Why was the Batista regime in Cuba overthrown with such apparent ease?
Fulgencio Batista was born in 1901 and during his life was twice to seize power in Cuba as well as once being cleanly elected before eventually fleeing Cuba in 1959 and dying in exile. This essay will explore some of the reasons why the Batista regime was overthrown with such apparent ease. The Cuban Revolution and overthrow of Batista must be seen in the context of Cuban history and it is with the rise and fall of the Machado regime that we will begin, before looking at political opposition to Batista and the rise of Castro.
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Following his popular election in 1924, it was thought that under the presidency of Gerardo Machado Cuban politics would be cleaned up (Williamson 1992, 441). However, unrest caused by falling sugar prices through the 1920s led to an increasingly repressive regime that fuelled terrorism and violence amongst students and middle-class intellectuals as well as opposition from labour unions. The ABC movement, formed in 1931, engaged in assassinations and shoot-outs with Machado’s police. In 1933 Machado went into exile but the government put in place by the army and the US ambassador was quickly ousted in September 1933 in the so-called Sergeant’s Revolt. Dr Ramon Grau San Martin of Havana University became president but after a four-month spell in office, Sergeant Fulgencio Batista overthrew his government in a coup (Williamson 1992, 442).
Despite having the support of the US and Cuban business interests, Batista was a populist who sought the support of the unions, passed social welfare, provided housing for workers and promoted fuller employment through public works programmes (Williamson 1992, 442). The unpopular Platt Amendment, allowing US intervention in Cuban internal affairs, was annulled in 1934. In the late 1930s there were assembly elections and in 1940 a new constitution was passed, providing for universal suffrage, pensions, social welfare, a minimum wage and an eight hour day (Williamson 1992, 443). In 1940 Batista held free elections, in which he won power. However, in 1944, perhaps overconfident, he lost the election and retired to the US.
Elected to the presidency in 1944 was none other than Dr Grau, of the Autentico Party, which was formed after the 1933 revolution and had led political opposition to Batista through the 1930s (Ameringa 1985, 328). It was hoped that the political atmosphere would become healthier and that further reforms would be enacted. After all, there had been US aid and an improved economic situation during the war and a sugar boom at its end. These hopes ‘were drowned in an orgy of corruption and violence by venal revolutionary gangs, which Grau looked upon with complaisance’ (Williamson 1992, 443). In fact violence and terrorism had never fully disappeared after 1933. It is in this context that the relief at the return of Batista, through a coup in 1952, must be seen.
Continuing with a similar programme of public works and economic diversification Cuba’s situation seemed to improve with increased literacy, health and welfare (Williamson 1992, 444). On the other hand there remained significant seasonal unemployment amongst the rural majority due to the continued predominance of sugar as well as dependence on the US market and its quotas and the fluctuating world sugar price. The second Batista period had not been greeted with universal joy. Varona, of the Autenticos denounced him as a ‘usurper’ (Ameringa 1985, 328). Batista declared himself chief of state and suspended the 1940 constitution, dissolving all political parties. He cancelled the elections in 1952, detaining members of the opposition and suspending civil guarantees, and cancelled elections again in 1953 and won the election in 1954 while Varona, who had been detained in 1952 and 1953 denounced his regime and election victory as fraudulent (Ameringa 1985, 330-39). Following his election, Batista attempted some conciliation in a policy of amnesty (Ameringa 1985, 340). Despite this, there was an increased climate of violence in 1955-56 marked by the killing of Villasana, a crackdown on student demonstrations and a purge of the military (Ameringa 1985, 340, 342, 344).
