the coup (or perhaps because of it), the seeds of the second Batista regime's demise were implanted. This was because the 1952 coup had occurred as a result of the machinations of Fidel Castro so that he could make the case for a revolution against a government which had come to power by a military coup. 

Fidel Castro Gains Prominence

Consequently on the 26th of July 1953 Castro launched his famous attack on the Moncada Barracks in the port city of Santiago. The attack was more comical than heroic, but still very tragic due to the number of people who died as a result of it. Castro, as Hitler had done following his failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, turned the situation to his advantage when he was placed on trial.  In contrast to contemporary Cuba, where there are some political prisoners serving terms of up to thirty years for the mildest forms of dissent, Castro and his cohorts received a fair trial. From the dock Castro utilized his extraordinary oratorical talents when he delivered a speech in his defence, later entitled "History Will Absolve Me". Castro’s cause consequently received nationwide publicity. Sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment, Castro was sent to the Model Prison on the Isle of Pines. There he was treated in a decent fashion befitting the prison's name and even allowed to maintain a correspondence with his political contacts on the outside. Castro launched his attack in 1953 for the calculated reason that it was the centenary of Marti's birth. The Batista Government organised a year of national celebration to commerate Marti's birth. This policy of glorifying Marti is the only one of Batista's that the Castro regime has continued. On another level, after he had returned to power Batista launched an extensive public works programme, thus reversing the breakdown in services that had occurred under the Autentico Party. 

Having ruled Cuba for two years as Provisional President, Batista scheduled elections for November 1954. Co-opting local government officials who had previously been aligned with the the Authentico Party, Batista re-launched the PAU as the Progressive Action Party (PAP) and used the Crane bird as his mascot. The opportunistic Grau offered himself as the opposition candidate to Batista as a means of reclaiming the mantle of Autentico Party leader from the exiled Prio. Realizing that he had no chance of winning, Grau withdrew his candidature the day before polling. The balloting (in accordance with the 1943 election code) was honestly conducted and farily won by Batista despite a boycott by the mainstream of the moderate opposition.

Shortly after his inauguration for a four-year term as president in February 1955, Batista took the unfortunate and tragic step of releasing Castro, who shortly thereafter departed for Mexico. Batista's decision to release Castro and other political prisoners was part of a general amnesty which was solicited by the opposition parties and the public. This release of political prisoners was made on the premise that the restoration of constitutional processes constituted a return to normality and the government’s political opponents would consequently take the opportunity to oppose him within constitutional parameters.

Batista's Second Presidency: Positive Achievements

As a constitutional president once again, Batista exercised his prerogatives within institutional constraints. The government launched a National Program for Economic Development which encouraged foreign investment (most of it American, but also including French and West German investment) and the promotion of light industry (so as to boost permanent employment) and these policies led to a consumer boom. Using the leverage of increased investment opportunities the government lobbied the United States to increase its quota of purchases of Cuba's sugar crop. In the realm of industrial relations, the government took a strong pro-labour stand by supporting wage increases for unionised workers.  

Alas however, the National Program for Economic Development had the utlimate effect of President Batista digging his political grave because the opening up of foreign investment opportunities to new non US sources alientated the powerful American business community which was based in Cuba.  This powerful sector would later stupidly give its support to the Castro led insurrrection and explains why the Eishehower administration subsequently naively supported a covert communist in the person of Fidel Castro.  However, the high economic growth rates which the National Program for Economic Development generated seemed at this pont to insulate President Batista against any potential backlash for having  originally returned to power via a military coup.  


The Descent

Nevertheless, it at this time when Batista seemed to be at the pinnacle of his career that the painful descent commenced. The question therefore emerges, why such a promising government was to later so ignominiously and dramatically fall. An important piece in this jigsaw puzzle was Batista’s mis-handling of talks with the opposition in March 1956 which became known as the ‘Civic Dialogue’. President Batista’s intermediaries negotiated with representatives from opposition parties, who had assembled under the banner of the Society of Friends of the Republic (SAR) which was headed by the elderly and highly respected independence war hero, Cosme de la Torriente. This dialogue was actually a dialogue of the deaf due to the irreconcilable differences and expectations between the respective negotiating parties.

