The Republic and Rise of Fulgencio Batista
US dominance and failure of reform
author Paul Boșcu, August 2017
A popular guidebook describes 1902 to 1953 in Cuba as the “Age of Decadence”. During this period, the country had a series of presidents who led corrupt and incompetent governments. Additionally, members of organized crime in the United States rubbed shoulders with the Cuban elite.
A popular guidebook describes 1902 to 1953 in Cuba as the ‘Age of Decadence’. During this period, the country had a series of presidents who led corrupt and incompetent governments. Also, during the years of US Prohibition, when alcohol was illegal in the United States, lavish Havana hotels, casinos and brothels became a destination for American pleasure seekers. Members of organized crime in the United States rubbed shoulders with the Cuban elite at these establishments. Soon organized crime was operating Havana’s casinos. American corporations owned most of the farmland, essential services, and sugar mills.

The United States used the Platt Amendment to send troops to Cuba several times to put down labor strikes, riots, and armed rebellions — activities which jeopardized American business interests. The Platt Amendment kept corrupt governments in power at the expense of civil liberties, which aroused the collective indignation of the Cuban people. The American government ignored their angry protests.

Under the provisions of the Platt Amendment, the United States obtained a permanent lease on Guantánamo Bay in southeastern Cuba and began construction of a naval base there. The United States still maintains the naval base, despite the hostility between the two countries today.

President Gerardo Machado was one of Cuba’s worst presidents. He relied on censorship, military force, and terror tactics in his last years, which coincided with a depression produced by the collapse of the world sugar market in 1930. Cuban discontent and US pressure forced Machado to flee Cuba for the Bahamas.

Fulgencio Batista led a brief revolt to take power shortly after Machado fled. Batista ruled Cuba as army chief of staff or as president until Fidel Castro’s revolution. He got the United States to revoke the Platt Amendment, and he instituted a liberal constitution. Nevertheless, Batista was an ineffective and corrupt leader. He hid bribery and extortion money in a bank account in Switzerland. He used a secret police force to root out, torture, and assassinate dissidents. He rigged elections and ignored the rural poverty, city slums, and crime that plagued the country.

As had happened a century earlier, Cuba experienced conditions that were ripe for rebellion. The reasons remained the same. Despite independence, the socioeconomic structure had changed little. The wealthy minority remained in control, while the landless peasants remained in poverty. Land reform and redistribution, yet again, were key terms that Cuban revolutionaries applied to attract public support and to begin fighting. This explains why Communism, with its perceived socioeconomic equality and care for the masses, eventually gained the interest of the Cuban people.

Under pressure because of rebel victories in the countryside, Batista fled from Havana to the Dominican Republic and eventually to a comfortable exile in Spain. One week after Batista left Havana, the charismatic Fidel Castro, leader of Cuba’s rebel army, entered the city a national hero.

Tomás Estrada Palma, a former teacher, rebel president and leader of the Cuban exiles in the United States, was elected without opposition as the first president of the newly independent Cuba. He curried favor with the United States and used patronage to maintain the support of various elite groups. Corruption, intimidation, fraud and graft became a staple of his administration. The Liberal Party led by José Miguel Gómez and veterans of Cuba Libre cried foul and organized a rebellion. Estrada was forced to resign and Cuba was occupied once again by US troops.

The Commercial Treaty of Reciprocity gave Cuban sugar and other agricultural products exported to the United States a 20 percent tariff preference and gave American products preferential treatment when exported to Cuba. This facilitated a growing American presence on the island that could be seen in clothing fashions, education, architecture, business practices, sport and leisure and the growth of language schools specializing in English.

Estrada Palma decided to follow the advice of some of his aides and seek re-election. Apparently Washington favored his decision, but the president had misjudged the situation. He not only lacked popular sympathy, but he had also alienated many of his initial supporters. The elections for the Cuban national legislature were marred by fraud. Estrada intimidated his opponent into withdrawing from the election and was re-elected president.

