Biography of Fulgencio Batista

Rise of a Dictator

Fulgencio Batista
Fulgencio Batista, Former President of Cuba, 1959. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973) was a Cuban army officer who rose to the presidency on two occasions, from 1940-1944 and 1952-1958. He also held a great deal of national influence from 1933 to 1940, although he did not at that time hold any elected office. He is perhaps best remembered as the Cuban president who was overthrown by Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution of 1953-1959.

Collapse of the Machado Government

Batista was a young sergeant in the army when the repressive government of General Gerardo Machado fell apart in 1933.

The charismatic Batista organized the so-called “Sergeant’s Rebellion” of non-commissioned officers and seized control of the armed forces. By making alliances with student groups and unions, Batista was able to put himself in a position where he was effectively ruling the country. He eventually broke with the student groups, including the Revolutionary Directorate (a student activist group) and they became his implacable enemies.

First Presidential Term, 1940-1944

In 1938, Batista ordered a new constitution and ran for president. In 1940 he was elected president in a somewhat crooked election, and his party won a majority in Congress. During his term, Cuba formally entered World War Two on the side of the Allies. Although he presided over a relatively stable time and the economy was good, he was defeated in the 1944 elections by Dr. Ramón Grau.

Return to the Presidency

Batista moved to Daytona Beach in the United States for a while before deciding to re-enter Cuban politics.

He was elected senator in 1948 and returned to Cuba. He established the Unitary Action Party and ran for president in 1952, assuming that most Cubans had missed him during his years away. Soon, it became apparent that he would lose: he was running a distant third to Roberto Agramonte of the Ortodoxo Party and Dr. Carlos Hevia of the Auténtico party.

Fearful of losing entirely his weakening grip on power, Batista and his allies in the military decided to take control of the government by force.

The 1952 Coup

Batista had a great deal of support. Many of his former cronies in the military had been weeded out or passed over for promotion in the years since Batista had left: it is suspected that many of these officers may have gone ahead with the takeover even if they had not convinced Batista to go along with it. In the early hours of March 10, 1952, about three months before the election was scheduled, the plotters silently took control of the Camp Columbia military compound and the fort of La Cabaña. Strategic spots such as railways, radio stations, and utilities were all occupied. President Carlos Prío, learning too late of the coup, tried to organize a resistance but could not: he ended up seeking asylum in the Mexican embassy.

Back in Power

Batista quickly reasserted himself, placing his old cronies back in positions of power. He publicly justified the takeover by saying that President Prío had intended to stage his own coup in order to remain in power. Young firebrand lawyer Fidel Castro tried to bring Batista to court to answer for the illegal takeover, but was thwarted: he decided that legal means of removing Batista would not work.

Many Latin American countries quickly recognized the Batista government and on May 27 the United States also extended formal recognition.

Revolution

Castro, who would likely have been elected to Congress had the elections taken place, had learned that there was no way of legally removing Batista and began organizing a revolution. On July 26, 1953, Castro and a handful of rebels ​attacked the army barracks at Moncada, igniting the Cuban Revolution. The attack failed and Fidel and Raúl Castro were jailed, but it brought them a great deal of attention. Many captured rebels were executed on the spot, resulting in a lot of negative press for the government. In prison, Fidel Castro began organizing the 26th of July movement, named after the date of the Moncada assault.

Batista and Castro

Batista had been aware of Castro’s rising political star for some time and had once even given Castro a $1,000 wedding present in an attempt to keep him friendly.

After Moncada, Castro went to jail, but not before publicly making his own trial about the illegal power grab. In 1955 Batista ordered the release of many political prisoners, including those who had attacked Moncada. The Castro brothers went to Mexico to organize the revolution.

Batista’s Cuba

The Batista era was a golden age of tourism in Cuba. North Americans flocked to the island for relaxation and to stay at the famous hotels and casinos. The American mafia had a strong presence in Havana, and Lucky Luciano lived there for a time. Legendary mobster Meyer Lansky worked with Batista to complete projects, including the Havana Riviera hotel. Batista took a huge cut of all casino takings and amassed millions. Famous celebrities liked to visit and Cuba became synonymous with a good time for vacationers. Acts headlined by celebrities such as Ginger Rogers and Frank Sinatra performed at the hotels. Even American Vice-President Richard Nixon visited.

Outside of Havana, however, things were grim. Poor Cubans saw little benefit from the tourism boom and more and more of them tuned into rebel radio broadcasts. As the rebels in the mountains gained strength and influence, Batista’s police and security forces turned increasingly to torture and murder in an effort to root out the rebellion. The universities, traditional centers of unrest, were closed.

Exit from Power

In Mexico, the Castro brothers found many disillusioned Cubans willing to fight the revolution. They also picked up Argentine doctor Ernesto “Ché” Guevara.

In November of 1956, they returned to Cuba on board the yacht Granma. For years they waged a guerrilla war against Batista. The 26th of July movement was joined by others inside Cuba who did their part to destabilize the nation: the Revolutionary Directorate (the student group that Batista had alienated years before) almost assassinated him in March of 1957. Castro and his men controlled huge sections of the country and had their own hospital, schools and radio stations. By late 1958 it was clear that the Cuban Revolution would win, and when Ché Guevara’s column captured the city of Santa Clara, Batista decided it was time to go. On January 1, 1959, he authorized some of his officers to deal with the rebels and fled, allegedly taking millions of dollars with him.

After the Revolution

The wealthy exiled president never returned to politics, even though he was still only in his fifties when he fled Cuba. He eventually settled in Portugal and worked for an insurance company. He also wrote several books and passed away in 1973. He left several children, and one of his grandchildren, Raoul Cantero, became a judge on the Florida Supreme Court.

Legacy

Batista was corrupt, violent and out of touch with his people (or perhaps he simply didn’t care about them). Still, in comparison with fellow dictators such as the Somozas in Nicaragua, the Duvaliers in Haiti or even Alberto Fujimori of Peru, he was relatively benign. Much of his money was made by taking bribes and payoffs from foreigners, such as his percentage of the haul from the casinos.

Therefore, he looted state funds less than other dictators did. He did frequently order the murder of prominent political rivals, but ordinary Cubans had little to fear from him until the revolution began, when his tactics turned increasingly brutal and repressive.

The Cuban Revolution was less the result of Batista’s cruelty, corruption or indifference than it was of Fidel Castro’s ambition. Castro’s charisma, conviction, and ambition are singular: he would have clawed his way to the top or died trying. Batista was in Castro’s way, so he removed him.

That’s not to say that Batista did not help Castro greatly. At the time of the revolution, most Cubans despised him, the exceptions being the very wealthy who were sharing in the loot. Had he shared Cuba’s new wealth with his people, organized a return to democracy and improved conditions for the poorest Cubans, Castro’s revolution might never have taken hold. Even Cubans who have fled Castro’s Cuba and constantly rail against him rarely defend Batista: perhaps the only thing they agree on with Castro is that Batista had to go.

Sources:

Castañeda, Jorge C. Compañero: the Life and Death of Che Guevara . New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Coltman, Leycester. The Real Fidel Castro. New Haven and London: the Yale University Press, 2003.

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Minster, Christopher. "Biography of Fulgencio Batista." ThoughtCo, Feb. 23, 2017, thoughtco.com/biography-of-fulgencio-batista-2136360. Minster, Christopher. (2017, February 23). Biography of Fulgencio Batista. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-fulgencio-batista-2136360 Minster, Christopher. "Biography of Fulgencio Batista." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-fulgencio-batista-2136360 (accessed November 17, 2017).