Fulgencio Batista
From Revolutionary to Strongman
Frank Argote-Freyre
(Rutgers University Press)
Fulgencio Rubén Batista lived right down the hall from me. He was short, swarthy, very friendly, a stupendous student. Didn't look very much different from the rest of us. I remember his nose, though. Flared nostrils, almost regal. He was going a little paunchy already, at age sixteen. We ignored the accent, called him "ROO-bin."

By the second semester, he had been granted special privileges there in Hamill House. From eight in the evening (post-house meeting) to ten-thirty (lights out) most of us had to study chained to our desks, in our rooms. No gadding about. Rubén, already on his way to a Phi Beta Kappa, could take his books down to the common room, listen to the radio, smoke cigarettes, stay up as late as he wanted.

This was 1949. Most of us knew nothing about the political world out there, especially the tangled world of Cuban politics. We knew nothing of the General Strike, the brutal reign of Gerardo Machado, Joven Cuba, Federico Laredo Brú, Ramón Saint Martín Grau, the "Sargeant's Revolt." Nor did we know anything about the NCL, ABC, PRC, PDR. We certainly didn't hear of the beatings of certain unfriendly journalists, the "castor-oil" cure for those who reported too well, and the occasional body turning up, either in a park or a vacant lot, a reminder to all to mind their P's and Q's.

We may have heard of the United Fruit Co. or Under Secretary of State for Latin Affairs Sumner Welles. We knew, certainly, about the famous Tropicana nightclub and the gambling and the whores of Havana. But we had no idea what these had to do with a young colonel --- also named Fulgencio Rubén Batista. This was the one-time cane-cutter who found himself, in 1933 with astonishing power, backed, ultimately, by the United States.

In return for "stabilizing" the country and protecting American interests, Cuba would get low-interest loans and protections for the all-important export sugar market. It was known as "dollar diplomacy." For Batista himself, there would be security against his enemies, and a growing fortune.

Who would ever guess that my low-key and very friendly hall-mate could be next in line to take over an entire country and would end up, too, being very very rich.

§     §     §

This Batista (Senior) was no tinpot dictator. He was born a peasant, worked as a canecutter, left school after the fourth grade ... yet taught himself to read while a railway worker for the omnipresent United Fruit. He dressed impeccably and his apartment in Camagüey "was crammed with newspapers, magazines and books, many of which were highlighted and marked off by Batista, so he could remember particularly cogent points."

    He had relatively little money and few connections, but reading and the acquisition of knowledge were ways to level the playing field. The lesson that careful preparation and a thorough understanding could overcome privilege began to resonate, and it drove him to read even more and to educate himself.

He joined the army in 1923, rose slowly through the ranks until, after the Sargeant's Revolt, he designated himself "Colonel Batista." That was when he began to run the whole show ... but always from the far background. As he gained experience and power, some of his programs --- for instance, the "Triennial Plan" (what some came to call the "Cuban-300-year-plan") contained some impressive clauses:

  • Distribution of state lands to the rural poor;
  • A credit program to assist workers in building homes;
  • Establishment of a school for the fine arts in each of the six provinces;
  • Free schooling for the poor;
  • A housing program for the elderly poor.
Even more scary to those to the north was the fact that in 1938, when he was planning to run for president, Batista formed an alliance with the Communist Party. Argote-Freyre tells us that "The outline of the deal was as follows: Batista would allow the Communists to establish a legal party and permit them to create a national labor organization. In return, the Communists would back Batista's presidential aspirations."

The American ambassador was appalled: "At the same time Batista was supporting the Communists, they were disseminating literature throughout Cuba defending the Soviet Union and attacking U. S. imperialism." The State Department did not like being disabused of the notion that they ultimately ran Cuban politics.

If any of us in this day and age have any doubts that the United States was fiddling in the internal affairs of Cuba. all you have to do, according to Argote-Freyre, is spend a day or so at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, reading the letters, notes, and diaries of the then Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles. According to the author, "The importance of this collection cannot be understated."

