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Batista y Zaldívar was the power behind the throne as Cuba went through
three presidents between 1934 and 1940, when Batista was elected President. For
years, his chief rival was Ramón Grau San Martín, who formed the Authentic Cuban Revolutionary Party, known as the Auténticos,
There was a wave of strikes in the mid-1930s. By March, 1935, it looked as if the economy was going to collapse. On March 8th, Batista launched a bloodbath, suppressing dissent. One of the instigators of the troubles, Antonio Guiteras, a former Cabinet minister, tried to leave Cuba in order to organize an armed invasion a la José Martí but the army killed him. The last half of 1935 saw considerable calming.
In the January, 1936 general elections, former president Mario G. Menocal regrouped the Old Conservatives and runs against the Liberal Dr. Miguel Mariano Gómez, son of the former president José Miguel Gómez. In December, 1935, Menocal asserted that President Carlos Mendieta would rig the election in favor of Gómez. Mendieta resigned and replaced by Jose A. Barnet. In January 1936, Miguel M. Gomez (son of former president José Miguel Gomez) won the presidential election, in which women were allowed to vote for the first time. In a maneuver engineered by Batista, the president was impeached in December 1936 for having vetoed a bill to create rural schools under army control. Vice President Federico Laredo Bru served the concluding years of Gomez' term.
The task of the Gómez administration was to create/write a new constitution but it had to deal with General Batista first for he controlled the army. Batista devised a plan whereby the army would staff rural schools as teachers and the costs would be paid by a tax on bags of raw sugar and had it introduced into Congress. Gómez understood that this bill would undercut his power, so he indicated that he would veto it. Batista had him removed in December, 1936. Vice President Federico Laredo Bru took office. Under him, amnesties were granted including to the former dictator Gerardo Machado. Congress passed many impressive social welfare measures. He pushed for the passage of the Law of Sugar Coordination in 1937. It organized small farmers into cooperatives and unionized agricultural workers. Debt peonage was outlawed. Tenant farmers were guaranteed a share of the crop and were not to be deprived of their fields if they worked them. In addition, Congress passed laws creating pensions, insurance, minimum wages. Working hours were limited as well. Laredo Bru issued a decree that the heads of all businesses should be Cuban nationals. Workers unionized, particularly into the Confederation of Cuban Workers, a union in which Communists had substantial influence. Laredo Bru and Batista, when he became president, allowed this freedom of association.
The US presence was lessened but the US had been the dominant force in Cuban politics since 1898 that there was considerable anti-Americanism, especially among the educated.
In November, 1939, elections were held for a constituent assembly whose task was to write a new constitution. Some 57% of the voting population participated. The government parties received 558,000 votes but only 35 delegates whereas the opposition parties received 551,00 votes and garnered 41 delegates. Grau San Martín was chosen president of the convention when it first met in February, 1940. Grau San Martín and Batista competed for leadership of the Left and Batista won, causing Grau San Martín to resign. The constitution was proclaimed on July 5, 1940.
The Constitution of 1940 was a very progressive document, one largely shaped by General Batista. The president could not be re-elected until after eight years after finishing his first term.1 The Cabinet was only partly responsible to Congress; it was a cross between a parliamentary system and the traditional Cuban system. The Prime Minister had to be acceptable to both the President and Congress. The judiciary was once again made independent. Municipios2 were given more independence but not as much as US cities and counties had for Cuba was a unitary not a federal government. Civil liberties were defined at great length although they would not be rigorously followed in practice. Workers were guaranteed a paid vacation, minimum wages, and job tenure. Co-operatives and unions were given more legal protections. Cubans were to be favored over foreigners. Industrialization was to be fomented. Ownership of land was to be limited to a thousand acres.3
In late 1939, General Batista became the presidential candidate of his Democratic Socialist coalition. He also was supported by the Communists. His opponent, Dr. Ramón Grau San Martín ran as the candidate of the Auténticos. Hope may spring eternal but it was dashed in this instance. Batista easily won.