The rebels had 15,000 troops in the field against Havana and destroyed the communications network of the island so as to isolate the small Rural Guard units. The Rural Guard, created by the United States during its first occupation of the island, amounted to nothing more than police units designed to protect the property of wealthy landowners and was not capable of fighting the rebels. Not having a standing army to counter the rebels, Estrada asked President Theodore Roosevelt for support.

Roosevelt dispatched Secretary of War William Taft to Havana to negotiate a settlement between the two parties. Taft was unimpressed with Estrada and believed that he should resign. He also came to the conclusion that none of the Liberals were capable of governing the country. Estrada and his supporters in the Cuban legislature resigned, and effectively left Cuba without a government. Two thousand US Marines landed in Havana the next day. Cuba was once again occupied by the United States.

President Theodore Roosevelt placed Charles Magoon, the former governor of the Panama Canal Zone, in charge of the American occupation. Magoon, with support from the Liberals, created a permanent standing army while preserving the function of the Rural Guard. Magoon believed that a large standing army would serve to deter any internal rebellion and provide the necessary political stability for US strategic and economic interests. Magoon also reformed the electoral system by developing qualifications for voters and candidates for public office. The second occupation lasted three years.

Magoon believed that this standing army would eliminate the need for the use of US troops in Cuba. The United States provided supplies, weapons, training and advisers to the Cuban military. Cuban officers began attending service academies in the United States.

Election boards were created to maintain the lists of eligible voters. A racist immigration policy was adopted by favoring whites, in particular Spaniards, and restricting races of color into Cuba. The sinecure system was expanded to pacify elite groups within Cuba. By the time the Americans left, elite opposition to US dominance had, for the most part, come to an end.

Magoon granted several major public works contracts to American firms and continued to work on infrastructure improvements such as roads to the tobacco-growing region of Pinar del Río.

The second American intervention, in spite of its briefness, had a profound impact on Cuban life. Brought about by themselves, it seemed to justify Cuban doubts about their capacity for self-government. It undermined Cuban nationalism and reinforced the 'Plattist mentality' of relinquishing final political decisions to Washington.

Local and national elections were held. Not surprisingly, José Miguel Gómez, the Liberal Party candidate, was elected president and the US occupation ended. Miguel Gómez, in one of his first public acts, reinstated the traditional rural social pastime of cockfighting. Public corruption and graft increased, especially in the awarding of government contracts. Officers in the army who were loyal to Estrada were dismissed. This practice of politicizing the military came to be a permanent feature in Cuban politics. The United States continued to influence and in some cases to interfere in the decision-making process on the island.

Cuban newspapers received government subsidies or grants and could not be relied on for objective reporting. The national lottery was reinstated and provided the government with money for patronage purposes.

Officer appointments and commissions were based on loyalty to the ruling Liberal Party, although factions appeared between the supporters of Gómez (Miguelistas) and the supporters of Vice President Alfredo Zayas (Zayistas).

The US government periodically reminded Gómez that failure to protect the life and property of US investors could lead to an intervention. For example, President Taft squelched an attempt by Great Britain to gain a contract to build a railroad between Nuevitas and Caibarien. He offered new loans to the Cuban government with conditions that increased US control over the Cuban treasury and he finalized the Guantanamo Treaty, which gave the United States a naval base on the island.

A congenial, popular man, the president showed respect for democratic institutions, opposed direct American intervention in national affairs and demonstrated, by becoming rich and allowing others to follow his example, how politics could become highly profitable. Nicknamed 'the Shark', he inaugurated an era of public corruption.

The so-called 'Veterans question', was prompted by the permanence of Spanish or pro-Spanish elements in public positions which the veterans of the war for independence considered rightfully belonged to them. The agitation to expel these 'enemies' of Cuba became so threatening that American Secretary of State Philander Knox warned Gómez of the 'grave concern' of the United States. Opposition from many Cuban groups, fear of another American intervention, and some government concessions contributed to calm the veterans.

The Independent Party of Color (Partido Independiente de Color; PIC) had been organized in response to growing complaints against the fact that the economy was dominated by foreigners and white Cuban elites. The primary purpose of the party was to defend the interests of black Cubans. PIC was led by Evaristo Estenoz, a former slave and veteran of Cuba Libre and the Liberal Party uprisings. PIC started a revolt, especially in the eastern part of Cuba. The revolt was crushed by the Cuban army with the help of the US Marine Corps. This was the last race-based uprising in Cuba. With presidential elections approaching, Gómez announced he would not seek re-election.