    Although [Jefferson] Caffery, ambassador from 1933 to 1937, burned all of his important correspondence, Welles never threw any letters away. This voluminous correspondence opens a revealing door onto the period. Many of the letters I have used here have never before appeared in a scholarly work.

Batista's journey is a fascinating one. He was known as "el mulatto lindo," "el literaro," "el Indio," and to some Americans and upper-class Cubans, "the nigger." He came into a government reduced to chaos by poverty, American interference, the Depression, and President Gerardo Machado and his ABC party.

He was masterful at manipulation, backtracking, withholding judgment, and timing his moves. In his later years, he was dictator pure and simple, but in the 1930s, he was forced to build an empire on compromise: compromise with other parties, with the United States ambassador, and, most importantly, his associates in the Cuban military.

§     §     §

Our main complaint about this one is that it's too short? A history book that is too short? You gotta be kidding. No: it is that good. Argote-Freyre comes off as a careful, just and scholarly writer, who is able --- unlike most of his peers --- to write a literate sentence. But the book comes to an abrupt halt at the year 1940. It should not do so. The title is Fulgencio Batista. It is not (as it properly should be), Fulgencio Batista, 1901 - 1940.

Despite that, we find ourselves sucked in not only by a careful historical presentation (Batista still evokes passionate feelings in Cuba and various parts of the United States and the world) but by the very improbability of his story. Here is an "Indio" cane-cutter who left school before age ten, who once slept on floors of railway stations, who entered the military as a lowly private, who only became a colonel after a revolt he may have joined uneasily (certainly not foreseeing the dramatic outcome, the upending of an entire political system).

Not knowing I was supposed to stop at 1940, as the author does, I soldiered on, fully planning to be there when Batista (and my old prep school buddy) ran off, on 1 January 1959, to Spain. Alas, Batista's last thirty-five years were not part of the book deal for me or the publisher. I plowed ahead through eighty-five pages of notes, where I ran into another surprise: this upstart dictator had the ability to wield the Spanish language with no small art and verve.

It came in a letter that Batista sent to his friend Enrique Pizzi on 24 March 1967, telling a story from his early childhood,

    Para mi mente de entonces, todo resultaba novedoso; la espuma que fomaban las aguas al romper con violencia en los bajios arenosos, el ruido de las olas, murmurantes unas veces, quejumbrosas otras; las mareas, los rompientes, los arrecifes amenzadores ... todo me encantaba, hasta la impreviasta turbonada que nos obligaba a remar con fuerza hacía tierra, y el arcoiris, alredor del cual mi padre cuajaba leyendas. Y en el centro de aquellos fenómenos se destaca en mi memoria la figura menuda, bonita, tierna y bondadosa de mi madre, sus compotas de hicaco, sus guisados a la marinera y la jigüera de campaña en la que daba el café carretero a mi padre.

    Allí la veo, jovencita --- joven murió, al cumplir 29 ---- plantada a la orilla, nerviosa y feliz a la vez esperando con ansiedad el arribo del hijo sobre las recias espaldas del papá-nadador, que zambullendo intentaba asustarla al dejar al garete el bote y flotando los remos.

This is translated, by the author, with a few flourishes by me, "To my young mind, everything seemed special; the foam created by the waves as they crashed violently against the sandbars; the sound of the waves, sometimes whispery, sometimes grumbling; the breakers, the reefs ... everything enchanted me, even the unexpected squall that forced us to row quickly back to land, and the rainbow, about which my father would create legends. And in the midst of those memories emerges my mother --- petite, beautiful, tender and caring --- her hicaco preserves, her seafood dishes and a gourd in which she brought coffee to my father ... There I see her, young ---- she died young, just turning 29 --- standing by the edge of the sea, nervous and happy at the same time, anxiously awaiting the arrival of her son on the strong back of the swimming father, who, by diving, leaves the boat adrift, the oars floating, trying to scare her."

--- Juan Moreno Rivera
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