Let’s play a game.
If I say ‘Cuba’ and then I mention a leader who ratified a constitution backed by the
people, instituted land reforms, legalised the Communist Party, cooperated with the trade
unions and actively opposed Fascism … [each point appears on screen with a ‘ping!’:
Constitution Land reforms
Communist party Trade unions
Vs Fascism] … who comes to mind?
But one man did it all 19 years before they came to power.
None other than their sworn rival, Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.
But keep on watching to learn more about the complex life of a man who rose from the very
bottom of the social scale, ended up ruling the 4th largest economy in Latin America,
made an alliance with the Mafia, escaped an assassination attempt thanks to Santería
magical practices and eventually fled at dawn with three cargo planes filled with loot.
Humble origins Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar,
[Full-hen-theo Batista ee Thull-dee-var] Was born on the 16th of January 1901 from
a family of impoverished farmers in Banes, Cuba, not far from the estate in which Fidel
Castro would come to life in a wealthy household of land owners.
This was only 3 years after Cuba had gained freedom from Spain’s colonial dominance,
following the Hispano-American War.
In 1898 the US congress had passed the Teller amendment granting full independence to Cuba,
but this was partially revoked by the Platt amendment of 1901 which gave power to the
US Government to intervene in the nation island if American interests were threatened.
And Washington had plenty of motivations to be involved in Cuban politics – 30 to 50
Million to be precise: as early as 1896 President Grover Cleveland stated that American investments
in Cuban sugar cane plantations, railroads, mining and other enterprises amounted to 30
to 50 MLN $. That’s up to 1.5 Billion in today’s money.
As a result, Cuban politics, economy and society were often in turmoil, badly managed by a
string of corrupt Presidents who ruled to please the land owner elite with substantial
Just as an example, consider the story of the PIC, Partido Independiente de Color – or
Coloured Independent Party, founded by Afro-Cuban veterans of the war against Spain.
In 1908 the Party won enough votes to threaten the rule of the then President Gomez, to which
he reacted by disbanding it.
As a pretext, he cited a law which forbade the creation of parties based on race – a
law which was made to protect the ruling white Cuban elite.
When the PIC staged a revolt, Gomez launched a bloody crackdown, backed by the regular
Army and US troops sent to protect American interests.
5000 Afro-Cubans died in the struggle, many of them lynched by mobs who had been stirred
to attack any citizen of colour.
This was the country in which young Fulgencio tried to make his way.
Batista had a mixed ancestry: Spanish, African, Chinese, and native Caribbean.
How could he, an impoverished rural half-caste, a mulatto[TA1] , how could he possibly leave
his mark in a Cuba dominated by white land owners?
One such way was the Army, which he joined in 1921 as a private, more out of necessity
than as a vocational choice.
Young Fulgencio had ambitions, in fact, and his service in the army helped him support
his studies as a stenographer and a journalist.
While stationed in the Wajay suburb of Havana, Private Batista met and fell in love with
a girl called Elisa Godinez Gomez.
She came from a similar rural background and had moved to the city after her father got
a job in a psychiatric hospital.
Fulgencio and Elisa married on the 10th of July 1926 and they would go on to have three
children: Mirta, Fulgencio Ruben and Elisa Aleida.
But apparently Batista was not fully satisfied by married life and went on to have at least
two officially recognised affairs: the first one, with the mother of a girl called Fermina,
born out of wedlock, whom he would legally recognise.
The second one with a lady called Marta Fernandez, but more on this later.
In 1928 the private became Sergeant Batista and was assigned to the barracks of Camp Columbia,
It was here that he first made contact with fellow servicemen who secretly opposed the
rule of President Gerardo Machado [Her-ar-doe Match-add-aw] . Thanks to his personal charisma
he developed a large network of followers which placed him at the centre of the conspirator
Sergeants in Revolt President Machado had been in power since
1925 and had started with good intentions: putting an end to the Platt Agreement and
US interference as well as transforming Cuba into the “Switzerland of the Americas”.
But a recession in 1928, worsened by the Wall Street crash of 1929, led to political instability
and growing opposition from students, trade unions and the military.
