Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973)
He was called El Hombre, "the Man," and for three decades he was one of Cuba's most controversial leaders. It would take Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution to unseat him.
Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar was born in Cuba's Oriente province on January 16, 1901, in Banes, only miles away from the Castro family plantation, Las Manacas. A mulatto of humble origins, he joined the army as a private, and in 1932 he became a military tribunal stenographer with the rank of sergeant.
The villain of pre-Castro Cuba, Batista began his political career as a hero. As a young sergeant in 1933, he led non-commissioned officers in a rebellion against dictator Gerardo Machado in alliance with students and labor leaders. Later, he conspired with the U.S. ambassador, Sumner Welles, to force the resignation of provisional president Ramón Grau San Martín. By then a colonel, Batista became the strongman behind a succession of puppet presidents until he was elected president himself in 1940.
Under Batista's rule a new constitution was drafted which was, by all standards, a progressive document. It called for government intervention in the economy and provided a social safety net. In the late 1930s Batista legalized the Cuban Communist Party (P.S.P.). In 1940, taking advantage of the P.S.P.'s ability to keep labor in check, he brought the party into his government.
In 1944 Batista, respecting the electorate's choice of the opposition coalition, stepped aside and the same man he had deposed in 1933, Ramón Grau, became president. Batista left Cuba to live in Daytona Beach, Florida.
For the next eight years, Cuba's Partido Auténtico presided over corruption and irresponsibility in government. Corruption had been widespread since 1902, but the public was shocked that the "pure" revolutionaries of 1933 -- Grau, then Carlos Prio -- participated in it. But democracy survived. As new elections approached in 1952, Batista saw an opportunity to return to government, running for the presidency, alongside the Auténticos and the Ortodoxos, the party to which Fidel Castro belonged. As election day approached, Batista was a distant third. Then, on March 10, 1952, he seized the government in a coup d'etat -- taking by force what Cuban voters were about to deny him.
Batista's return to power did not herald a return to progressivism. He became obsessed with gaining the acceptance of Cuba's upper classes, who had denied him membership into their exclusive social clubs. Increasingly, his energies were devoted to amassing an even greater fortune. Batista opened Havana to large scale gambling, announcing that his government would match, dollar for dollar, any hotel investment over $1 million, which would include a casino license. American mobster Meyer Lansky placed himself at the center of Cuba's gambling operation. At the same time, Batista sponsored massive construction projects -- the Havana-Varadero highway, the Rancho Boyeros airport, train lines, an underwater tunnel.
Brutal and Unpopular
As he delayed plans to step down from office, Batista faced growing opposition, and eventually, a popular challenge. In the wake of Fidel Castro's Moncada assault, in 1953, Batista suspended constitutional guarantees and increasingly relied on police tactics in an attempt to frighten the population through open displays of brutality. Though he made some political concessions between 1954 and 1956 -- lifting press censorship, releasing political prisoners (including Fidel Castro and his brother Raul), allowing exiles to return -- his unpopularity continued to grow.
As popular unrest in Cuba intensified, Batista's police proved adept at torturing and killing young men in the cities. But his army proved singularly inept against Fidel Castro's rebels, who were based in the mountains.
Batista had Castro after Moncada, and let him get away with his life. He had him prisoner at Isle of Pines and released him in a general amnesty. He could have destroyed him after the disaster of the rebels' Granmalanding, and let him get away. "Batista committed a huge strategic blunder," when the rebels returned, in the judgment of writer Norberto Fuentes. "You push landings back to sea. But Batista pushes Fidel Castro into the Sierra Maestra with the words 'in the Sierras no one survives.'" A more indicting observation is that of author Carlos Alberto Montaner: "Batista does not finish Fidel out of greed... His is a government of thieves. To have this small guerrilla band in the mountains is to his advantage, so that he can order special defense expenditures that they can steal." By spring 1958 when Batista sent 10,000 soldiers against the rebel army, Castro was too deeply entrenched and Batista's army too rotten from within for the offensive to succeed.
Faced with Batista's military ineptness and growing unpopularity, the United States began to seek an alternative to Batista and to Fidel Castro. But Batista was determined to hold on. On December 11, 1958, U.S. ambassador Earl Smith visited Batista at his lavish hacienda, Kuquines. There he informed Batista the United States could no longer support his regime. Batista asked if he could go to Daytona Beach, where he had a house. The ambassador said no, and suggested instead that he seek exile in Spain.
On New Year's Eve 1958, Fulgencio Batista left Cuba before the break of dawn, with one hundred and eighty of his closest associates, having amassed a fortune of as much as to $300 million. Batista lived the rest of his life in splendor in Spain and in Portugal. He died on August 6, 1973 in Marbella, Spain, two days before a team of assassins from Castro's Cuba could carry out a plan to kill him.