In the years leading up to the Cuban Revolution, Fulgencio Batista y Zaldvar was the dictator of Cuba. Prior to becoming a dictator, he was the country’s democratically elected president. His early years were difficult because he came from a low-income family. When his mother died when he was 14, he left home and went to work in the cane fields, ports, and train roads as a laborer. He entered in the army in April 1921 and served as a corporal for two years. In 1923, he joined the ‘Guardia Country’ (rural police) and later returned to the army, serving as the regimental colonel’s secretary. In 1933, he organized the ‘Sergeants’ Revolt,’ which collaborated with a number of other organizations to overthrow the Gerardo Machado government. Batista was elected President of Cuba in 1940 with the help of both the US government and the old ‘Communist Party of Cuba.’ Despite massive social reforms and populist measures established under his reign, he was unable to elect his preferred successor in 1944, and he fled Cuba for the United States. In 1952, he staged another coup and seized power. He would oversee a corrupt and harsh administration for the next seven years, until he was deposed by Fidel Castro’s ’26th of July Movement.’
Childhood and Adolescence
Ruben Zaldivar was born in Veguita, a small rural village in Banes municipality, Holgun province, Cuba, on January 16, 1901. Hermelindo, Francisco, and Juan, his three younger brothers, grew up with him. He was born into a low-income family. His father, Belisario Batista Palermo, was a freedom fighter in the ‘Cuban War of Independence’ under General José Maceo, and his mother, Carmela Zaldvar González, had her first child when she was 15 years old. He was of Spanish, African, Chinese, and native Caribbean origin, according to some researchers.
He attended a public school in Banes for his early schooling. After that, he went to an American Friends school. He worked as a tailor, mechanic, charcoal dealer, and fruit peddler in addition to being a labourer.
Later Life & Career
Fulgencio Batista learnt typing and shorthand during his two years in the Cuban army from 1921 to 1923. He returned to the army after brief spells as a teacher and with the rural police, and quickly progressed through the ranks to become a sergeant stenographer. He was the secretary of a powerful non-commissioned officers’ group in 1933 that was at the center of a’sergeant’s plot.’
The coup of 1933 was a triumph under his leadership. A coalition called the ‘Pentarchy of 1933’ was formed to administer the country, with five leaders from various rebel organizations. Sergio Carbo drafted a declaration for it. The document was signed by only one military representative, Batista. Under the presidency of Ramón Grau San Martn, who had replaced the Pentarchy, he was raised to the rank of colonel and appointed Army Chief of Staff. On top of his ultimate control over the military, he gained the support of the civil service and organized labor in the years that followed.
He also built a relationship with the US administration, with Sumner Welles of the US State Department serving as a mediator.
After just over a hundred days in office, Batista pushed Grau to retire on January 15, 1934. Cuba was administered by a succession of puppet presidents for the following six years, with Batista pulling the strings from behind the scenes. Throughout it all, his popularity remained unwavering. In the general election of 1940, he ran with the support of the ‘Democratic Socialist Coalition.’ He defeated Frau to become the new 1940 Constitution’s first President.
His first tenure is usually regarded favorably by historians. He implemented important changes, extended the educational system, and boosted the economy. During the Second World War, Cuba sided with the Allies. On December 8, 1941, Cuba declared war on Germany and Italy, one day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Batista suffered a huge blow when his protégé Carlos Saladrigas Zayas lost to Grau in the 1944 presidential election. He went out of his way to undermine the president-elect and his new administration. Following Grau’s inauguration, he relocated to the United States.
He remained active in Cuban politics, though, and in 1948 he was elected to the Senate in his absence.
When Batista returned to Cuba in 1952, he founded the “Progressive Action Party” and vowed to compete for president that year. His ‘United Action Coalition’ was polling well behind the others in the run-up to the election. He launched a coup against outgoing President Carlos Pro Socarrás and regained control of the government as an interim president, gaining the army’s support once more. As a result, the election was called off.
Once in power, Batista abrogated most political liberties and ushered in a series of economic policies that proved disastrous for Cuba. By the late 1950s, American corporations controlled 90% of Cuba’s mines, 80% of its public utilities, 50% of its railways, 40% of its sugar production, and 25% of its bank deposits. He gave organized crime, particularly American mobsters like Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, carte blanche. Havana became known as “the Latin Las Vegas,” a hedonistic playground for the world’s elite where drugs, gambling, and prostitutes were commonplace.
Before the ‘Cuban Revolution,’ Batista’s most outspoken adversaries were mostly liberal democracy proponents. His presidency was deemed unlawful and illegal by them. To quell the country’s mounting turmoil, Batista conducted an election in 1954, with Grau as his main opponent. However, just days before the election, Grau withdrew, accusing the administration of electoral fraud. Batista was elected without opposition, giving his regime a veneer of legitimacy.
