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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.