President Batista conceptualized the talks as an entry point for the mainstream opposition parties to acknowledge the legitimacy of his regime and consequently take the next step of opposing it within a constitutional framework.  The president expected that the Civic Dialogue would result in the moderate opposition undertaking not to prosecute either him or any of his supportes should they pariticipate and win the 1958 national elections.  

From the SAR’s perspective the talks were a means by which the Batista administration would immediately forgo power in favor of a new provisional government without even conceding legal immunity for Batista or his supporters for having returned to power via the 1952 military coup.  The primary reason for the collapse of the Civic Dialogue was Prio’s role (he had returned from exile in August 1955) in sabotaging them in order to create a revolutionary situation. Prio calculated that by supporting an ensuing anti-Batista revolution that the public would overlook his misdeeds in office. Actually, the main beneficiary of the collapse of the Civic Dialogue was Fidel Castro because this created exactly the revolutionary environment which he had sought to engineer by manipulating events which had orignally led to the March 1952 coup.

The inevitable collapse of the talks resulted in the opposition announcing that they would boycott mid-term 1956 congressional elections. In response to this boycott announcement, Batista committed one of the worst mistakes of his second presidency, by canceling the  mid-term congressional elections. Although President Batista committed himself to holding the 1958 presidential election (in which he was constitutionally barred from standing) the failure of the Civic Dialogue and cancellation of the congressional elections served as a rousing confirmation to the broad mass of the Cuban people that the Batista regime was self-serving and could only be removed by force.

With the considerable benefit of hindsight Batista should have proceeded with the mid-terem congressional elections and instigated a break with the three junior parties in the ruling Progressive Coalition, the Liberal, Democratic and Radical parties so that there was a safety valve of electoral activity.

A violent revolutionary cycle ensued shortly after the collapse of the Civic Dialogue. Between 1956 and late 1958 a myriad of revolts were instigated by a range of diverse revolutionary groups. These revolts and the groups do not warrant detailing, except to make the general point that they created the necessary environment for Castro’s phantom guerilla force to triumph in January 1959.

One of the most important revolts was the one that was undertaken by a new university revolutionary group, the Revolutionary Directorate (DR). The DR launched an audacious attack on the presidential palace on March the 13th 1957 which almost killed Batista and his family. This attack (which was funded and instigated by Prio) failed because Batista kept his nerve. Although a subsequent loyalist rally drew an estimated quarter of a million people before the presidential palace to show their support for President Batista, the attack actually marked the beginning of end for the regime. This was because the 13th of March attack on the presidential palace demonstrated the regime’s underlying vulnerability and subsequently generated a revolutionary cycle of violence and turbulence which would bring Fidel Castro to power.

Castro himself landed in Oriente Province in December 1956 and then proceeded to the remote mountainous Sierra Maestra. The yacht that Castro and his party returned on, the Granma, was purchased by Prio's ill-gotten funds. (During his exile, the ever scheming Prio wanted to establish a base of operations in Haiti and he subsequently helped finance the election campaign of a Dr. Francois Duvalier. Prio also made a pact with the Dominican Republic’s dictator Rafael Trujillo, but this later fell through).

Castro's guerilla campaign has been mythologized as a military epic. The truth is somewhat different, as there were no more than three hundred combat deaths during the two-year insurgency.  Being the skilled propagandist that he is, Castro used his opportunities during his interviews with the New York Times journalist Herbert Mathews in the Sierra Maestra to convey the impression that his insurgency was more potent than it actually was.  Castro's real achievement was primarily political in that he was able to make his 26th of July Movement into a heterogeneous organisation due to the bonanza of the Mathews-generated publicity. The 26th of July Movement was similar to the old ABC as it was organized on a cell basis and was highly effective in conducting a campaign of disruption in urban centres through selective assassinations, industrial sabotage, infiltration of government agencies, violent demonstrations and the kidnapping of foreigners.

