For twenty-five years (1934–1959), Fulgencio Batista was the most dominant force in Cuban politics. From 1934 until 1940 Batista manipulated Cuban politics from behind the scene. In 1940 he was elected president, and after his term he resided in the United States until just before the coup d'etat that he engineered in March 1952 to oust President Carlos Prío. He won the "rigged" 1954 presidential election and remained in office until being forced to flee the country on January 1, 1959.
The son of a farmer and railroad worker from Oriente province, Batista held several laboring jobs before joining the Cuban Army in 1921. After graduating from the National School of Journalism in 1928, Batista was promoted to sergeant and assigned as the stenographer of Camp Columbia in Havana. Among the lower-grade officers who had little opportunity for further advancement and, in dire need of a pay increase, Batista and his followers joined militant university students in ousting President Carlos Manuel de Céspedes on September 4, 1933, and subsequently, installed Ramón Grau San Martín's brief presidency did not receive U.S. recognition and, in fact, the U.S. ambassadors in Havana, Sumner Welles and Jefferson Caffrey, suggested that Batista direct a change in government. That he did on January 14, 1934, and placed Carlos Mendieta in the presidency. Until his own presidential election in 1940, U.S. diplomats and policy-makers and Cubans alike understood clearly that Batista manipulated the presidents.
Batista curried favor with the United States. To implement his proposed three year plan in 1937, designed to improve Cuba's economic and social conditions, Batista admitted that he needed U.S. economic assistance. He pressed the point to Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles and President Franklin D. Roosevelt during a visit to Washington in 1938. Upon return, he raised the expectations of the Cuban people, telling them that he triumphed in his request. Not so. The Roosevelt administration linked economic assistance to fiscal reform and an end to government corruption. Thereafter, socioeconomic conditions worsened in Cuba, which prompted Batista to approve elections for the 1940 constitutional convention. The document was considered the most progressive in Latin America at the time, as it provided for sweeping government-sponsored social reforms.
During his presidency (1940–1944), Batista implemented many programs in public health, education, and social welfare. During World War II, his administration also benefited from the loss of sugar competitors in the European and Asian theaters, but the newfound wealth also heightened graft and corruption throughout government, a fact that cost him the support of the majority of the Cubans. Batista worsened his image at home and among U.S. policymakers when he legalized the Cuban Communist Party, brought two of its members into his cabinet as ministers without portfolio, and extended recognition to the Soviet Union. Still, he cooperated with the United States throughout the war, permitting the construction of defense sites and implementing an anti–Nazi program across the island. To bolster his position at home, Batista visited with Roosevelt and Welles in Washington in December 1942. At the time, the U.S. administration did not want to interfere in Cuban politics, fearing that doing so might disrupt the nation. The policy, however, did not prevent Ambassador Spruille Braden from criticizing the ineptitude and corruption of the Batista regime.
After allowing Grau to become president in 1944, Batista retired to Daytona Beach, Florida. While residing there he was elected the Cuban Senate in 1948 to represent Santa Clara province. He returned to Cuba that same year to organize his own political party and announce his presidential candidacy for 1952. Recognizing that he could not win the scheduled June elections, Batista and a group of army officers engineered a coup d'etat on March 10, 1952. At that time, the United States did not appear disappointed with the ouster of socialist-leaning President Prío. Batista rigged his own reelection in November 1954.
Batista's crackdown on labor unions satisfied U.S. business interests in Cuba and officials in the State Department, who viewed the workers as coming under communist influence. At the same time, the Batista administration inspired confidence in business circles. That confidence was expressed in significant private investment, which diversified the country's agriculture (especially in rice and cattle) and led to the establishment of a number of new industries (petroleum refining, mining, and miscellaneous manufacturing). The government conducted a lavish public works program designed to absorb the chronic and large-scale unemployment that was a blemish on Cuban society (8 percent reaching to 20 percent during "dead season" which covered 8 to 9 months of the year). However, the country's export earnings and available credit were not sufficient to meet the demands of the development program. The greatest problems that Cuba faced were a significant increase in its population and a dependence on sugar exports. The U.S. Commerce Department and the Cuban National Bank understood this and the concomitant challenge of trying to improve the living standard of the Cuban people.
However, U.S. policymakers did not understand the nature of Cuban nationalism, demonstrated by their placing Fidel Castro's raid on the Moncada barracks in 1953 in the same category as student protests during the 1940s. In fact, the Eisenhower administration paid little attention to the Cuban situation until Herbert Matthews uncovered Fidel Castro's army in the Sierra Maestra in February 1957. Batista's regime was characterized by unprecedented corruption and excessive brutality, which in turn encouraged increased student protests, which often became violent.
As Castro gained increasing notoriety within Cuba, his forces along with other guerrilla forces converged on Havana. Other middle-sector groups, particularly students, within Havana also struck out against Batista. On one occasion, in March 1957, they nearly succeeded in killing Batista during an attack upon the presidential palace. Professional groups called for Batista's resignation. Batista's brutal response only served to increase the violence, not decrease it. In March 1958, the United States placed an arms embargo upon the Cuban government in hopes of forcing Batista to lessen his violations of human and civil rights, but it was to no avail. After August 1958, Batista found himself increasingly isolated from his support groups within Cuba, including several military officers. On December 9 Batista rejected an offer by President Eisenhower's envoy, William Pawley, to accept a caretaker government that included many of Batista's political opponents. Completely isolated and without U.S. support, Batista first fled to the Dominican Republic in the early morning hours of January 1, 1959. After being denied entry into the United States, Batista moved to Spain where he lived until his death on August 6, 1973. See also Braden, Spruille; Gómez, Miguel Mariano; Prío Socarrás, Carlos; Revolution; Sergeants' Revolt; Welles, Benjamin Sumner
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