Black or mixed-race Cubans made up about 30 percent of the population in 1907 and were the majority in the relatively large cities of Santiago, Jovellanos and Guantánamo. Black and mixed-race people had twice the illiteracy rate of whites, were underrepresented in the professions and most practiced either African religions or religions that represented a syncretism between Catholicism and the African religions.

With the passage of a law in the Cuban senate that banned all political parties based on race, PIC led an uprising consisting largely of labor strikes and demonstrations throughout the island. Panic spread, especially in Havana, where the fear of the ‘Negro uprising’ was greatest. The army was able to put down the uprising rather quickly except in Oriente Province where the largest number of black and mixed-race Cubans lived.

The United States, fearing destruction of American property, sent the battleship USS Nebraska to Havana and landed US Marines in Daiquiri (Oriente Province). Four thousand black Cubans under the command of Estenoz were defeated in a battle and the uprising quickly disintegrated. After this defeat, black elites and politicians tended to associate with the existing political structures.

The split of the Liberal Party, between supporters of Gómez and Zayas, led to the election of Cornell University-educated General Mario García Menocal as president. He was the manager of the huge Chaparra sugar mill and plantation, and leader of the Conservative Party. Menocal, who had strong support from the US government, was even more corrupt than Gómez. He pursued several loans from the United States and began a purge of Liberal Party supporters within the military. With the beginning of the World War, European sugar beet production came to a standstill. This allowed Cuba to become the largest exporter of sugar in the world.

More land came under sugar production, including some of the virgin forests of cedar, mahogany and mastic in Pinar del Río. This led to a labor shortage and the need to import laborers from Haiti, Jamaica and China. Another outcome of the Cuban sugar boom was the merger of sugar mills and plantations with companies that were large users of sugar such as Coca-Cola.

Continued divisions within the Liberal Party coupled with a fraudulent election count allowed Menocal, the US favorite, to win re-election during the war in Europe. The election was marked by violence. Candidates and election board officials were shot. As many as fifty people died in pre-election violence. In the end, Menocal won an election in which more votes were cast than the number of people who were eligible to vote.

Miguelista and Zayista military officers with Liberal Party politicians plotted a coup against Menocal and the Conservatives. Even though they were able to seize control of Camaguey and Santiago for a short period, the coup failed largely due to their inability to seize the main military camps (Camp Columbia and La Cabana) in Havana. Five hundred US Marines landed in Santiago and occupied Guantánamo, El Cobre, Manzanillo and Nuevitas. The American Marines stayed in Cuba for six years.

Zayas, who had been expelled from the Liberal Party by Gómez, was elected after joining forces with the Conservative Party under Menocal. Menocal’s support was won with the promise that Zayas would support him in the next election. Menocal was also able to buy off Gervasio Sierra, the leader of the growing trade unionists. The threat of officer purges should the Liberals win the election was used to gain military support for Zayas. Cuba’s economic problems resulted in a growing nationalism that expressed itself in resentment toward US interference in Cuban affairs.

Alfredo Zayas was elected with the military’s support. The military harassed and intimidated Liberal Party leaders and voters. In some areas, the military was used to supervise and rig the election outcome. This effectively eliminated the power of the Liberal governors in these areas. In some districts, more votes were cast than there were voters. By this time, it was clear to all that the Cuban military could determine the outcome of an election.

The economic crisis caused many big investors to withdraw their accounts from Cuban banks, which were already overextended in loans. The entire banking system was near collapse when the US government sent Albert Rathbone, a financial adviser, to Cuba. Rathbone stayed two weeks, and recommended a US loan to the Cuban banking system.

Almost all Cuban banks ran out of money, many Cuban-owned sugar mills had to be sold to foreigners, principally Americans, and every sector of the population felt the impact of the economic disaster. The crisis, however, had its positive results. Many Cubans became aware of their nation's vulnerability to external economic forces, and of the extent of American domination.

