Fulgencio Batista

Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar (1901-1973) was a Cuban political and military leader. Army general in the 1930s, "strong man" and elected president in the 1940s, and dictator in the 1950s, he dominated Cuban politics for more than 2 decades.

Fulgencio Batista was born in Banes, Oriente Province, on January 16, 1901, the son of a poor railroad laborer. After attending a Quaker missionary school, he worked in a variety of menial jobs. At age 20 he joined the Cuban army.

The military afforded Batista an opportunity for rapid upward mobility. Ambitious and energetic, he studied at night and graduated from the National School of Journalism. In 1928 he was advanced to sergeant and assigned as stenographer to Camp Columbia in Havana. At the time, Cuba was going through a period of considerable turmoil. The growing economic depression added to public misery, and the overthrow of Gerardo Machado's dictatorship in 1933 released a wave of uncontrolled anger and anxiety. Unhappy with a proposed pay reduction and an order restricting their promotions, the lower echelons of the army began to conspire. On September 4, 1933, Batista, together with anti-Machado students, assumed leadership of the movement, demoted army officers, and overthrew Carlos Manuel de Céspedes's provisional government. Batista and the students appointed a short-lived five-man junta to rule Cuba, and on September 10 they named a University of Havana professor of physiology, Ramón Grau San Martin, provisional president. Batista soon became a colonel and chief of staff of the army.

Grau's nationalistic and revolutionary regime was opposed by the United States, which refused to recognize it, and by different groups within Cuba which conspired against it. On January 14, 1934, the unique alliance between students and the military collapsed, and Batista forced Grau to resign, thus frustrating the revolutionary process that had begun with Machado's overthrow.

Batista emerged as the arbiter of Cuba's politics. He ruled through puppet presidents until 1940, when he was elected president. Desiring to win popular support, he sponsored an impressive body of welfare legislation. Public administration, health, education, and public works improved. He established rural hospitals and minimum-wage laws, increased salaries for public and private employees, and started a program of rural schools under army control. He legalized the Cuban Communist party and in 1943 established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. The army received higher pay, pensions, better food, and modern medical care, thus ensuring its loyalty. On December 9, 1941, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Batista brought Cuba into World War II on the Allied side. Air and naval bases were made available to the United States, which purchased most of Cuba's sugar production and provided generous loans and grants.

In 1944 Batista allowed the election of his old-time rival, Grau San Martin. After an extensive tour of Central and South America, Batista settled at Daytona Beach, Florida, where he wrote Sombras de America (1946), in which he surveyed his life and policies. In 1948, while still in Florida, he was elected to the Cuban Senate from Santa Clara Province. He returned to Cuba that year, organized his own party, and announced his presidential candidacy for the June 1952 elections.

Batista, however, prevented the election from taking place. Aware perhaps that he had little chance to win, he and a group of army officers overthrew the constitutionally elected regime of President Carlos Prio Socarrás on March 10, 1952. Batista suspended the 1940 constitution and Congress, canceled the elections, and dissolved all political parties. Opposition soon developed, led primarily by university students. On July 26, 1953, young revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro unsuccessfully attacked the Moncada military barracks in Oriente Province.

In a rigged election in November 1954, Batista was "re-elected" for a 4-year term. This time he neglected social and economic problems, and corruption and graft reached unprecedented proportions. Political parties and groups called for new elections but with little success. Fidel Castro began guerrilla operations, with the assistance of his Argentine compatriot, Ernesto "Che" Guevera, in Oriente Province. Soon other groups, like the Civic Resistance movement, organized into an urban underground and began terrorist warfare in Cuba's cities. An attack on the presidential palace in 1957 by the students and followers of deposed President Prio nearly succeeded in killing Batista. On December 9, 1958, U.S. financier William D. Pawley met with Batista on behalf of the State Department, offering sanctuary for Batista and his family in Florida. To his regret, Batista refused the generous American offer, and finally, defections in the army precipitated the crumbling of the regime on December 31, 1958. With rebel forces numbering over 50, 000, Batista escaped to the Dominican Republic, and though a new president took office in Cuba, Castro soon arrived in Havana to take power. Later Batista moved from the Dominican Republic to the Portuguese Madeira Islands, where he wrote several books, among them Cuba Betrayed and The Growth and Decline of the Cuban Republic, which are apologies for his divisive role in Cuban politics. Batista never returned to Cuba, and died of a heart attack in Marbella, Spain on August 6, 1973.


Further Reading on Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar

The best-known work on Batista is Edmund A. Chester, A Sergeant Named Batista (1954), which, although eulogistic, contains valuable information on his life and policies. See also Robert Smith, ed., Background to Revolution: The Development of Modern Cuba (1966), and Hugh Thomas, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom (1971). Another good source is Cuba: A Short History (1993), edited by Leslie Bethell.