1. Cuba & Batista, 1952-59
Few Americans knew or cared that Senator and General and ex-President Fulgencio Batista y
Zaldívar overthrew the government of Dr. Carlos Prío Socarrás in two hours on March 10, 1952.
Time magazine, the newsweekly, even showed him on its cover on April 9, 1952 but only a small
minority of people in the United States read Time. Cuba was that shark-shaped island off the
Florida coast where tourists went to see the sites, gamble, drink, sun bathe, and whore. It was the
source of sugar, rum, fine cigars, "Latin" music, and Ricky Ricardo, the husband and bandleader
on the "I Love Lucy" television show. Those a little more knowledgeable knew that US
gangsters had used it as a base and a resort since the 1930s when things got too hot for them in
the United States. Others knew of its propensity for violence, both public and private. Its
university students demonstrated against the government beat and killed their opponents while
their US counterparts exacted their revenge on their enemies through intercollegiate football
games. Students had no monopoly on the use of violence; older Cubans could be quite ferocious
with each other as well. Most Americans, who were "white," saw all this disorder as being
typical of "lesser breeds;" intuitively, at least, they understood that most Cubans were not
"white," being, instead, a mixture of European, African, Amerind, and other groups. They
probably did not know that Batista himself was a mixture of Africans, Amerind, Chinese, and
European. What they did know was that Cuba had had another revolution (actually a coup d'état
but few people understood the distinction), something they believed was chronic in Latin
In some ways, they were right, for Batista was a strong man who had ruled Cuba between
1933-1944 and was so powerful that he could easily overthrow the government in a matter of
hours and hold it even though he suffered an outbreak of chicken pox for a few days. Even
though that government was corrupt and ineffectual, its overthrow was phenomenal. Many were
disgusted with the government of Prío Socarrás and disliked his abortive attempt to change the
constitution so he could get re-elected. The true reformers, the Ortodoxos, had lost their
champion when Senator Eduardo Chibás committed suicide on his radio show in 1951. The
Auténticos of Prío Socarrás were worse. Young Cubans, such as Fidel Castro Ruz, an Ortodoxo,
had hoped their party would gain power and reform the government and country. Young army
officers encouraged Senator Batista to act. Few complained when he did. The conservative
President Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized the Batista government on March 27, 1952, clearly
that it was not as much interested in democracy as having a docile, pro-American government.
Batista suspended the constitution; replaced Congress with an 80-man consultative council;
and dissolved all political parties. He pampered the army and the police, understanding that they
would be critical to saying in power. He used Urgency Courts to expedite the trials of those who
opposed him. He curried the favor of labor with wage hikes while banning strikes. Freedom of
expression was not seriously curtailed and students rioted frequently. Political leaders issued
Cuba was prosperous under Batista. He adopted a sugar stabilization plan in 1952 which
reduced production from seven million down to five million tons. Overproduction was a problem
for all sugar-producing countries. He managed to offset some of the lost income with more
industrial plants and the growth of tourism. US citizens, in particular, were using post-WWII
prosperity to travel. He launched numerous public works, which, by their very nature, provided
money to a host of people across the economic spectrum.
Prosperity was uneven. For the sugar cane working who was unemployed half the year and
2. discouraged from finding other employment so as to be available when the plantation owner
needed him, life did not improve. Even though Cuba had the fourth highest standard of living in
Latin America, that was not high. Besides, Cubans compared themselves to the US not Honduras
or Bolivia. Illiteracy was high; schools too few; affordable medical care almost impossible for
the average person to get; and housing substandard. Rural areas suffered more than urban areas
because Cuban presidents had always feared the cities more. In short, social justice was a victim
of the Batista years.
Opposition to Batista came from a variety of sources. Old line politicians wanted him out so
they could return to power. Prío Socarrás financed guns, bribes, and anti-Batista propaganda.
Students and other young people demonstrated against him and plotted his overthrow. On July
26, 1953, a group of young people attacked the Moncada Barracks near Santiago de Cuba. They
failed and were arrested. At his trial, the leader, twenty-six-year-old Fidel Castro Ruiz, was
sentenced to fifteen years in prison. At his trial, however, the young man who had attended law
school, spoke at length about Cuban injustices and the need to restore the 1940 Constitution. He
asserted that the Cuban people would not support a dictator. The “History Will Absolve Me”
speech caught the public imagination and made him a martyr. The myth grew. Batista, for his
part, declared a 90-day siege and clamped down on civil liberties.
By the beginning of 1954, the crisis was over. He lifted the state of siege. Business boomed.