Newspaper articles and cartoons depicted Zayas as a puppet of the United States. This nationalism would eventually spill over into demands for an end to the massive political corruption and a call for greater social justice on the island. Zayas was able to take advantage of this nationalism and negotiate the return of the Isle of Pines to Cuban control.

Faculty at the University of Havana complained of Cuba’s educational backwardness and began demanding greater support for university programs that would be more attuned to the development needs of the island. University students were not only influenced by their faculty, but also by the Mexican and Russian revolutions and the success of the students in Argentina during the Cordoba reform movement. They began to speak out for the less privileged sectors of Cuban society.

In the mid 1920s the Conservatives nominated Menocal again while Zayas threw his support to the Liberal Party candidate Gerardo Machado. A former cattle thief and member of Gómez’s cabinet, Machado won the fraudulent election by promising ‘roads, water and schools’ for Cuba. American tourism increased dramatically. New US-owned hotels and restaurants catered to American tourists. During the American prohibition era, large numbers of bartenders and bar owners moved to Havana. Cubans came to adopt the American consumer culture. Machado banned opposition parties.

By this time, American influences in Cuba were readily visible. US racist policies that were put in place during the first occupation continued to have an impact on the social norms of the island. Resident Americans and businesses openly practiced discrimination against people of mixed-race and African heritage. This practice was increasingly found among Cuban businesses as well.

US tourist agencies advertised Cuba as a tropical paradise where Americans could indulge themselves in actions that were forbidden at home - gambling, playing the lottery, drinking or romancing with an exotic lover. Horse racing, boxing, prostitution and baseball became prominent features of the Cuban landscape.

American films were well known and became extremely popular throughout Cuba. Movie advertisements helped sell American beauty products, clothes, cigarettes, breakfast foods, beverages and detergents. US department store chains, such as Woolworth’s, appeared in major Cuban cities. The rapid expansion of electrical power during the 1920s fed the growing demand for American appliances. Radios became a highly sought after item for almost all Cubans.

Machado quickly moved to gain both control and support of the military and the opposition politicians. Military officers supportive of Menocal were quickly retired and replaced with machadistas. Promotions and appointments were contingent on loyalty to the governing party. Other officers were bribed with extra pay and benefits.

Without real political opposition and amidst collective praise, Machado ruled as no other Cuban president had before. On the pretext of abolishing the right of presidential re-election, a pro-Machado elected Constitutional Assembly extended presidential terms to six years and invited Machado to accept a new term in power. Then Congress passed an Emergency Law prohibiting presidential nominations by any other than the Liberal, Conservative and Popular parties, which had all nominated Machado.

Machado’s decision to seek an extra term was met with student demonstrations and riots and labor unrest across the island. Machado quickly closed Havana university and exiled the Spanish labor leaders as undesirable aliens. Endorsed by President Calvin Coolidge, Machado won an uncontested, fraudulent election.

The Great Depression devastated the export-oriented sugar-dominated Cuban economy. Economic hard times set the environment for the growing opposition to the increasingly repressive Machado government and his secret police, the porra. This also alarmed the United States. The opposition to Machado centered along two major groups: labor and students. This opposition took the form of an urban underground that waged a war consisting of strikes, work stoppages, demonstrations, assassinations, gun battles, bombings, riots and propaganda.

The Wall Street crash in October 1929 drastically altered the balance of forces in Cuba. Wages fell and unemployment soared. The economic crisis eroded Machado's popularity and encouraged the opposition to openly defy the regime. Machado continued to assassinate militant labor leaders while trying, unsuccessfully, to capture control of the labor organizations. As the depression deepened, labor became more militant and 200,000 workers went on strike.

A more radical and secretive group led by middle-class professionals called the ABC (note that the meaning of the letters is unknown; the group was simply known as the ABC) was founded with the goal of killing Machado. This group, led by Harvard-educated Cuban intellectuals, adopted the terrorist technique of assassination through bombings. They published a manifesto demanding limits on US control of Cuban land, nationalization of public services and an end to large landholdings on the island.