As president for the 1940-44 term, Batista was a strong, democratic president. He had to suppress an attempted coup by his chief of staff. He rounded out social welfare measures including, in 1941, the extension of social security to the countryside. Cuba declared war on the Axis Powers on December 9, 1941 and, in 1943, recognized the Soviet Union, one of the Allied Powers. Cuba benefited from US aid. The US purchased the entire national sugar production at 2.65¢ a pound with only a .75¢ tax from 1942 to 1947. Sugar production was 5 million tons a year. This created tremendous wealth for sugar producers and even trickled down some to the average person but, of course, this easy money meant that investment rarely went into other enterprises. Cuban was too dependent upon one crop, one whose prices were artificially high because of the war. Inevitably, the end of the war and the drop in prices would bring economic distress.
Batista was a masterful politician. He enjoyed the confidence and support of the propertied classes while he cultivated the Left. Even though he appointed two Communists to his Cabinet, those with money understood that they need not fear him. He had become quite conservative as he became wealthy.
When 1944 and the end of his term came, he acted properly, allowing free elections and then not interfering with his successor. Grau San Martín, who was nearing sixty years of age, beat Prime Minister Carlos Saladrigas by 924,000 to 720,000 votes. He ran as the candidate of his Conservative Republican Party and also had the support of the Communists, now known as the Popular Socialist Party. After Grau San Martín was inaugurated, Batista went on a South American tour and praised democracy. He settled in the United States and watched while Grau San Martín mismanaged things.
Grau San Martín was a bitter disappointment. In 1933, he had been a leader of the reformers in the "Revolution of '33," an ardent anti-American, and a strong economic nationalist. His supporters thought, naturally, that he would support the average person and insure that Cubans controlled their own economy. They assumed that he would work to diversify the economy as well. The economy was prosperous because of the war and the government bureaucracy was competent. He seemed to have the necessary tools to change things.
His Auténtico party began feeding at the public trough, making up for years in the "wilderness." Grau San Martín's government set new records for graft and corruption with the President an enthusiastic participant. When the diamond embedded on the floor under the dome of the newly-built Capitol was stolen, wages said the police would find it on Grau San Martín's desk. His irresponsibility meant that Cuba squandered opportunities to forge a better economy. Public works were begun and not finished. The war and the immediate post-war periods saw shortages and the rise of black markets, giving Grau San Martín and his cronies amble opportunities to line their pockets. Post-war Cuba became a mecca for tourists, many of whom came for gambling, cheap liquor, narcotics, and whores. The Communists saw how politically corrupt he was and, in response to Cold War tensions, created problems for him after World War II. The Latin American headquarters of the Comintern had moved to Cuba from Mexico in 1940 and the Communists had a strong presence in the Cuban Labor of Federation. There were chronic strike and labor disputes. When the President tried to curb the power of labor and the Communists, he failed, making them even bolder. When Congress refused to cooperate with his proposals, he began using wartime decree powers. To many in 1947-48, it appeared that the nation was coming apart. Students rioted (including Fidel Castro Ruz); the national university was a hotbed of armed students who were willing to shoot; armed band roamed the countryside; and political assassination became common. There were fifty in one year.
The 1948 election of Dr. Carlos Prío Socarrás over Senator Eduardo Chibás made little difference. Chibás had formed the Partido del Partido Cubano (known as the Ortodoxos). Chibás was a popular radio announcer who had been exposing government scandals on his radio show. Two others also ran and Prío won without a majority. Prío, a student leader in 1933 had been seen as a hero. People hoped he would restore effective administration and bring an end to the public violence. He couldn't. He did get a conviction of Grau San Martín for stealing $174 million dollars but the former president stayed out of the country. Prío's government was not the most honest, however, creating even more disillusionment with democratic politics, but prosperity, in part from the Korean War, masked much of the mismanagement.
By 1951, Chibás was running for president against an Auténtico candidate and likely to win. To focus attention on corruption, he committed suicide on his radio show that year. The Ortodoxos nominated a replacement but it appeared that He had argued Prío Socarrás would rig the election.
On March 10, 1952, Senator Batista overthrew the government in two hours. Almost no one protested. Batista had governed better than his two predecessors.
1. Apparently, Franklin D. Roosevelt had suggested this provision, believing
that constant reelection would lead to dictatorship. Roosevelt was elected to the presidency of the United States for four terms!
2. These governments were more akin to counties in the United States than to municipalities.
3. This provision was not enforced.