Che Guevara, an influential 26th of July Movement strategist observed that the more the regime resorted to repression, the more people would turn against it. The nature of the struggle was class based, because most of the ranks of the 26th of July Movement were drawn from the middle class, while the personnel of the secret police, the SIM (the Military Intelligence Service) were drawn from humbler backgrounds and they were consequently motivated by class resentments.

The ‘excesses’ that army officers committed in the 1950s were derived from the anger which they felt at seeing fellow officers being indiscriminately killed by terrorist actions committed by 26th of July Movement partisans. This lack of respect for human life set the scene for the Castro regime’s brutal repression.

 Internal Contradictions

As the democratic space narrowed, the Batista regime became more corrupt as it needed to maintain the support of the security forces. The nature of the societal divisions, which underpinned Castro's rebellion, also existed within the army. Throughout 1957 Batista refrained from launching an offensive against the rebels in the Sierra Maestra because the Batistiano officers and the NCOs on whom Batista relied were professionally incapable of undertaking successful sustained offensive action. The professionally trained officers may have been competent, but President Batista distrusted them too much to allow them a free hand.

There were also deep divisions on the Castro side and had Batista exploited them, (the way that Castro was exploiting the government's) his regime might have survived. Even as Castro's reputation as a Robin Hood fighting Batista's Sheriff of Nottingham grew, it was apparent to some Cubans that a Castro triumph might not usher in a democracy. From the Sierra Maestra there were reports of executions of 26th of July Movement partisans for minor breaches of discipline and that Castro (later titled the 'Maximum Leader') demanded absolute loyalty from those he led. Castro's authoritarianism created strains between him and his liberal, predominately middle class operatives who were the backbone of the rebellion. While this tension might have proved fatal, even then, Castro displayed a remarkable knack for turning adversity to his advantage.

Castro's Duplicity

The unsuccessful general strike of April 1958 is officially regarded in contemporary Cuba as the greatest setback in the struggle against Batista. The truth however is that the strike's failure enabled Castro to consolidate his power over the 26th of July Movement and subsequently hasten Batista's demise. The organizers of the strike were the liberal elements within the 26th of July Movement. Although Castro pledged his support to them, he delivered none. The Batista Government's determined and brutal response, combined with the crucial support that it received from the CTC ensured the strike's failure. The resulting leadership vacuum in the 26th of July Movement was filled by ardent Fidelistas, while the strident measures that were taken to crush the strike solidified middle class opposition to Batista.

Fortified by the crushing of the strike, Batista ordered the professional officer corps to engage and wipe out the rebels in their Sierra Maestra base. That the June 1958 offensive failed was testament to Castro's success in exploiting the army's weaknesses. Throughout his guerrilla campaign, Castro emphasized in his radio broadcasts his commitment to constitutional democracy and his distaste at fighting the honorable elements within the army, whom he hoped would unburden him by overthrowing the Batista 'tyranny'. This form of psychological warfare was highly successful; the officers in combat were often negligent in pressing their advantage. During the June offensive Castro maintained cordial contacts with officers such as Major Quevedo(who later served as Castro's military attache to the Soviet Union) and this helped sabotage the offensive. This cultivation of the army concealed Castro's real intentions, for on coming to power he would destroy that institution, even executing those officers who had maintained their distance from Batista and in the process helped to deliver Castro victory.

The failure of the June offensive seemed to herald Batista's demise. The impression that the historical tide was against Batista had seemingly been confirmed when the Eisenhower Administration placed an arms embargo against his regime in March 1958, which did much to undermine army morale. Nonetheless, Batista fought on, prophetically convinced that a Castro victory would mean a permanent dictatorship for Cuba. Meanwhile Castro held back, developing his psychological advantage and waiting for the time to strike when the army began to disintegrate from within. The timing of when matters would reach their climax, hinged on the success of Castro’s election boycott campaign.