The Confederación Nacional Obrera Cubana (CNOC), the first national labor organization, was created in 1925 and had 71,000 members by 1929. The CNOC included the newly created communist party of Cuba known as the Union Revolucionaria Comunista (URC) which was renamed the Popular Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Popular; PSP). It was led by the Spanish communist Jose Miguel Perez and student leader Antonio Mella.

Students, many of whom were the sons, grandsons, daughters or granddaughters of those who had fought in Cuba Libre, had entered the political arena during the Zayas administration. The University Student Directorate (Directorio Estudiantil Universitario; DEU) was formed in reaction to Machado’s decision to seek another term. It organized a large demonstration that ended in a riot and the death of DEU leader Rafael Trejo. This student opposition movement came to be known as the Generation of 1930.

Labor or working-class groups in Cuba were located primarily in the export-oriented foreign-owned industries, so that labor unrest was not simply a domestic issue. Labor unrest among the tobacco, sugar, construction, railroad and dock workers brought the possibility of US intervention and had historically been repressed by the various Cuban governments after independence.

The Cuban military was called on by Machado to carry out more and more of the repression against the opposition. Those charged with activities against the government were often tried in military courts. Students and faculty members of the University of Havana were arrested on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government. Among them was Ramón Grau San Martín, a popular physiology professor.

Newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt decided it was necessary to act. Fearing a threat to American investments, Roosevelt sent diplomat Sumner Welles to mediate between Machado and the opposition. Welles’s decision to talk to the opposition legitimized these groups and empowered them to play a major role in a post-Machado government. When Machado rejected the mediation efforts, Welles threatened to withdraw US support for the government and hinted at the possibility of an armed US intervention. Machado and his cabinet resigned. General Herrera became the interim president, who quickly turned the presidency over to Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the son of the hero of Cuba Libre and the favorite of Welles and the US government.

Cuba was ready to collapse into anarchy. Welles suggested a plan in which Machado and all his cabinet would resign except General Alberto Herrera, the secretary of war, who would become the interim president until a civilian could be selected. The purpose of US policy in Cuba was twofold: first, to end conditions of political instability and second, to recover control over Cuban markets.

Realizing that the United States no longer backed Machado, the Cuban military became concerned about its repressive activities in support of Machado and there was growing fear of an anti-military backlash in a newly constituted Cuban government. After receiving a promise from Welles and the other opposition leaders that any future government would not engage in retribution against the military, the local commanders at military installations in Havana told Machado they could no longer support him.

Vengeance against the supporters of Machado, the porristas and the police was carried out with impunity in the streets of Havana and across the island. The ABC hunted down and murdered as many porristas as possible by staging neighborhood executions complete with witnesses and drum rolls. In rural areas, wealthy landowners were threatened by workers.

This American-backed deal was not received well by some of the opposition. Céspedes and his cabinet were viewed as non-reformist, made up of individuals perceived to be extremely pro-American, and did not have representatives from some of the major groups that had fought against Machado.

Céspedes’s refusal to do away with the 1901 constitution, which included the Platt Amendment, provided enough evidence to the opposition groups that he was standing in the way of the more progressive and nationalistic reforms for which they had fought. There were increasing demands to purge the military officer corps of its machadistas. When upper-level officer vacancies did occur, Céspedes filled them with supporters of former president Menocal rather than with current junior officers. Sergeants would no longer be allowed to fill vacancies at the junior officer level. This led to a revolt staged by Cuba’s future leader Fulgencio Batista.

At Camp Columbia in Havana, the mixed-race Sergeant Fulgencio Batista, upset with the order that would restrict the promotions of enlisted men to junior officer positions and a proposed reduction in pay, led a mutiny against the officers and seized control of the camp. Enlisted men at La Cabana joined the mutiny. The sergeants’ revolt clearly had racial overtones as a white officer corps tied to a corrupt government was replaced with predominantly non-white noncommissioned officers and enlisted personnel.

The soldiers' protest immediately received support from anti-government groups. Student leaders of the DEU arrived at Camp Columbia and persuaded the sergeants to expand the movement. Civilian intervention changed the nature of the NCO protest and transformed a mutiny into a putsch.

