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Fulgencio Batista

Fulgencio Batista: The Making of a Dictator

Frank Argote-Freyre
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Fulgencio Batista
    Book Description:

    Pawn of the U.S. government. Right-hand man to the mob. Iron-fisted dictator. For decades, public understanding of the pre-Revolutionary Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista has been limited to these stereotypes. While on some level they all contain an element of truth, these superficial characterizations barely scratch the surface of the complex and compelling career of this important political figure.

    Second only to Fidel Castro, Batista is the most controversial leader in modern Cuban history. And yet, until now, there has been no objective biography written about him. Existing biographical literature is predominantly polemical and either borders on hero worship or launches a series of attacks aimed at denigrating his entire legacy.

    In this book, the first of two volumes, Frank Argote-Freyre provides a full and balanced portrait of this historically shadowed figure. He describes Batista's rise to power as part of a revolutionary movement and the intrigues and dangers that surrounded him. Drawing on an extensive review of Cuban newspapers, government records, memos, oral history interviews, and a selection of Batista's personal documents, Argote-Freyre moves beyond simplistic caricatures to uncover the real man-one with strengths and weaknesses and with a career marked by accomplishments as well as failures.

    This volume focuses on Batista's role as a revolutionary leader from 1933 to 1934 and his image as a "strongman" in the years between 1934 and 1939. Argote-Freyre also uses Batista as an interpretive prism to review an entire era that is usually ignored by scholars-the Republican period of Cuban history. Bringing together global and local events, he considers the significance and relationship of the worldwide economic depression, the beginnings of World War II, and in Cuba, the Revolution of 1933, the expansion of the middle class, and the gradual development of democratic institutions.

    Fulgencio Batista and most of Cuba's past prior to the Revolution of 1959 has been lost in the historical mists. Cuba had a rich and fascinating history before the Marxist Revolution and the reign of Fidel Castro. This captivating and long-overdue book uncovers it.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4100-6
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xxii)
    (pp. 1-13)

    By the middle of December 1958, Fulgencio Batista knew his days as dictator of Cuba were about to come to an abrupt end. In recent years, he had survived an attack on the Presidential Palace that left several of his personal guards dead and nearly cost him and his wife their lives. He had survived several efforts by trusted military officials to topple him from power, including a naval revolt by forces at the port of Cienfuegos. But most recently, Batista, who had dominated Cuban politics for twenty-five years, had received word from his intelligence operatives that one of his...

    (pp. 14-22)

    There are many gaps in the story of the next five years of Batista’s life. Biographical accounts seldom dedicate more than a few paragraphs to the period between 1916 and April 1921, when he entered the Cuban Army. What survives are sketchy accounts of his travels throughout Oriente Province, working an odd assortment of jobs and finally landing a position at the Ferrocarriles del Norte (Northern Rail Line) in Camagüey Province. Anyone meeting Fulgencio Batista in this period would have considered him an unlikely candidate to become the future leader of Cuba. For part of the time he was homeless,...

    (pp. 23-34)

    Havana was a bustling metropolis of more than three hundred fifty thousand people when Fulgencio Batista arrived in the spring of 1921. By far the largest city in Cuba, about 15 percent of the island’s population lived in the capital and its suburbs.¹ The city, located on Cuba’s northwestern coastline, expanded enormously both westward and southward in the decades preceding the Wars of Independence. It originally developed around the entrance to Havana Harbor, with each side defended by a fortification. The famous El Morro stood on the eastern side of the harbor, while the Castillo de la Punta protected the...

    (pp. 35-52)

    The political history of Cuba in the early 1930s was written in blood. The struggle between President Gerardo Machado and his political opponents escalated into a daily war of bombings and murder. It reached its climax with the Revolution of 1933 and the toppling of two governments.

    In the years between 1925 and 1933, Machado evolved into one of the most reviled Cuban leaders of the twentieth century. The struggle against theMachadato, the scornful nickname for the government, fundamentally changed the nature of politics on the island. Machado would be the first dictator to flee the island by plane...

    (pp. 53-75)

    The government of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes was sickly and weak from the moment it took power.¹ Sumner Welles and the United States had their fingerprints all over the provisional government. On the day Céspedes was sworn in, August 13, 1933, Welles went to congratulate the new president. The embrace between the two men, captured in photos in all the national dailies and weeklies, was awkward. Welles, who stood at well over six feet, towered over Céspedes, who was about six to nine inches shorter. The imbalance in their stature could be seen as a metaphor for the power imbalance...