On July 26, 1953, Batista suppressed Fidel Castro’s first armed revolt at the Moncada Barracks in Santiago. The majority of the rebels were slain, while the others, including Castro, were imprisoned. On May 15, 1955, he was eventually liberated. The ‘University of Havana’ was one of the most powerful anti-Batista strongholds. In the latter months of 1955, students staged demonstration after demonstration, many of which turned violent. On November 30, 1956, Batista declared the university closed. On March 13, 1957, he was the target of an assassination attempt led by student leader José Antonio Echeverra. Batista’s retaliation was ruthless.
In a police shootout, Echeverria was slain. The remaining students involved were either executed on the same day or tracked down afterwards. In April 1956, he survived the ‘Conspiración de los Puros,’ a military coup led by popular military leader Ramón Barqun (Conspiracy of the Pure). Lieutenant Ros Morejón, who defected to the government, stopped the plot. Batista retaliated by purging the military. Most of Barqun’s trusted officers were executed, and he was sentenced to solitary incarceration.
The deaths of so many professional officers resulted in a void in the military’s chain of command, which would prove to be a disastrous error during the revolution. Following his release, Castro traveled to Mexico in search of supporters and funds, where he met Che Guevara. They established camps in the Sierra Maestra highlands and used guerilla warfare to defeat Batista’s army in a series of engagements. The Constitution required Batista to hold the election in 1958, and despite delays, it was held in November. Grau withdrew yet again, this time just hours before the election.
Andrés Rivero Agüero, Batista’s preferred candidate, was elected President in a 30-50 percent turnout election.
Batista’s support in the United States began to wane about this time. He fled to the Dominican Republic with 40 followers and close family on January 1, 1959. On January 8, 1959, Fidel Castro and his troops marched into Havana. He allegedly took as much as $700 million in art and cash in his flight from Cuba, according to several reports. He was denied entry into the United States by the US government. He moved to Portugal, and then to Spain, where he received shelter.
Human Rights Violations
Fulgencio Batista made millions by having a commercial tie with organized crime. On the surface, his regime appeared wealthy, with new casinos springing up every other day and Cadillacs lining the streets. The reality was far worse: 15% to 20% of the Cuban workforce was chronically unemployed, and the average household earned barely $6 per week. As the years passed, the situation worsened, and fresh graduates entering the economy were unable to find job.
Slums may be found all across Havana, often very next to skyscrapers.
Batista suspended constitutional rights and imposed strict censorship on the media in the mid-1950s. His brutal retaliation for the failed murder attempt attacked not only the student organizations responsible, the “Federation of University Students” (FEU) and the “Directorio” (DR), but also political opponents who had nothing to do with it.
With only 300 allies, Castro went into hiding in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. Due to Batista’s police torturing innocent individuals, the number climbed tremendously. Youths, whether rebels or not, were publicly executed as a deterrent to others from joining the rebellion. Hundreds of soiled bodies were hanged from lamp posts or dumped on open streets in a macabre reenactment of the Spanish colonial tradition of public execution.
His Most Important Works
Fulgencio Batista’s biggest humanitarian and democratic achievement, in a legacy marred by avarice and a desire for power, was the ‘1940 Constitution of Cuba.’ It was one of the most progressive constitutions of the period, providing for workers’ rights, free elections, universal suffrage, and civil liberties, and was inspired by collectivist principles preached during the 1933 revolution. Ironically, when he reclaimed power in 1952, one of the first things he did was suspend the Constitution.
Personal History and Legacy
Fulgencio Batista had two wives. Mirta Caridad, Elisa Aleida, and Fulgencio Rubén were born to his first wife, Elisa Godnez y Gómez, on July 10, 1926. After nearly 20 years of marriage, they divorced in October 1945. Before his divorce from Elisa was finalized, he started dating Marta Fernández Miranda.
On November 28, 1945, they married. Jorge Luis, Roberto Francisco, Carlos Manuel, and Fulgencio José were their four boys, while Marta Mara was their daughter. He lived in exile in Spain for the last few years of his life. He died on August 6, 1973, after suffering a heart attack. He was 72 years old at the time.
Fulgencio’s estimated net worth places him among the wealthiest World Leaders and among the most popular World Leaders. Fulgencio Batista has a net worth of $1.5 million, according to Wikipedia, Forbes, and Business Insider.
Batista was played by actor Tito Alba in the 1974 American crime film ‘The Godfather Part II,’ directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Edmund Chester, his personal speechwriter, wrote the biography ‘A Sergeant Named Batista,’ which was released in 1954.