Fidel Castro had already appeared on the scene from Havans University in the early 1950s. Under his leadership 160 young people had attacked the Moncada barracks in Santiago, part of their plan to depose Batista (Williamson 1992, 444). Most were shot or arrested and treatment at the hands of the soldiers was brutal. Indeed the public outcry at this was what saved Castro from torture and murder, although the attack did provoke a further tightening of the regime. Following his release from prison in 1955 he went to Mexico, falling in with other exiles and Guevara. Returning to Cuba on the Granma, Castro with 82 men landed in Oriente but were given away to Batista’s men by locals and only 12 men survived the enounter. Fleeing into the Sierra Maestra, a guerrilla force began to take shape and to win small victories against Batista’s troops. There was also urban resistance led by Pais, the students’ Directorio Revolucionario, which almost managed to assassinate Batista and the Communist Party, which mobilised labour against Batista (Williamson 1992, 445-46). An unsuccessful revolt of naval officers also took place at Cienfuegos in 1957. The failure of the general strike in 1958, according to Williamson, made Castro realise that it was military action that would decide the fate of Cuba (Williamson 1992, 446). Batista failed to defeat the guerrillas in his May 1958 offensive in Sierra Maestra and in August Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfugos’s forces took Las Villas, cutting Cuba in two and isolating much of Batista’s army in the east. On the 1st of January 1959, with the Rebel Army approaching Havana and having already lost the military aid of the US in 1958, Batista fled to the Dominican Republic, conceding defeat (Williamson 1992, 4446-47). Castro was immediately recognised by the US as the new Cuban prime minister.
Vellinga comments that ‘From the abundant literature available on the Cuban revolution, it is difficult to arrive at a consensus on the question of whether or not the Rebel Army brought about the ultimate defeat of the Batista regime, and to determine exactly which segments of the population (and in what proportion) played a major part in the struggle on Fidel Castro’s side’ (Vellinga 1976, 246). Indeed, while the official line, that the Rebel Army was a peasant army conforming to theories of revolutionary warfare, that the Batista regime was defeated by a coalition of the workers, peasants and students and that the regime was defeated by successful applications of the doctrine of guerrilla warfare, we can see that the tradition of political change in Cuba is one in which dictators could, when forced to face up to their unpopularity and the impossibility of their situation, retire, rather than fight to the death (Vellinga 1976, 246). This had been the case with Machado as well as with Batista, at the end of his first regime. Batista’s position, facing opposition from all sides and without US backing was quite simply untenable. Furthermore, the US CIA had been trying to persuade Batista to step down voluntarily, in favour of others that he might designate, and had tried to engineer a situation in which Castro might be contained within a US friendly coalition in Havana (Morley 1982, 168). The post-1959 attempts by the US to shape events in Cuba were unsuccessful due to the ‘mobilized working-class constituency’ that was able to remake the social and political institutions of Cuba (Morley 1982, 169). This would seem to demonstrate the truth in the notion that the revolution did have a basis in the community at large and explain the apparent ease of the overthrow of Batista.
However, the military success of the revolution needs to be seen in terms of the wider context of the constant political opposition of the Varona and the Autenticos from 1952-57, who in a spirit of abstentionism retained democratic ideals and the principle of the rule of law and consistently denied the legitimacy of the Batista regime, emphasising its violations and avoiding violence and collaboration. ‘They fostered the attitude that the Batista regime was abnormal, an aberration that would pass’ (Ameringer 1985, 350).
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In conclusion, we can see that the apparent ease with which Batista was overthrown owes itself to a variety of factors brought out by the discussion above. Firstly, in Cuba there was a tradition in which dictators could step down and flee from untenable positions, for example, Batista’s original financially beneficial retirement to the US. There also seems to be truth in the widespread involvement amongst the different social classes of Cuba in the revolution against Batista. The lack of continued support from the US probably played a major role in Batista’s decision to flee, not least following his military defeats at the hands of the Rebel Army and the withdrawal of military aid by the US. Finally, there was constant and consistent political opposition that maintained the illegitimacy of Batista’s regime and kept alive the possibility that something better could exist.
Ameringa, C.D. 1985. The Autentico Party and the Political Opposition in Cuba, 1952-57. The Hispanic American Historical Review Vol.65 No.2 (May): 327-51.
Morley, M.H. 1982. The US Imperial State in Cuba 1952-1958: Policymaking and Capitalist Interests. Journal of Latin American Studies Vol.14 No.1 (May): 143-70.
Vellinga, M.L. 1976. The Military and the Dynamics of the Cuban Revolutionary Process. Comparative Politics Vol.8 No.2 (Jan.): 245-71.
Williamson, E. 1992. The Penguin History of Latin America. London: Penguin.
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