What led to Fulgencio Batista’s downfall in Cuba

Batista (left) with his first wife Elisa Godinez-Gómez on a 1938 visit to Washington, D.C., greeting the Cuban ambassador, Dr. Pedro Fraga

On the 1st of January, 1959 CE, facing a widespread revolution initiated by Fidel Castro’s infamous the 26th of July Movement, Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista leaves the island nation. Amid chaos and celebration in Havana, the U.S. pondered how best to deal with Castro and the sinister rumblings of anti-Americanism in post-revolution Cuba.

However, let’s keep the United States aside and see what leads to Batista’s downfall.

Fulgencio Batista

Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar was a Cuban military officer and politician who served as the president of Cuba from 1940 to 1944 and as its U.S.-backed military dictator from 1952 to 1959 before being overthrown during the Cuban Revolution. Batista initially rose to power as part of the 1933 Revolt of the Sergeants, which destroyed the provisional government of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes y Quesada. He then appointed himself chief of the armed forces, with the rank of colonel, and effectively controlled the five-member “pentarchy” that functioned as the collective head of state. He maintained this control through a string of puppet presidents until 1940, when he was elected President of Cuba on a populist platform.

He then instated the 1940 Constitution of Cuba and served until 1944. After finishing his term, Batista moved to Florida, returning to Cuba to run for 1952. Facing inevitable electoral defeat, he led a military coup against President Carlos Prío Socarrás that pre-empted the election. 

Back in power and receiving financial, military and logistical support from the United States government, Batista suspended the 1940 Constitution and revoked most political liberties, including the right to strike. He then aligned with the wealthiest landowners who owned the largest sugar plantations, and presided over a stagnating economy that widened the gap between rich and poor Cubans. Eventually, it reached the point where most of the sugar industry was in U.S. hands, and foreigners owned 70% of the arable land. Batista’s repressive government then began to systematically profit from exploiting Cuba’s commercial interests by negotiating lucrative relationships with the American Mafia, who controlled the drug, gambling, and prostitution businesses in Havana and with large U.S.-based multinational companies who were awarded lucrative contracts.

To quell the growing discontent amongst the populace—which was subsequently displayed through frequent student riots and demonstrations—Batista established tighter censorship of the media while also utilizing his Bureau for the Repression of Communist Activities secret police to carry out wide-scale violence, torture, and public executions. These murders mounted in 1957, as socialist ideas became more influential. Many people were killed, with estimates ranging from hundreds to about 20,000 people killed. 

Cuba was slipping into complete decay in those days.

Catalyzing the resistance to such tactics, for two years (December 1956 – December 1958), Fidel Castro’s the 26th of July Movement and other rebelling elements led an urban- and rural-based guerrilla uprising against Batista’s government, which culminated in his eventual defeat by rebels under the command of Che Guevara at the Battle of Santa Clara on New Year’s Day 1959. Batista immediately fled the island with an amassed personal fortune to the Dominican Republic, where strongman and previous military ally Rafael Trujillo held power. Batista eventually found political asylum in Oliveira Salazar’s Portugal, where he first lived on the island of Madeira and then in Estoril. He was involved in business activities in Spain and stayed there in Guadalmina at the time of his death from a heart attack on the 6th of August, 1973. 

Was Cuba a happy place after Batista?

Fidel Castro certainly did not help after the first few months of the revolution. Instead of listening and learning from Batista’s blunders, Castro chose to shoot down the revolution or at least make it ineffective. Castro used terror tactics, including the dreaded “excessive use of force” that killed hundreds and thousands of citizens. 

What led to Batista’s downfall in Cuba can only be understood if one is willing to look in the right places.

Batista was an anti-poor, pro-United States, and he allowed Mafia to control Cuba. The lower-middle-class and poor Cubans wanted a ‘change’ and Fidel Castro served it to them in style. 

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