The Tragedy of the 1958 Election Boycott


Castro realized that a clean election would short-circuit his revolutionary route to power and despite his declared and explicit commitment to constitutional democracy he pronounced all-inclusive death sentences against running candidates in the November 1958 general elections. The leading opposition presidential candidate, Carlos Marquez Sterling of the electionist wing of the Ortodoxo Party, the Free People’s Party, (Grau's candidacy and his wing of the Autentico Party were too discredited to be taken seriously), courageously defied the strong election boycott movement because of his fears for the long term prospects for Cuban democracy should Castro prevail.

The success of the 1958 election boycott movement was mainly due to Prio’s success in assembling the main moderate opposition figures in the Venezuelan capital in July 1958 to sign the Pact of Caracas. By ensuring a boycott of the 1958 elections, Prio as with the case of his sabotaging the 1956 Civic Dialogue, paved the way for Castro to subsequently come to power via a revolution. The election victory of the PAP's Andre Rivero Aguero (who had initially built a political base in the Cuban Liberal Party but had followed Batista into the PAU in 1949) was due to the success of Prio’s and Castro’s boycott movement. Rivero had previously served as prime minister and his humble background, apparent financial probity and administrative competence (Cuba maintained a high economic growth rate despite the political turbulence during this period) made him the most credible candidate that the regime could offer.  Had Rivero assumed the presidency he intended to hold elections in the second half of 1959 to a constitutent assembly to revise the 1940 Constitution and then hold early presidential elections once the constitutional changes were in place.  The benefit had such a 1959 poll taken place (as had occured in 1939 when there were elections to a constituent assembly) was that it would have allowed the Rivero government to gauge its actual level of support without having to immediately forgo power.  

(Cuba's contemporary communist rulers could also simiarly politically adapt by holding direct democratic multi-party elections by secret ballot to a constituent assembly to ascertain their genuine support base without immediately having to forgo power so that they could make strategic adjustments).  

Not only was it unfortunate that Rivero was unable to proceed with elections in 1959 to a constituent assembly, but it was also tragic that the overwhelming majority of the Cuban people forewent the opportunity to vote for an impeccable democrat in the person of Carlos Marquez Sterling because he could have saved them from the totalitarian future that remained in store. Marquez Sterling had an ambivalent political relationship with Batista, which reflected the latter’s ambiguity as a democrat. (Marquez Sterling had been the president of the Constituent Assembly which had produced the 1940 Constitution). Although Marquez Sterling had commenced his political career as an anti-Machado Liberal he finished it as an avowed Ortodoxo due to that party’s democratic bona fides. (Marquez Sterling’s presidential candidacy was also supported by minority factions within the ruling Progressive Coalition).

Castro’s success in seducing the overwhelming majority of the Cuban electorate to boycott the November 1958 presidential election was testament to his charisma (which entranced many people around the world). For all Castro’s personal magnetism, it is highly improbable that the Cuban people would have courageously rallied to his cause had they actually known that he was a totalitarian dictator in-waiting. The overwhelming support that Castro enjoyed at this point was also due to his masterstroke in publicly designating Manuel Urrutia as the future provisional president of Cuba.

Urrutia was a respected former judge who was a staunch democrat, avowed anti-communist and someone who was known to be committed to free and democratic elections. (Unfortunately, from the very beginning of his tenure as president, Urrutia ignored violations of the Cuban Constitution, including the policy of mass executions, thereby providing Castro with sufficient scope to consolidate his de facto dictatorial power). The cabinet that Urrutia assembled, which held nominal power in 1959, was the most honest and talented in Cuban history. However the Urrutia presidency would be nothing more than a useful front for Castro which enabled him to establish a police state.

A crucial prerequisite to Castro’s establishment of a permanent dictatorship was the bloody purge he undertook in eliminating hundreds of Batistianos so that his ‘Rebel Army’ displaced Cuba’s regular army. For this reason the execution of Batistiano ‘war criminals’ was an immediate priority for Castro on him taking de facto power.

