Thursday, January 10, 2019
January 10, 2019: Cuban and American Histories: Fulgencio Batista
[January 7th marks the 60th anniversary of Fidel Castro entering Havana to take over as Cuba’s prime minister—one begrudgingly recognized by a U.S. government that had opposed his revolution and would continue to oppose his rule. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Cuban histories in relationship to the U.S.—leading up to a weekend post on literary works that can help us understand the island nation and ourselves!]
On remembering two sides to a Latin American despot beyond the most famous histories.
For most American audiences—including this AmericanStudier before I researched him for this Talking Points Memo piece on Cuban-American relationships and histories—Fulgencio Batista is likely best (if not only) known through his fictionalized (but historically accurate) representation in The Godfather: Part II (1974). That film depicts the final days of a Batista-like figure’s despotic rule of Cuba, including his administration’s deep ties to American interests (economic but also and especially criminal) and the New Year’s Eve 1958-1959 revolutionary riots in Havana that helped overthrow him and install Fidel Castro as the nation’s new leader. There’s no doubt that Batista’s seven year dictatorship—which began with a March 10, 1952 military coup that canceled the upcoming presidential election and was recognized as legitimate almost immediately by the United States—was supported throughout by both the U.S. government and numerous U.S. corporations and organizations (including the mob), a symbiotic relationship all too common in 20th century Latin American nations and histories but nonetheless a clear and important final stage in Batista’s specific story as a Cuban leader.
It wasn’t the only such stage, however, and remembering two others add layers to how we remember Batista (and his relationship to the United States). In September 1933, after a decade and a half as a soldier in the Cuban military (among other professions and roles), Batista led the uprising known as the Sergeants’ Revolt, a coup d’etat in which military leaders and student activists conspired to depose President Carlos Manuel de Céspedes y Quesada. Batista did not assume national leadership for many years after the coup—the nation was first briefly ruled by a five-man coalition known as the Pentarchy of 1933, then by interim President Ramón Grau San Martin, then by a number of other puppet presidents—but Batista remained a vital power behind all of these figures and governments. Indeed, it’s possible to argue, as this historian does, that Batista immediately betrayed the 1933 revolution for his own benefit. As early as the opening night of the coup he told the leading officers, “From this moment forward, do not obey anyone's orders but mine,” and to some degree the same phrase could be applied to all the nation’s subsequent presidents. And he was consistently supported by the U.S. in those efforts, as when Special Envoy Sumner Welles helped Batista force Grau to resign in favor of a more malleable puppet president in January 1934.
When Batista himself finally became president in 1940, it might seem to have been just a more overt version of that longstanding power and influence. But while that was partly the case, there were also differences that reflected Cuba’s continuing development of its own independent government and status. The most notable such difference was the 1940 Cuban Constitution, a ground-breaking document that legitimized Batista’s triumph over Grau in the 1940 presidential election. Just over a year later, two days after the Pearl Harbor attack, Cuba entered World War II on the side of the allies, a somewhat symbolic action but one that both led to Cuban casualties and represented a more equitable, less dependent relationship between the nation and the U.S. And in 1944 Batista stepped down from the presidency, allowing another democratic election in which his hand-picked successor, Carlos Saladrigas Zayas, was defeated by Grau. Batista would subsequently leave Cuba for the United States, dividing his time between Florida and New York City. Those years would culminate in his 1952 coup and dictatorship, which remains the end of Batista’s story as a Cuban leader—but these other stages nevertheless add important layers to that story.
Last history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Cuban histories you’d highlight?