The 'sergeants' revolt', as the mutiny later became known, was originally possessed of less ambitious objectives. The sergeants planned a demonstration only to protest against service conditions, specifically poor pay, inadequate housing facilities and rumored cuts in the enlisted ranks. Having unexpectedly found themselves in a state of mutiny, effectively in rebellion against the government, there was little enthusiasm to return to the barracks under the existing regime. The students offered an alternative.

With the cabinet fearing an attack and Céspedes in Oriente observing a hurricane, the opposition student groups met with Batista and signed the ‘Proclamation of the Revolutionaries’, which called for a restructuring of Cuba’s political and economic systems based on justice and democracy. Céspedes turned over the government to a five-man group. The five-man ruling group dissolved when one of the members of the group promoted Batista to colonel and commander of the army. Batista then met with students and created a new government. The students proclaimed Ramón Grau San Martín, a university professor, president of the Republic.

Ambassador Welles, viewing the ruling group as ‘frankly communistic’, began organizing the opposition groups, including the deposed officer corps. He asked Roosevelt to send naval ships to Cuba. The new president represented the hopes of the nationalistic students, the Generation of 1930, who saw themselves as finally realizing the dreams of José Martí. The government abrogated the Platt Amendment.

Other initiatives included granting women the right to vote, establishing twelve week maternity leave for working mothers, mandating employer-provided childcare for infants and prohibiting the practice of firing women from their jobs simply because they were married. These ‘leftist’ actions were not supported by the United States or American businesses in Cuba.

Fear that the combination of political intrigue and disarray in the army command would result in the collapse of public order prompted the government to promote Fulgencio Batista to the rank of colonel and appoint him as army chief. He was instructed to commission new officers in sufficient numbers to maintain stability in the armed forces. The purge of the old officer corps was also a political triumph for the army and a personal victory for Fulgencio Batista.

Sumner Welles recommended that the United States should not recognize the new government. The officer corps, which had taken up residence in the magnificent Hotel Nacional, continued to refuse to negotiate with Batista. Batista declared the officers to be deserters, and brief hostilities broke. The officers surrendered. With this victory and the subsequent victory over an ABC-led revolt, Batista had strengthened his position as commander. In fact, Welles had already come to believe that Batista represented the only authority in Cuba capable of preserving stability and protecting US economic interests. Batista installed Carlos Mendieta as president.

Welles was replaced by Jefferson Caffery who began working with Batista to get a government in Cuba with which the United States could work. Machado had outlived his usefulness. The order and stability which he had provided during his first term, and which had won Washington's support for his re-election, had collapsed.

Welles was well aware of the deepening contradictions within the provisional government. The sergeants' revolt, Welles reminded Washington, did 'not take place in order to place Grau San Martín in power'. He added that the 'divergence between the Army and civilian elements in the government is fast becoming daily more marked' and as Batista's influence grew 'the power of the students and Grau San Martín diminished'.

Batista realized that the United States would never recognize Professor Grau’s government. In the middle of the depression, he knew that sugar exports to the United States were crucial to Cuba, thus recognition by the United States was essential. Batista informed Grau that the army was no longer able to support him.

A general strike led Batista to install Carlos Mendieta, the US favorite, as president of Cuba the very next day. Five days later, the US government recognized the new Cuban government, although most realized that the real power in Cuba was Batista and the army. To the Generation of 1930, it also became quite clear that for a revolution to succeed in Cuba it would have to take on the United States.

With the belief that the crisis in Cuba was over and that Batista and the military were more than capable of protecting its interests, the United States abrogated the Platt Amendment in May 1934. This was consistent with Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America. He declared that the United States would no longer intervene in the internal affairs of the countries of this region. Of course, this only referred to outright military intervention.

This policy reflected the growing reality that the United States could exercise as much, if not more influence by manipulating the growing economic dependence of the region as it could through outright military intervention.

With the old political institutions largely discredited, the new civilian government of Cuba became more and more militarized over the next few years. The military was used to suppress labor strikes with the support of the United States and the economic elites of the island. Opposition to the militarization of the government appeared with students from the Generation of 1930 and national labor organizations. Violence reappeared in the streets.

