Childhood & Early Life
He was born as Ruben Zaldivar on January 16, 1901, in Veguita, a small rural community in Banes municipality in Holguín province, Cuba. He grew up alongside his three younger brothers, Hermelindo, Francisco, and Juan. He came from an impoverished background.
His father, Belisario Batista Palermo, was a freedom fighter under General José Maceo in the ‘Cuban War of Independence’, and his mother was Carmela Zaldívar González, who had her first child at the age of 15. He had Spanish, African, Chinese, and according to some scholars, native Caribbean ancestry.
He received his early education at a public school in Banes. Following that, he enrolled at an American Friends school. Besides earning his wages as a labourer, he worked as a tailor, mechanic, charcoal vendor, and fruit peddler.
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Career & Later Life
During his two years of service in the Cuban army from 1921 to 1923, Fulgencio Batista learned typing and shorthand. After brief stints as a teacher, and with the rural police, he transferred back to the army and swiftly rose through the ranks to become a sergeant stenographer. In 1933, he was the secretary of a powerful, non-commissioned officers’ group which was at the forefront of a ‘sergeant’s conspiracy’.
Under his leadership, the 1933 coup was a success. With five leaders from different rebel factions, a coalition named ‘Pentarchy of 1933’ was formed to run the country. It drafted a proclamation written by Sergio Carbo. Batista was the only military representative who signed the document.
He was promoted to the rank of a colonel and became the Army Chief of Staff under the presidency of Ramón Grau San Martín, who had come to power replacing the Pentarchy.
In the ensuing years, he accumulated the support of the civil service and organized labour, on top of the absolute control he had over the military. He also developed a relationship with the US government, with the American State Department’s Sumner Welles acting as a mediator.
Batista forced Grau to resign on January 15, 1934, after just over hundred days of his presidency. For the next six years, Cuba was ruled by a series of puppet presidents, with Batista pulling the strings from the back.
Throughout all this, his popularity never wavered. In 1940, he contested in the general election with the support from the ‘Democratic Socialist Coalition’. He defeated Frau to become the first President under the new 1940 Constitution.
Historians generally hold his first term in positive regard. He ushered in major reforms, expanded the educational system, and fostered economic growth. Cuba took the side of the Allies in the Second World War. The Cuban declaration of war on Germany and Italy came on December 8, 1941, a day after the attack on Pearl Harbour.
The loss suffered by his protégé Carlos Saladrigas Zayas against Grau in the 1944 presidential election was a major setback for Batista. He actively sought to weaken the president-elect and his incoming administration. He moved to the US following Grau’s inauguration. However, he continued to be involved in Cuban politics, winning a seat in the Senate in absentia in 1948.
Upon returning to Cuba in 1952, Batista set up the ‘Progressive Action Party’ and decided to run for the office that year. In the polls before the election, his ‘United Action Coalition’ was trailing way behind the rest. Garnering the support of the army once more, he led a coup against the outgoing President Carlos Prío Socarrás and seized the control of the government as a provisional president. Subsequently, the election was cancelled.
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Once in power, Batista revoked most of political liberties and prompted certain economic changes that would prove disastrous for Cuba. By the late 1950s, the US corporations owned 90% Cuban mines, 80% public utilities, 50% of its railways, 40% of its sugar production and 25% of its bank deposits.
He gave a free rein to organised crime, particularly to American mobsters such as Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano. Havana became "a hedonistic playground for the world's elite", “the Latin Las Vegas”, where drugs, gambling, and prostitution were rampant.
Before the ‘Cuban Revolution’, Batista’s most vocal critics were largely the advocates of liberal democracy. They considered his presidency as unconstitutional and illegal. To sate the growing unrest in the country, Batista held an election in 1954 with Grau as his major opponent. But Grau withdrew just a few days before the election, accusing the government of election fraud. Batista was elected without contest, bringing supposed legitimacy to his administration.
Batista crushed Fidel Castro’s initial attempts at armed rebellion at the Moncada Barracks in Santiago on July 26, 1953. Most of the rebels were killed, the rest, including Castro, were put into jail. He was finally released on May 15, 1955.
One of the biggest bastions of the anti-Batista sentiments was the ‘University of Havana’. In the last few months of 1955, the students were organising demonstration after demonstration, which often turned violent. Batista closed the university down on November 30, 1956.
There was even an attempt on his life on March 13, 1957, led by student leader José Antonio Echeverría. Batista’s response was brutal. Echeverria was killed in a police shootout. The rest of the students involved were either killed on the same day or were eventually hunted down.
In April 1956, he survived a military coup helmed by the popular military leader Ramón Barquín named ‘Conspiración de los Puros’ (Conspiracy of the Pure). It was foiled by Lieutenant Ríos Morejón, who defected to the government. In retaliation, Batista purged the military. Barquín was sentenced to solitary confinement and most of his trusted officers were executed.
The deaths of so many career officers ended up creating a vacuum in the chain of command in the military and would prove to be a catastrophic folly during the revolution. After being released, Castro made his way to Mexico in search of allies and funding, and met Che Guevara. They set up camps in the Sierra Maestra mountains, winning a series of battles against Batista’s troops by guerrilla warfare.
Batista was compelled by the Constitution to hold the election in 1958, and despite delay, it took place in November. Grau once more withdrew, this time within a few hours of the election day. Batista’s chosen candidate, Andrés Rivero Agüero, was elected President in an election which had 30-50% turnout.
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Around this time, Batista also lost the US support. On January 1, 1959, he, along with 40 supporters and immediate family, fled to the Dominican Republic. Fidel Castro and his army entered Havana on January 8, 1959.
According to various allegations, he took as much as $700 million in art collection and cash in his flight from Cuba. The US government refused to let him enter the country. He relocated to Portugal and eventually to Spain where he was granted asylum.
Crimes against Humanity
By establishing a business relationship with the organised crime sector, Fulgencio Batista made millions. The early years of his dictatorship appeared prosperous on surface, with new casinos coming up every other day and the streets being full of Cadillacs. The reality was more severe—15% to 20% of the Cuban workforce was chronically unemployed; an average family earned only $6 a week.
As the years went by, the situation only worsened and the new graduates entering the workforce could not get employment. There were slums all over Havana right near towering high-rises.
In the mid-1950s, Batista suspended constitutional rights once more and applied stringent censorship on the media. His ruthless reprisal for the failed assassination attempt not only completely eradicated the student bodies responsible, ‘Federation of University Students’ (FEU) and the ‘Directorio’ (DR), but also targeted the political opponents who had nothing to do with it.
Castro was originally hiding in the Sierra Maestra Mountains with only 300 supporters. The number grew exponentially due to Batista’s police torturing innocent people. Youths, rebels or not, were publicly executed to serve as a cautionary warning for others not to join the insurgency. In a grotesque emulation of the Spanish colonial practice of public execution, hundreds of defiled corpses were hanged from lamp posts or discarded on open streets.
Personal Life & Legacy
Fulgencio Batista was married twice. Elisa Godínez y Gómez, his first wife (married July 10, 1926), bore him three children, Mirta Caridad, Elisa Aleida, and Fulgencio Rubén. They divorced in October 1945 after almost 20 years of marriage.
He started a relationship with Marta Fernández Miranda before his divorce from Elisa was formalised. They married on November 28, 1945. They had five children together, four sons, Jorge Luis, Roberto Francisco, Carlos Manuel, and Fulgencio José, and a daughter, Marta María.
He spent the later years of his life in exile in Spain. He suffered a heart attack and passed away on August 6, 1973. He was 72.