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Batista y Zaldívar, Fulgencio

by Aimee Estill

    Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar maintained direct and indirect influence and power in the Cuban government for over twenty-five years. Batista's first term of presidency was characterized with "strong leadership that fostered economic growth." Batista is better known for his second presidency, however, which was characterized by the forceful and oppressive means in which he ruled Cuba as well as corruption in the government. His second presidency left Cuba in turmoil and disaster, opening the door for Fidel Castro to begin rule.
    Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar was born in Banes, Cuba in 1901 to parents of mixed descent. His parents, who's mixed ancestry included that of "Negro, white, Indian, and Chinese," lived and worked on a sugar plantation as peasant laborers. Batista was educated at an American Quaker School; after his education, he worked in a variety of trades. Then, in 1921, he joined the Cuban National Army. After two years of active duty in the army, he resigned and started clerical work for the Cuban National Army. By 1932, he was a military court stenographer and obtained the rank of sergeant.
    On September 4, 1933, Batista took control of the Cuban government in an uprising known as the "Revolt of the Sergeants," Batista's first coup overthrew Gerardo Machado's liberal government. After the first coup, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes was in power for three weeks. After those three weeks, Cuba was ruled by a Council of Five; on September 10, 1933, with Batista's support, Ramón Grau San Martín was installed as head of the government for a four-month period. Grau was a professor at the University of Havana and was a "hero of the student leftists." On January 14, 1934, Ramón Grau San Martín was replaced by Carlos Mendieta. On January 19, 1934, the United States recognized Cuba's new government. This overthrow also marked the start of the army's influence "as an organized force in the running of the government." Batista also appointed himself as Army Chief of Staff. As Army Chief of Staff, Batista increased the army's size and power; Batista then used the military to consolidate his power in the Cuban government.
    He also became "de facto ruler" and launched a three-year plan that included "economic and social rehabilitation." Batista's plan included creating "a new, modern, democratic Cuba." He also wanted "immediate elimination from public life of parasites and full punishment for the atrocities and corruption of the previous Machado regime, strict recognition of the debts and obligations contracted by the Republic, and immediate creation of adequate courts to enforce the measures above mentioned."
    Until 1940, Batista ruled Cuba through various puppet presidents, including Carlos Mendieta, José A. Barnet, Miguel Mariano Gómez, and Federuco Laredo Brú. Batista had started a "thirty-year tradition of corruption."
    During this time, Batista was viewed as a "stabilizing force with respect for American interests." Batista also started a friendship with American gangster Meyer Lansky. This friendship would last over thirty years and would lead to corruption in the Cuban government.
    In 1940, Batista ran with centrist support in the first presidential election under a new Cuban constitution. He defeated Grau San Martín in the election and became the Cuban constitutional president. Batista's presidency would last until 1944. During his term in office, Batista "sponsored several reforms that spurred economic growth." Batista increased trade relations with the United States and also imposed war taxes on the Cuban people. Batista was supported by the army and also gained control of several labor groups.
    In the 1944 election, Grau San Martín won the presidency and took control. Batista was not allowed under law to run for reelection. He left Cuba and went to the United States, only to return in 1949.
    While in Florida in 1948, Batista ran for and won a seat in the Cuban Senate. Batista "spent huge sums to get himself elected Senator from Las Villas Province; he planted his men in the mass organizations (some of them were communists who worked with him previously). He organized support in the army, the governmental bureaucracy among the landlords, industrialists, and the bankers. He cleverly took advantage of the widespread venality and colossal corruption of former administrations and promised democratic reforms."
    In 1952, he ran for President of Cuba once more. However, on March 10, 1952, before the elections took place, Batista staged another coup and overthrew Carlos Prío Socorras, the elected Cuban President. Polls taken prior to the coup stated that Batista was unlikely to win the election. On March 27, President Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized Batista's government.
    After his return to the Presidency, Batista declared that, "although he was completely loyal to Cuba's constitution of 1940, constitutional guarantees would have to be temporarily suspended." Batista was quickly becoming a dictator of Cuba. Under Batista, Havana became known as the "Latin Las Vegas" due to the influx of wealthy gamblers. Also, "very little was said about democracy or the rights of the average Cuban." Any opposition to Batista's government was quickly stopped, which caused many to fear Batista's new government.
    On July 26, 1953, a small revolutionary group, led by Fidel Castro, attacked the Moncada Army Barracks in Santiago. This revolution was easily defeated by Batista, and Castro was placed in jail.
    Havana, with influences from U. S. mafia boss Meyer Lansky, became known as an international drug port. Batista and many other Cuban officials reaped the profits from the drug trade as well as from the casinos.
    Many Cubans, as well as many Americans, were upset with Batista's government. To appease these people, Batista staged a mock election in 1954; he was the only legal candidate. Naturally, he won, but Cubans wanted new and legitimate elections.
    In 1955 a compromise was offered by Colonel Cosme de la Torriente, a veteran of the Cuban War of Independence. Several meetings were held, which became known as "El Diálago Cívico"; however, Batista was too strong to make any concessions. Batista was very confident in his power; he was so confident that he released Castro from jail in an attempt to "dissuade some of his critics."
    Batista suspended constitutional guarantees and took more control over the media in an effort to end student riots and anti-Batista demonstrations that were being held. Also increasing opposition to Batista and leading to several uprising were the economic depressions faced by Cuba in the 1950s. However, there seem to be some positive changes in Cuba that arose from Batista's second Presidency. One article stated that Batista "abolished the death penalty, granted amnesty to his political opponents including Castro, and presided over the most prosperous economy in Latin America in the 1950's. Cuba had developed these enormous centros, or clubs with memberships ranging from ten to ninety thousand people. For around three dollars a month, members enjoyed health, educational, and recreational benefits. In fact, according to the U. S. Dept. Of Commerce, Cuba had developed excellent health care and high educational standards including literacy."
    In 1956, Batista refused to hold another election at the end of the year. In 1958, another fake election was held, and Batista placed another puppet president at the head of the government. Batista's government was also losing the United States' support. On January 1, 1959, Batista resigned from the Cuban government and handed over his power to representatives; the door was opened for Castro to the Revolution of 1959. Batista fled to the Dominican Republic. He later went to Portugal and then died in Guadalamina, Spain on August 6,1973.