The final and fatal missed opportunity which enabled Castro to assume dictatorial power was American ambivalence about granting Batista asylum in the United States so that a military junta which had Prio's support could take power in order to thwart Castro. In December 1958 the Cuban president point blank asked the official American envoy to Cuba, William Pawley if he could formally and officially offer him and his family political asylum in Daytona Beach, Florida.  Pawley’s reply that he was not officially authorized to offer asylum on behalf of the American government denied President Batista an expeditious exit which might have forestalled the immediate catalyst for Castro’s revolutionary seizure of power. Furthermore, from Miami Batista might have exercised a degree of political influence because his outgoing Machadista vice-president Dr. Guas Inclan could have secured a Batistiano political base in a post-Batista democratic Cuba. This was because Inclan was due to assume the post of Mayor of Havana which he had been elected to in November 1958. By holding the second most important position in Cuba many Batistianos would have taken refuge in Inclan’s Liberal Party.

Although the ostensible junior coalition party, the Liberal Party, due Batista’s role in protecting it following the 1933 Revolution, had always provided him (with the notable exception of 1952) with a reliable bloc. This  along with the voting bases of the other parties in the ruling Progressive Coalition, in conjunction with Castro’s and Prio's successful boycott campaign, had legitmately secured Rivero’s victory over Sterling in the 1958 presidential vote. 

The Regime Unravels

The stunning success that the Rebel Army enjoyed when it launched its December 1958 offensive was not due to its military prowess, but rather the breakdown in their opponent's morale due to overwhelming hostility toward the person of President Batista. The maxim that success in guerrilla war is not achieved by destroying your enemy militarily, but by destroying their morale was proven to be correct. Despite their overwhelming superior numerical strength, government units when confronted mostly surrendered, fled or defected.

Upon learning that the Army Chief of Staff, General Francisco Tabernilla had ordered General Eulogio Cantillo, who commanded operations in Oriente Province to meet with Castro behind his back, Batista decided to abandon power as quickly as he had once seized it. At the 1959 New Year's party at the Camp Columbia army barracks, Batista told his assembled guests of his immediate resignation. Batista took some of the guests with him and his wife (and those of his children that were still in Cuba), departing from Camp Columbia’s military airport.

Batista's Final Exile

Batista took initial refuge in the neighboring Dominican Republic from where he unsuccessfully attempted in August 1959 to instigate a liberation/invasion of Cuba.  This project (which  is not to be confused wiht the failed Bay of Pigs Invastion of April 1961) unnfortunately failed due to it being betrayed to the Castro regime by a double agent.  

At the time at which this attempted liberation of Cuba failed, Batista broke with the Dominican Republic tyrant, Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo, to depart for exile in Portugal in August 1959.  Trujillo had ambiguously treated the former Cuban president as half a prisoner and half a guest and it was therefore a great relief to Batista that he was able to depart from the Dominican Republic.

 During his fourteen-year exile Batista remained in contact with former cabinet ministers. In 1970 two of Batista’s principal émigré supporters in Florida, Rafael Diaz Balart and Roberto De Aragon, re-launched the four party coalition which had supported his second administration, the Progressive Coalition. By the time of Batista’s death in August 1973 the Progressive Coalition was clearly the strongest Cuban émigré organization in Florida despite Batista being denied entry into the United States.

The frustration of exile for Batista in addition to successes in emigre politics was also lessened somewhat by a number of factors, chiefly financial security, the time that Batista spent with his family, him becoming a practicing Roman Catholic, a deep interst in art and the solace that he found in writing. The two best known books that Batista published during his second exile are Cuba Betrayed and The Growth and Decline of the Cuban Republic. The latter book was aimed at highlighting the role, and arguing the case that the 1933 Revolution was in keeping with Marti's legacy and asserting that Castro's seizure of power was the antithesis of that tradition.

Indeed for all his faults*, an objective analysis of Batista’s career indicates that he brought Cuba closer in line with Marti’s vision of an independent, democratic and prosperous republic than Castro ever did. It was under Batista’s stewardship that the promises of the 1933 Revolution were being fulfilled: in 1934 the Platt amendment was abrogated, a democratic constitution was promulgated in 1940 and from 1955, Cuba due to the application of the Government’s National Economic Development Plan utilized, its geographical proximity to the United States as a strategic asset to assist Cuba becoming a developed nation with a diversified agricultural and industrial base.