    (pp. 76-109)

    Taking power was relatively easy. Keeping it would prove much more difficult. The government of the enlisted men and student leaders was surrounded by powerful enemies. U.S. Ambassador Sumner Welles was personally embarrassed by the removal of Céspedes and would do everything in his power to undermine the new government. The military officers, humiliated by the events of September 4, refused to return to their posts and share power with their former underlings. It was hard for them to imagine thatel negro Batista, aguajiro(country boy) from Banes was responsible for their ouster.¹ Their sense of military honor...

    (pp. 110-135)

    Reports of a possible military uprising began to reach Batista in early October. Intelligence indicated that segments of the military, including some of the newly promoted officers, were disgruntled with Batista and the course events had taken since September 4. Some felt the enlisted men had made a mistake in pushing out their former commanders (even though none had gone to the defense of the officers at the Hotel Nacional), while others felt continuing support of the Grau government was undermining military stability. And of course, there were always those passed over for promotion. On the civilian side, there was...

    (pp. 136-161)

    It was an odd sort of dictatorship. Batista was the strongman of a weak government. And, even though he was in a position of relative strength, there were enormous checks on his personal power throughout the two-year, provisional presidency of Carlos Mendieta Montefur (January 1934–December 1935). Some of the checks came from within the government, others from the political opposition that capitalized on the desperate economic conditions in Depression-era Cuba. Crippling strikes, political assassinations, indiscriminate bombing campaigns, and challenges of every conceivable sort to the government were part of everyday life. Newspapers and magazines of the period ran one...

    (pp. 162-185)

    The Mendieta-Batista government spent a good deal of its time trying to suppress and oppress the Cuban labor movement. The labor movement spent a good deal of its time trying to topple the government. At least part of the labor movement’s antagonism was based on the difficult economic conditions of Depression-era Cuba. Strikes were a by-product of these straitened circumstances and were endemic throughout the United States, Europe, and Latin America.¹ In this regard, Cuba was no different. What distinguished the Cuban situation, and made it more explosive than that of many other nations, was foreign control of the economy....

    (pp. 186-198)

    President Mendieta’s political career died during the general strike; all that was left was to wait for the interment. That came nine months later, in December 1935, when he resigned in a squabble over upcoming elections. During his last nine months in office, Mendieta was forced to preside over an electoral process largely dictated to him by Ambassador Caffery and Colonel Batista. He continued to serve as the lightning rod for most public criticism. The civilian politicians taking part in what remained of the political process were, for the most part, unwilling or unable to attack Batista or Caffery. They...

    (pp. 199-229)

    The year 1936 marks an unheralded watershed in the history of the Cuban Republic and the career of Fulgencio Batista. The period of revolutionary turmoil was at an end. The general strike of 1935 was the last gasp of revolutionary forces seeking to redefine the core of Cuban society. As historian Robert Whitney puts it, Batista had succeeded “in disciplining the masses.”¹ The venue for political struggle now shifted from the battlefield of the streets to the halls of government and the backrooms where political deals were made. Reform, not revolution, would typify the next fifteen years of Cuban history....

    (pp. 230-250)

    The impeachment of President Gómez cleared away any remaining artifice. Fulgencio Batista was in charge of Cuba. Presidents served at his pleasure. In the hours and days after Federico Laredo Brú was sworn in as Cuba’s latest chief executive, it was unclear whether his tenure would be short or long.¹ There were persistent rumors that Batista would install his close personal friend, Foreign Minister Rafael Montalvo, in the presidency. But the military chief took a liking to the sixty-one-year-old Brú, and in a statement to the nation two days after the impeachment spectacle, Batista declared that the new president was...

    (pp. 251-274)

    Cuban politics was not for the meek. During their careers, political figures could expect to spend considerable amounts of time in exile or jail. Grau, Menocal, Miguel Mariano Gómez,Mendieta, Sáenz—all of the major Cuban political leaders of the era experienced one or both. Then there was the violence, always just under the surface, ready to erupt. Sometimes political scores were settled in a hail of bullets. Political assassinations, although less frequent in the late 1930s and early 1940s than in earlier periods, were hardly rare occurrences. The mayor of Marianao, a suburb west of Havana, was assassinated by someone...

  18. NOTES
    (pp. 275-362)
    (pp. 363-376)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 377-388)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 389-389)
  22. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)