In July 1933, US envoy Sumner Welles went ‘full Platt’ on Machado and made him step
aside, helping install new President Carlos Manuel de Cespedes [Thess-payh-dayhs] . The
new guy had just finished unpacking his brief case when he was ousted by the “Revolt of
the Sergeants” in September.
By the way: if at any point during this video you lose count of the Cuban presidents coming
and going, don’t worry – so did the Cubans.
But back to the Sergeants: their leader was none other than Fulgencio Batista, who had
seized the occasion to rise through the ranks and stick it to Uncle Sam in one single action.
And you must give credit to the man in this occasion: an army Sergeant has formal authority
over 10 to 30 soldiers at best, that is why military coups are carried out by Colonels
or Generals with thousands of troops under their orders.
And yet he had managed to lead a successful revolt based only on charisma and informal
Batista and the Sergeants replaced Cespedes with new President Professor Ramón Grau San
Martín [Grr-ou as in ‘ouch’] while Fulgencio gave himself a promotion and became Chief
of Staff of the Army with the rank of Colonel.
Batista the Puppet Master In the following years the newly appointed
Colonel Batista would hold power in the shadows, pulling strings to make or break presidencies.
And to further his plans he did not mind cooperating with the US from the start.
For example, in late 1933 Professor Grau launched some attempts at reform but his time in office
was characterised by social instability and constant opposition.
After only 100 days Grau received the deluxe Platt treatment by Sumner Welles with Batista’s
full support and cooperation: Cuba needed stability and Grau was not the right man.
Batista then handed over the presidency on Colonel Carlos Mendieta [Men-dee-ay-tah],
who had the approval of most factions, and most importantly of the U.S.
In June 1934 President Roosevelt concluded a treaty with Cuba that finally abrogated
once and for all the Platt Amendment.
This was not the end of American interference in Cuban affairs but at least it wasn’t
formally sanctioned any more.
FDR may have also realised that political factions in Cuba had been exploiting the amendment
to their advantage, by creating unrest to trigger American interventions on their side.
and went under Batista: Barnet.
[Ping on screen: Barnet – 6 months] Arias.
[Arias – 6 months] Bru.
[Bru – 3 years 10 months] Well done, Bru!
Out of the shadows President Bru’s term in office takes us
to October 1940, a time for new elections.
Tired of being the power in the shadows, Batista finally decided to run for the presidency,
supported by a coalition which included the Cuban Communist Party, which himself had legalised
in the previous decade.
His main opponent in the 1940 election was an old acquaintance, Professor Grau.
And this is when Colonel Fulgencio Batista, the former and future leader of revolts and
coups, stepped into power as a democratically elected representative of the people.
One can only imagine the sense of achievement felt by this son of farm labourers who became
a soldier, then a Sergeant, a Colonel, the driving force behind Cuba’s string of rulers,
and finally its first non-white President in a country historically ruled by sugar cane
tycoons of European descent.
Batista’s presidential term, from 1940 to 1944 is generally viewed in a positive light
During this period Batista oversaw the drafting of a new constitution: a progressive document
which called for government intervention in the economy and provided a social safety net.
His policies included an economic and agrarian reform, cooperation with the trade unions,
an expansion of the educational system and an active opposition to Fascism, made explicit
by declaring war on Germany and Italy on the 8th of December 1941.
All in all, it was a period of growth, stability and democratic development for the island
Batista ruled well, although he did take the opportunity to enrich himself.
After his term ended in 1944, Batista stepped aside, preferring to sponsor new candidate
Carlos Saladrigas, who was defeated by Professor Grau – yes, him again!
Batista soon left the country and lived for a while in Florida, where he increased his
wealth by investing the huge sums he had acquired in Cuba.
The following year, 1945, Batista finally divorced from Elisa and married his long-time
mistress, Marta Fernandez Miranda, who would give him four more children.
During his years of absence Grau’s administration became known for its corruption and irresponsibility
– a great disappointment for the Cuban electorate who saw Grau as a ‘pure’ hero from the
This malcontent paved the way for Batista’s return to the island, this time as a Senator,
From 1948 to 1952 Cuba was run by elected President Prio Socarras.
Like Grau, he was an ambitious and idealistic leader, whose agenda got marred by corruption
and economic stagnation.