(*The major fault of Fuglencio Batista was that while he was in power he siphonned off funds from public works programmes.  This was done by Batista not so much as a result of personal greed but so that he would have the resources to sustain a political base in the turbulent world of pre-totatitarian Cuban politicas. However, this practice of diverting funds for public works programmes had been undertaken by officials since the Spanish colonial era and Batista in contrast to other Cuban presidents always completed his public works programmes.  The corruption of the two Bastista regimes was not as extensive as Machado's or that of the two successive Autentico Party administrations.  Indeed, the corruption of those aforementioned administrations pales before that of the Communist era as Fildel Castro was named in the 2000s by Forbes magazine as one of the top one hundered wealthiest people in the world and Raul Castro has openly lived in a palatial mansion in Havana since the 1970s).  

By contrast, Cuba as a totalitarian state under Castro became overly dependant on the Soviet bloc with regard to its trading and financial arrangements. Consequently Cuba was dangerously exposed following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991. Utilizing the skills of brilliant technocrats such as Carlos Lage, Castro was able to stave off economic collapse. Nonetheless it is disturbing that Castro did not allow economic reform to be further advanced due to his concern that a civil society could emerge which could threaten his power. Therefore Cuba in a post-Soviet world is now even more dependant upon sugar as its major export and on tourism than it ever was under Batista.

To help convey that Cuba had regressed as a result of Castro coming to power, Batista, from his exile devoted much of his energy toward vindicating his legacy by writing books which extolled the virtues of his regime and attacking its communist successor. Castro himself had not forgotten his former nemesis. In August 1973 Castro dispatched a special agent, Tony La Guardia, on a secret mission to kidnap Batista and bring him back to Cuba for a show trial and subsequent execution. On the night that La Guardia arrived in Madrid, Batista died from a sudden and unexpected heart attack in Marebella, Spain.

(Interestingly, and brutally, Castro had Tony La Guardia executed in July 1989, along with General Arnaldo Ochoa, by scapegoating them for drug smuggling, because the Cuban dictator feared that they possessed the capacity to stage a successful military coup.  General Ochoa's execution alienated the Nicarguan leftist armed forces from Fidel Castro so that that nation's senior officer corps were prepared to accept the election victory in February 1990 of the democratic opposition.  Although the contemporary Cuban armed forces have been integrated into official structures, with senior officers serving on the Council of State, it would still be politically astute if the senior officer corps eventually disentangled themselves from the ruling Communist Party just as the Polish armed forces shrewdly did in the late 1980s/early 1990s.  The American Congress in considering whether to lift sanctions against Cuba should do so on the basis of there being progess with regard to democratic reform which the Cuban armed forces could paradoxicallyt be at the forefront of).  

Fulgencio Batista's Tragic Epitaph

That Fulgencio Batista Zaldivar continues to be reviled by history is testament to the scale of Castro's triumph over him. Batista might receive a more balanced and just re-appraisal should Cubans regain their freedom to objectively study and analyze their history. It was Batista's misfortune that his arch-nemesis Fidel Castro was such a formidable adversary. For Batista was not so much an evil man, as a tragic one, who ultimately destroyed everything that he tried to build.

More than anything, Batista craved acceptance and legitimacy. For that reason he fell into the trap which Castro had set for him and Prio in 1952 of staging a coup to avoid presidential elections being held that year.
While Castro may have been more able than Batista, his striving for absolute power illustrated that Castro's motivations are more basic. Hence Batista is a more complex historical character and a more detailed study of him might eventuate in history offering some absolution for his actions in relative terms and a critical appreciation that he too, similar to the Cuban people whom he attempted to serve, ultimately fell victim to Castro’s chicanery.

Dr. David Paul Bennett is the Editor of Social Action Australia.


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