As strikes hit the transportation and utility industries, military personnel stepped in to replace the striking workers. In order to prevent the possibility of strikes by government workers, the government made them all military reservists who were under military supervision during any type of political unrest. Utility companies would often only hire people who were military reservists.

In the provinces outside Havana, the military commanders controlled virtually all government functions. The military continued to provide protection for the sugar plantation owners. These landowners often provided lists of labor leaders and suspected troublemakers to regional military commanders who would arrest them.

Batista's prestige increased throughout the 1930s as he restored order and stability. Washington found in the Pax Batistiana sufficient cause to continue diplomatic support for the dictator's puppet presidents and shadow governments.

Some students created the Partido Revolucionario Cubano, also known as the Autentico Party. The Autentico Party was led by Grau, who was living in exile in Mexico. Other students, believing that only violent methods would lead to success, joined the Joven Cuba led by Guiteras. Joven Cuba led an urban underground war against Batista similar to the one waged against Machado.

Economic conditions improved through the 1930s. Gradually Cuban sugar recovered a larger share of the US market, although it would never again attain the prominence it had enjoyed.

In the mid 1930s Miguel Mariano Gómez, son of the former president, was elected president. He assumed that he had full authority and immediately began appointing his loyal supporters to military and government positions and dismissing individuals who had gained their jobs largely due to the influence of the army and Batista. These actions clashed with Batista, who pressured the congress to impeach Gómez. He was successfully impeached. Federico Laredo Brú, the vice president, assumed the presidency. He, just like Mendieta, was merely a figurehead, as Batista and the army continued to function as a shadow government.

Batista began catering to labor by providing pensions, insurance and a minimum wage. The government approved a sugar tax that provided funds for a civic-military school system in rural areas with military personnel serving as teachers and schoolmasters. The military directed rural programs that provided healthcare, housing assistance to orphans and support for the elderly. These activities improved life in rural Cuba.

The progressive constitution of 1940 was written by an elected assembly. The new constitution represented a New Deal for Cubans. That same year, Batista was elected the first president under the new constitution. The Batista government collaborated with the United States during World War II and received increased economic aid for agricultural and public works programs and loans to increase its sugar crop. Near the end of the war Grau became the new Cuban president, while Batista moved to Florida.

Student representatives of the Generation of 1930, such as Eduardo Chibas, were rewarded with a very progressive document that guaranteed the protection of civil liberties and women’s equal rights. It provided for extensive social welfare provisions, paid vacations for workers and minimum-wage guarantees. It also guaranteed the autonomy of the University of Havana.

With Batista’s arbitrary dismissal of the police chief in Havana, military officers became anxious. Fearing a military intervention led by army chief Jose Pedraza, the United States intervened by insisting that political stability and the support of Batista were of the utmost importance to it. This demonstration of American support cut short a plot to overthrow Batista.

Cuba and the United States signed no less than nine military agreements during the war. Most of these allowed the United States to use Cuban military bases. German submarine activity in the Caribbean actually sank several sugar tankers.

Batista had restored civilian control over the government of Cuba. He had won the confidence of the wealthy elite, labor and many other groups. Corruption and graft were still common throughout the government as Batista left office and moved to Florida. He lived near the headquarters of mafia leader Meyer Lansky, whom he had met and befriended in the 1930s. Batista was now an extremely wealthy man.

Grau, representing the Autentico Party and promising everyone ‘a pot of gold and an easy chair’, was elected president. It was made very clear to him by Batista that he should not do anything to threaten the Cuban military. In fact, Grau won the trust of the military with the support of the United States. He expanded professional development programs, raised the pay of the enlisted men and arranged for more Cuban officers to attend US military academies.

Grau benefited from high sugar prices, and production in 1946 reached its highest level since the depression. He placed a small tax on sugar that financed public works programs, especially roads. Havana’s population expanded dramatically in the 1940s while US investments in light industry in the city also expanded. Grau encouraged the formation of unions. He betrayed the revolutionary and nationalistic ideals that he had exhibited by presiding over one of the most corrupt governments in the history of Cuba. Street violence reappeared in the form of organized crime-related confrontations.