The US government arrested Prío Socarrás for gun running and fined him. Batista ran for
President on his Progressive Action Party ticket against former President Ramon Grau San
Martin. Grau San Martin withdrew before the voting; he saw it was useless. Batista, basking in
victory, declared a general amnesty in May, letting political prisoners out of jail. Castro was one
of them; he and a few friends went to Mexico City to plot revolution. Prío Socarrás came back to
Cuba. The press was almost entirely free. The country was calm except for a mass meeting in the
Fall of 1955. Commerce and tourism flourished. Most of the prosperity favored Cubans. The
Batista regime grew self-satisfied. It could not imagine any serious opposition would occur. It
officials and cronies, the army, and the police went about their duties haphazardly and stole
In December, 1956, Fidel Castro and eighty-one others landed in Cuba from Mexico on the
boat, the Granma. They thought that their arrival would spark uprisings all over the island
against Batista. They were wrong. Batista’s government knew they were coming and managed to
capture all but twelve of them. Castro, his brother Raul, the Argentine radical Ernesto “Che”
Guevara, and nine others managed to escape into the Sierra Maestra mountains. The Batista
government announced that Fidel was dead and then went about its business.
Fidel was alive and the 26th of July Movement was growing. He had a radio broadcaster with
which to send message throughout the island and a printing press. He had money and guns
supplied by sympathizers and confederates throughout the island. Fidel was smart, smarter than
his opponents, and a masterful propagandist. No one could seriously doubt that he was alive. He
flooded Cuba with propaganda depicting himself and his followers as wanting to restore
democracy and improve the lives of the average Cuban against the corrupt, dictatorial Batista
regime which, he said, was only interested in the rich and powerful, including the US. The
Castroites began bombing school and cinemas to show that the Batista regime could not protect
people. In March, 1957, they led a mass attack on the presidential palace and almost found and
killed him. He became cautious about appearing in public. Castro's forces began burning sugar
fields. Although they failed at times, they succeeded more often than not. All they had to do to
discredit the government was prove that it could not perform its primary function--protection of
3. life and property. By January 7, 1957, Time magazine was reporting that the Batista government
could not cope.
The anti-Batista forces were more than just Fidel Castro and his group. Student turbulence
became so common that Batista shout down the national university and high schools. The
Catholic Church and labor leaders proclaimed their neutrality. Middle class businessmen quietly
withdrew support. As Batista imposed censorship and increased suppression, he lost support. He
sent much of his army into Oriente province, Castro's home, but his soldiers could get to Castro's
men in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Soldiers sold their weapons to Castro (they were ill paid)
or defected. From the US, mostly, anti-Batista forces sent weapons. Exiles returned to
The year 1958 was worse for Batista. His regime had lost its moral authority. The sugar
harvest, the zafra, was held early to keep Castro from burning the fields. Sabotage increased. The
police responded with beatings, brutality, and mass jailings. Castro, who was portraying himself
as a folk hero who personified the hope of the common man, stepped up his propaganda efforts.
Cleverly, he refused to work with other anti-Batista groups; he wanted to claim sole credit for
bringing Batista down. By the Spring of 1958, riding busses and trains in Cuba was unsafe
because the attacks were so frequent. Bombings closed most public schools. Soldiers and public
officials feared assassination. Tourism dropped drastically as fear increased.
In April, it appeared that Castro had failed. He called for a general strike--a massive work
stoppage throughout the island but it failed. Many anti-Batista groups, including the Communist,
who had turned against their benefactor, refused to support it. Although the US canceled arms
shipments to the government, Batista's 40,000 man army was loyal. So, too, were labor leaders.
He ignored the call of Catholic bishops for him to compromise with Castro (who would not have
agreed anyway). Confident that the opposition was no longer a threat, he scheduled presidential
elections for November, 1958. He would run Andrés Riva Agüero against Ramón Grau San
Martín of the Auténticos and Carlos Márquez Sterling of the Ortodoxos. Andrés Riva Agüero
would win by a landslide, of course; Batista could not afford to have an honest election.
Castro and the other anti-Batista forces had not been beaten, however. Castro threatened death
to the candidates and promised terror to the voters. His people kidnapped US businessmen and
sailors. The rural population continued to withdraw support from Batista and give it to Castro.
The business and professional class deserted Batista followed by urban workers. The dictator had
lost the support of the US which would not intervene. The US was waiting for the end of
Batista's term in February, 1959, in hopes that a free government would be created. Only his
army and police kept him in power.
When Castro and his forces swept down from the mountains, Batista's army surrendered or
deserted. Cuban soldiers knew that Batista could not survive. In December, the dictator began
flying his family out of the country. Some arrived in Jacksonville, Florida and were cursed at the
airport. Batista left Cuba on December 31, 1958. Castro's victory was not military but
On January 2, 1959, Castro's 26th of July movement's men marched into the capital . They
were bearded and wore camouflage uniforms. Even in victory, Castro was a master propagandist.