When new elections were called to take place in June1952, Batista run for office for a
Anticipating a defeat, the former Colonel launched a bloodless golpe, a coup, on the
10th of March 1952.
Washington immediately recognized the new Cuban government.
It became clear from the start that Batista’s approach to running the country had radically
change from his early presidency.
First, he suspended the 1940 Constitution he himself had instituted and cancelled most
of the remaining civil liberties.
Whereas in 1940 he had sought the alliance of trade unions and the Communist Party, he
now backed the wealthy landowners who owned sugar plantations.
The gap between rich and poor increased and government corruption was rife.
Whereas in 1940 his accumulation of wealth appeared as a by-product of his populist rule,
now the reaping of profits was his only evident goal.
And finally, whereas in his previous years in power he had sought cooperation with the
US only as a means to further his political goals, he now welcomed with open arms the
intervention of both America’s government and its private sector.
By the late 1950s, the US corporations owned 90% of Cuban mines [ping]
80% public utilities 50% of the railways
40% of the sugar production and 25% of the bank deposits
In an effort to boost tourism, Batista also invited a different kind of American entrepreneurship
to invest in an industry as Cuban as cigar and rum production: gambling
Batista and the Mob If you have seen the Godfather part II you
will surely remember a long section set in Havana, in which Michael Corleone meets gangster
Hyman Roth, who runs the profitable gambling business in Cuba in cahoots with the Government.
This Roth character is inspired by a real-life gangster, Meyer Lansky, a high-ranking mobster
of the Jewish Mafia.
Lansky and legendary Italo-American mafioso Lucky Luciano had been cooperating with Batista
since his Florida years.
When the dictator had seized power in 1952 he had realised that to attract the right
kind of tourism and investments he needed to clean up Havana’s Casinos and red-light
Who could do a better job than the Mob?
Lansky in particular had a real talent to organise complex operations and have businesses
run like clockwork.
He took charge of the casinos, becoming a sort of unofficial – but much needed – Minister
What did Lansky, Luciano, and other mobsters such as Santo Trafficante get in return?
Well, for starters, they got loads of money from Batista’ Government, but most of all
they had free rein in dealing cocaine in and out of the island.
This was a time when VIP members at one of the smarter Havana nightclubs had their own
lockers to hold their cocaine stash.
English described the Havana of the period as
“A volatile mix of Monte Carlo, Casablanca and the ancient city of Cadiz all rolled into
A bitches' brew of high-stakes gambling, secret revolutionary plots, violent repression and
gangsterism” And yet, the unholy alliance of Batista with
the Mob was just a minor symptom of the broader illnesses plaguing Cuba in the 1950s: government
corruption, unemployment, exploitation of low paid female labour, USA interference and
the toxic dependence on a single-crop economy – sugar cane.
This system was due for a collapse, and a young lawyer was going to accelerate its demise.
Viva la Revolución!
As public dissent increased, Batista tightened his control over the media by way of censorship
and created an anti-Communist secret police to intimidate the opposition by the means
of violence, torture and executions.
Between 10,000 to 20,000 people were murdered under the Batista regime, with financial and
military support from Washington.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who would become an aide to John Kennedy, analysed Batista’s
Cuba in these terms: “The corruption of the government, the brutality
of the police, the regime’s indifference to the needs of the people for education,
medical care, housing, for social justice and economic justice is an open invitation
to revolution” The invitation was RSVP’ed by the July 26th
Movement, led by lawyer and politician Fidel Castro.
Quick break here: we have covered extensively the stages of the Revolution in our videos
about Fidel Castro and his ally, Comandante Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
If you want to know more about the fight against Batista’s regime from their perspective,
make sure you check our videos, you will find the links in the description below.
Today we are going to look at this revolutionary struggle from the perspective of the losing
And more specifically: how did it happen that Batista lost against the July 26 Movement,
despite having full control of the armed forces and facing a less formidable opposition?
According to writers Norberto Fuentes and Carlos Alberto Montaner, Batista made three
strategic blunders in the fight against Castro which would bring about his defeat.
On the 26th of July 1953 Fidel, his brother Raul and other 160 men attacked the Moncada
army barracks in Santiago, hoping to spark a general uprising.