J. M. Bens Arrarte, a specialist on Cuban architecture, estimated that Grau spent almost $80 million annually on public works projects that built parks, roads, houses, schools and hospitals, roads in Havana’s suburbs and upgraded water and sewage systems. These programs provided jobs for the sugar workers in the offseason.

The lottery, the sinecure system, kickbacks from public works contracts and gambling, and outright thefts or misappropriations of public funds were all used to enrich the government’s supporters. Because of the low salaries paid to the majority of government employees, corruption permeated every level of government. It became the way of doing business in Cuba.

Gun battles in the streets of Havana, assassinations, kidnappings and violence on the University of Havana campus became common as the remnants of the more violent anti-Machado groups and the Joven Cuba maneuvered to take advantage of the widespread corruption. These pistol-bearing action groups were used by various parties and government officials to intimidate and gain support for their corrupt activities.

The Autentico corruption under Grau was so great that the charismatic Eduardo Chibas, the son of a wealthy family from Guantánamo , former Autentico Party leader, created his own Ortodoxo Party. Making ‘honor against money’ as his slogan and demanding a Cuba ‘free from economic imperialism of Wall Street and from the political imperialism of Rome, Berlin or Moscow,’ he challenged Carlos Prío, the Autentico candidate, for the presidency in 1948. Ricardo Nunez Portuondo was the candidate representing the interests of Batista who had returned from Florida. Prío won the election with Nunez coming in second. Batista was elected to the senate.

Prío benefited from continued high prices of sugar through 1949 and he represented a continuation of the Grau administration with massive corruption. Trying to divert the public’s growing dissatisfaction and disillusionment with what was happening, Prío began trying to place the blame on Grau, his predecessor.

Chibas effectively exposed the massive corruption of the Autenticos and played a major role in undermining their legitimacy. During his very popular weekly Sunday night radio broadcast, Chibas shot himself. This event, which has never been fully explained, left the Ortodoxo Party without leadership. The effect was to further erode the legitimacy of the Cuban political system.

The Autentico candidate for the next presidential election was the respectable Carlos Hevia, an engineer. The Ortodoxos, stunned by the death of their leader Eduardo Chibas, selected Roberto Agramonte as their candidate, although most believed he could not win. Rumors were rampant of an Autentico-sponsored coup. The third candidate was Batista, who had been using all of his abilities to gain the support of his old followers. It was clear to many that he could not win the election. Batista and his supporters went into action and staged a coup. Prío escaped Cuba by driving his Buick to the Mexican embassy.

A group of junior officers gained Batista’s support to plan the overthrow of the discredited Autentico government in Cuba. There was fear among the remaining Batista loyalists in the army that if the Autenticos should win the election they would be purged and would no longer have access to the benefits of military graft and corruption.

Batista would later derive enormous satisfaction in recounting the details of his return to power in the early 1950s. Within one hour and seventeen minutes, he boasted, the military conspirators overturned the Autentico government.

The discredited Autentico government possessed neither the popular confidence nor the moral credibility to justify an appeal for popular support; its overthrow simply did not warrant public outrage. On the contrary, for many the coup was a long-overdue change. The Autentico and Ortodoxo parties proved incapable of responding effectively to Batista's seizure of power. The Ortodoxos were leaderless and the Autenticos could not lead. Cuba's two principal parties became irrelevant to a solution of the political crisis.

The golpe by Batista marked the end of all hope for democracy in Cuba and ushered in a new era that would have unforeseen consequences for Cuba, the United States and the world. Batista would lose power and Cuba would come under Fidel Castro’s control. The island would play a major role in the cold war politics of the 1960s.

Revolutionary struggles are rare throughout history. Successful revolutionary struggles are even more rare and they are the result of many factors that come together in a given place at a given time. Cuba was no different.

The attack on Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba led by Fidel Castro failed, but it was the dimension of its failure that distinguished it from its ill starred predecessors: the plan was as daring as its failure was spectacular. It served to catapult Castro into contention for leadership over the anti-Batista forces and elevated armed struggle as the principal means of opposition in the mid-1950s.