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Machado, Gerardo (President 1925-1933)


Brigadier General Gerardo Machado y Morales took on office May, 1925. Born in Santa Clara in 1871, he had little formal education. He fought in the war for independence and rose in rank. Afterwards, he had been mayor of Santa Clara and a Cabinet officer under Gómez. He became a successful businessman, whose strong American connections made him rich. Among other enterprises, he was a principal in an electric company. A shrewd politician, he contrived to defeat the more popular Carlos Mendieta for the Liberal Party nomination. 
    He  had more organizational ability than his predecessors. He improved the tawdry bureaucracy and, in two or three years, turned it into an official instrument of tyranny. The second Dance of the Millions, an economic boom in sugar production but not like the first Dance in being irresposible, was underway when he took office but sugar cane harvest was 5 million tons by 1929. Prices were not particularly high because of competition but Cuba produced 45% of the world’s sugar and supplied 50% of US consumption.
         The 1929 US tariff raised but the tax on sugar tariff by only a quarter of a cent. Machado was very friendly to US businessmen and was lionized during visits to US in 1925 and 1927.  
    He sought economic diversification. He had a tariff protection law passed in 1927. He exhorted Cuban farmers to plant something other than sugar but this did not work, for they grew what they knew and which they were sure would produce an income.  He increased government revenues. He taxed American capital investment and invested funds in tourism, public works, including the 700-mile carretera central (central highway) but had to borrow money from US banks to finance public works. Built other public works—roads, a new national capitol building (lots of corruption), national university buildings, parks, schools for agriculture and technology, laboratories, hospitals, and schools. Expanded education. Adopted more modern curricula. Instituted Parent Teacher Associations. He claimed to have introduced modern penology. Washington and foreign business interests applauded.  US investment in Cuba grew to $1.5 billion.             
    However, he neglected some of the island’s fundamental problems. He deported 400 labor “agitators,” men who were trying to organize democratic unions, and used hard coercion against labor unions. The conservative American Federation of Labor complained. Machado erred in discouraging the growth of a healthy labor movement. When Congress tried to pass a law requiring that three-fourths of the workers in businesses would have to be Cuban, a measure to aid natives, he blocked it. Communists would become deeply involved in labor unions and they had little interest in democratic government. 
    To many, Cuba was a paradise for foreigners and an orphanage for Cubans. The Cuban economy increasingly became characterized by latifundia, monoculture, and reliance upon foreign (mostly US) commerce and investment. Machado became increasingly more high-handed. He enforced order with hangings in the countryside and police brutality in the cities. Repression became more frequent.
    He had promised to serve only one term but reneged. By 1927, he controlled his own Liberal Party and the Conservative Party as well. He called a constitutional convention to have the presidential term changed from 4 to 6 years with the 1928 election had to be held first. In  addition, Havana became a federal district and the judiciary was subordinated to the executive branch.  He used coercion and corruption to amend the Constitution.
    Machado won his six-year term in 1928 but he was becoming a megalomaniac. He planned to imitate the fascism of Benito Mussolini, the Spanish dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera, and the Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. The constitutional change in 1928 , however, produced a strong opposition movement because he had used coercion and illegality to get the changes. The opposition represented all shades of opinion but was not well organized at first.
    The Wall Street stock market crash and the Great Depression in 1929 threw Cuba into turmoil for it removed the  underpinnings of the economy and ushered in a long period of depression. Foreign trade dropped to 10% of its 1929 level. US banks no longer bought Cuban bonds. Unemployment skyrocketed. Businesses declared bankruptcy. Government revenues fell by half and many public employees were let go while others took salary cuts.
    Machado borrowed money to keep the government afloat. He agreed to the Chadbourne Plan which limited sugar exports to the US; it affected six sugar-producing nations. Cuba had little choice but to accept the reduced income and the financial ruin of sugar workers, plants, and mills. Nevertheless, he subsidized US sugar planters. The harvest had fallen to 2 million tons. His 12,000 man army was still strong. He made a point of keeping it loyal by not cutting its budget while laying off other employees. 
    There was a desire to redress social injustices and rid Cuba of foreign interests, especially among the younger people. Most Cubans were poor and uneducated. Labor unions were frail. Social welfare benefits were appallingly inadequate. 
    By 1930, restlessness was widespread. The outlawed Confederación Nacional Obrera de Cuba called a general strike which paralyzed the island. Cuba was boiling. US realized that this was occurring but had its own problems.  The killing of a student demonstrator on September 30, 1930 started an unending war between students and the Machado regime, Machado closed the university and many high schools in December, 1930 in retaliation, thinking that this would help because they would have no place to congregate. The move gave the students more time to cause trouble, however. Students protested this disruption of their education; most had not been causing trouble. They would not reopen until after his departure in 1933. In May 1930, the Unión Nacionalista held a political rally but was fired upon by the army before it got very far. By the next day its leaders were in jail or exile. By January, 1931, using an old colonial law, he shut down fifteen newspapers and magazines. Machado imposed prohibited foreign periodicals. 
    Fighting escalated between the dissidents and the Machado forces. The dissidents included middle-class professionals, students, and university professor. The chief terrorist organization was the ABC, formed by students and professors.  They threw bombs and grenades, often from speeding automobiles. One of the leaders was a university professor, future President Ramón Grau San Martín. The head of the secret police, the President of the Senate, and a leading Communist organizer were assassinated, for the Communist Party backed Machado.  They even managed to mine Machado's bathroom but he was not hurt. The University Student Directorate opposed the dictator.
    In addition to the police and other security forces, Machado used gunmen to try to stop his opponents. The countryside became lawless. Prominent leaders, including Carlos Mendieta of the Liberal Party, began calling for revolution. In August, 1931, the old guard opposition leaders, Mendieta and Menocal failed to create an uprising in Pinar del Río. There was a young peoples' uprising in Oriente province. Terror intensified,. The government used the Ley Fuga (Law of Flight); people were shot "while trying to escape."  Some prisoners were fed to sharks to dispose of their bodies. Machado alternated between terror and amnesty. By 1932, even his admirers in the US had begun to sat Machado would have to go. Many Cubans, who had opposed the Platt Amendment, changed their opinions and asked the US to intervene and depose Machado. Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to send troops. US Ambassador Henry F. Guggenheim wanted the US to abrogate the Platt Amendment and disavow Machado. He tried to get Machado and his opponents to compromise but failed. By the end of 1932, a revolutionary junta had been formed in New York City.
    In May 1933,  President Roosevelt appointed Sumner Welles as ambassador to Cuba. Welles was a very shrewd man. He proposed mediation and brought together Machado's forces to meet with many of the dissidents, including the ABC. He, of course, excluded groups with whom he thought the US could not work. Welles  suggested the reinstitution of the vice presidency and the selection of a vice president by consensus among all the parties. The person selected would not be allowed to run for president in 1934. The mediations began on July 1. When he finally suggested that Machado step down a year early, Machado refused, protesting loudly to Congress, the Cuban public, and other Latin American nations about US intervention in Cuban affairs. He tried to get  Congress to outlaw anyone saying that foreign intervention should occur in Cuba. He said that armed intervention would be met with counter force.     
   In August, 1933 there was a general strike and then the generals abandoned him. He fled to Nassau on August 12, 1993, with ABC terrorists shooting at his plane as it taxied on the runway!   He died in Miami Beach, Florida in 1939.
    General Alberto Herrera Carlos, the next in line became president but resigned so that Dr.  Manuel de Céspedes, favored by Welles, could become provisional president. He did not last long. The Revolution of 1933 saw to that.
Don Mabry