Most of the insurgents were killed and the Castro brothers were arrested.
Batista had Fidel in his grip and yet he let him go away during a general amnesty in 1955
– first blunder.
Fidel fled to Mexico.
On the 2nd of December 1956 he returned to Cuba, aboard the yacht Granma followed by
81 revolutionaries, hoping to spark a general uprising.
Most of the insurgents were killed, but Castro and few others made it to the jungles of the
Batista’s army, instead of pushing the invaders back into the sea, chased them to the interior
of the island, giving them a shot at a successful guerrilla campaign – second blunder.
As Castro’s followers increased in numbers and their actions became more effective, Batista
missed the opportunity to finish them quickly.
In Montaner’s words: “"Batista does not finish Fidel out of greed...
His is a government of thieves.
To have this small guerrilla band in the mountains is to his advantage, so that he can order
special Defense expenditures that he can steal."
By the time Batista sent a significant force of ten thousand soldiers Castro had become
too strong and the regular army too corrupt to be effective.
Secret door But the 26th of July Movement was not the
only foe the regime had to contend with.
Another organisation, called Directorio Revolucionario - Revolutionary Directorate – had Batista
in their sights.
Despite Castro’s disagreement the directorate planned a direct attack on the Presidential
Palace in Havana, with the aim of assassinating Batista.
On the 13th of March 1957 a commando of the directorate launched an assault on the Palace,
surrounding the building and fighting their way through its rooms with gunfire and hand
They had chosen to attack in the late afternoon, a time which Batista notoriously spent working
in his office on the second floor.
But when they forced their way into the office … Batista had disappeared.
The attack ended in failure and incarceration for those involved.
It later appeared that Batista had installed a secret door in his office, well hidden behind
a plastic panel.
Upon hearing the incoming shots and explosions, he had simply slipped through the secret passage
and escaped to safety.
But why would he need such a passage?
Personal safety would be a perfectly normal explanation.
But we have a better one.
Natalia Bolivar is an expert of Santeria, the religious practices of African origin
practiced by some minorities in Cuba.
According to her, Batista had a fascination with these type of rites, one of them being
“The Letter of the Year”.
In this ceremony the Babalawos, or priests, determine which ‘odu’, a ‘sign’ or
letter, will dominate a certain year.
Batista was informed that the odu for 1957 was Obbara Mey – meaning
“The King must find an escape from the places where he dwells.
A secret escape” And so, Batista was inspired to install the
secret door just one month prior to the assassination attempt.
He had managed to escape that specific attack, but he was not going to be safe for long.
Fidel, Raul and Che were getting closer and closer to Havana.
Farewell to Havana According to writer T.J.
English Batista spent the last weeks of the revolution secluded in his palace.
With his sanity almost gone, the dictator would spend his days gorging on fine foods,
interrupting his banquets only to watch American horror movies and to throw up in his garden.
On the 27th of December 1958 a train carrying a much-needed load of weapons and ammunition
for the regular army was captured by Che Guevara in Santa Clara.
Batista realised that his defences were now doomed.
He abdicated his presidency and in the early hours of the 1st of January 1959 he fled from
Havana to the Dominican Republic.
He brought along 40 family members and loyal supporters, as well as the bare necessities:
$300 to $700 Million dollars’ worth of embezzled funds, pieces of art and other assets, stashed
in 3 cargo planes.
He applied for asylum to the US, but Washington has long withdrawn its support to the losing
side of the revolution.
Batista relocated instead to Portugal and finally to Marbella in Francoist Spain, which
in those years was a common sanctuary for military dictators, fascists and escaped Nazis.
Batista lived his last years in splendour, surrounded by the children from his second
marriage who described him as “A man who never raised his voice … he
always displayed great affection and tenderness to us and our mother.
He was in general likable and sympathetic to everybody.
History, though, has judged him otherwise” Fulgencio Batista died on the 6th of August
1973 of a heart attack.
A team of assassins sent by Castro were due to kill him on the 8th.
We would like to hear your judgment of today’s protagonist, please leave your views in the
Was Batista the first, true, effective revolutionary that Cuba badly needed?
Or was he simply a social climber motivated purely by greed all along?
As usual … thank you for watching!