Biography of Fulgencio Batista, Cuban President and Dictator

Fulgencio Batista

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Fulgencio Batista (January 16, 1901–August 6, 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.

Fast Facts: Fulgencio Batista

  • Known For: President of Cuba, 1940–1944 and 1952–1958
  • Born: January 16, 1901 in Banes, Cuba
  • Parents: Belisario Batista Palermo and Carmela Zaldívar Gonzáles (1886–1916)
  • Died: August 6, 1973 in Guadalmina, Spain
  • Education: Quaker grade school in Banes, 4th grade
  • Spouse(s): Elisa Godinez (m. 19261946); Marta Fernandez Miranda (m. 1946–1973)
  • Children: 8

Early Life

Fulgencio Batista was born Rubén Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar on January 16, 1901, the first of four sons born to Belisario Batista Palermo and Carmela Zaldívar Gonzáles, in the Veguitas section of Banes, in Cuba's northeastern Oriente province. Belisario had fought in the Cuban war of independence against Spain under General Jose Maceo, and he was a sugar cane cutter employed by a local contractor for the United Fruit Company. The family was poor and the relationship between Fulgencio Batista and his father was not good, and so Fulgencio took it upon himself to raise, educate, and care for his younger brothers Juan (b. 1905), Hermelindo (b. 1906), and Francisco (b. 1911).

Fulgencio began studying at the age of 10 at the Quaker school in Banes when it opened in September 1911. The mostly Cuban students were taught in Spanish, and Batista graduated in 1913 with a fourth-grade education. He then worked in the sugar cane fields with his father. During the off-season, he worked in a variety of small jobs in town, including as apprentice to a barber and a tailor. His mother died in 1916; the following year at age 15, Fulgencio Batista ran away from home.

Joining the Military

Between 1916 and 1921, Batista was frequently destitute, often homeless, and traveled while working an odd assortment of jobs until landing a job with the Ferrocarriles del Norte railway in Camagüey Province. He sent money home when he could, but was nearly killed in an accident at the railroad that left him hospitalized for several weeks and scarred him for life. Although there were late-night parties, drinking, and womanizing among the railway employees, Batista rarely attended and was instead remembered as a voracious reader.

In 1921, Batista enlisted in the Cuban Army and joined the First Battalion of the 4th Infantry in Havana on April 14, 1921. On July 10, 1926, he married Elisa Godínez Gómez (1905–1993); they would have three children (Ruben, Mirta, and Elisa). Batista was made sergeant in 1928 and worked as an army stenographer for General Machado's chief of Staff, General Herrera.

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 II 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. His wife Elisa was the First Lady of Cuba, but in October 1945, he divorced her and six weeks later married Marta Fernandez Miranda (1923–2006). They would eventually have five children together (Jorge Luis, Roberto Francisco, Fulgencio Jose, and Marta Maluf, Carlos Manuel).

Return to the Presidency

Batista and his new wife 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 they 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.

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.

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 he 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.

Fidel Castro and 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 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 he and his wife fled, allegedly taking millions of dollars with them.

Death

The wealthy exiled president never returned to politics, even though he was still only in his 50s when he fled Cuba. He eventually settled in Portugal and worked for an insurance company. He also wrote several books and died on August 6, 1973, in Guadalmina, Spain. He left eight 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, and 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 Batista, 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

  • Argote-Freyre. "Fulgencio Batista: The Making of a Dictator. Vol. 1: From Revolutionary to Strongman." New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2006.
  • Batista y Zaldivar, Fulgencio. "Cuba Betrayed." Literary Licensing, 2011. 
  • Castañeda, Jorge C. Compañero: the Life and Death of Che Guevara. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
  • Coltman, Leycester. "The Real Fidel Castro." Kindle Edition, Thistle Publishing, December 2, 2013.
  • Whitney, Robert W. "Appointed by Destiny: Fulgencio Batista and the Disciplining of the Cuban Masses, 1934–1936." State and Revolution in Cuba: Mass Mobilization and Political Change, 1920–1940. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001. 122–132.