CubaBrief: The Spirit of Yara and Cuba’s last legitimately elected President

Today, a brutal sixty year old totalitarian dictatorship organized a farce that it called an election to attempt to legitimize its continued totalitarian rule. This is the latest rebranding of the Castro regime by shuffling titles that mean little with regards to the exercise of power. Despite all the misinformation in the press, Raul Castro remains in charge of the country as head of the Cuban Communist Party.

This raises an important question. Who was the last legitimately elected leader of Cuba?

Cuba’s last legitimately elected president, Carlos Prio Socarras, was voted in by Cubans in free and fair elections on July 1, 1948 and assumed office 71 years ago today on October 10, 1948. He was a democrat, who respected civil liberties, and presided over years of prosperity and freedom for Cubans.

Carlos Prio, Ramon Grau, Carlos Hevia: Three Cuban presidents

Carlos Prio, Ramon Grau, Carlos Hevia: Three Cuban presidents

President Prio Socarras belonged to the Autentico Party and was succeeding Ramon Grau San Martin, another member of the same political party in the Cuban presidency. On his watch Cuban diplomats played an important role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In June of 1951 before Jose Marti’s tomb, President Prio Socarras also warned Cubans not to be consumed by hatred and called on them to “rise up and tell the few Cubans that tend to the garden of your island, that they uproot the poisonous flower of hatred and throw the plant into the abyss of oblivion! Sadly, his advice went unheeded.
Cuban democracy ended on March 10, 1952 with Fulgencio Batista’s coup and 67 years later it has not returned. The current dictatorship has rewritten Cuba’s history to diminish this democratic age in order to justify its own totalitarian rule.

President Harry Truman greets President Carlos Prio Socarras in 1948.

President Harry Truman greets President Carlos Prio Socarras in 1948.

Yet there is one witness who spoke out on behalf of this democratic era on October 16, 1953 in a speech that the current regime cannot ignore. On trial for the armed assault, he had carried out with a group of young Cubans, on the Moncada military barracks on July 26th of the same year, Fidel Castro addressed the Court and spoke of the Cuba that existed prior to Fulgencio Batista’s March 10, 1952 coup against the island’s democratic order.

” Once upon a time there was a Republic. It had its Constitution, its laws, its freedoms, a President, a Congress and Courts of Law. Everyone could assemble, associate, speak and write with complete freedom. The people were not satisfied with the government officials at that time, but they had the power to elect new officials and only a few days remained before they would do so. Public opinion was respected and heeded and all problems of common interest were freely discussed. There were political parties, radio and television debates and forums and public meetings. “

Cuba had been a free and progressing society with a growing middle class, and a vibrant cultural life and civil society. World renowned artists such as Rafael Soriano and Wilfredo Lam emerged out of this world. Some of their art work would be seized by the communist dictatorship. The birthplace of Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam collapsed after years of neglect by the Castro regime.

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President Carlos Prío Socarras and his wife Mary Tarrero de Prío went into exile in Miami, but his struggle for a democratic Cuba did not end there. He would be arrested on more than one occasion accused of smuggling arms to rebels in Cuba seeking to overthrow Fulgencio Batista.

According to Ramón L. Bonachea and Marta San Martin, in their book The Cuban insurrection, 1952-1959, in August of 1956 Fidel Castro and Carlos Prío met in a small hotel in McAllen, Texas where for over an hour they discussed the future of the insurrection against Batista. Castro asked Prío for money and the former president agreed to finance Castro’s expedition to Cuba. Prío would send the Cuban guerrillas almost one quarter of a million dollars in arms and money. Prío got other associates to contribute thousands of dollars more in cash to the guerrillas.

Cuba’s last constitutional president announced his plan to return to the island as early as 1955 and did so during a brief “amnesty” in 1956 only to be expelled at gunpoint a short time later. Prío Socarras would return again in January 1959 when Fulgencio Batista fled power.
Fidel Castro and his guerillas promised to restore democracy obtaining the support of the United States, but transitioned Cuba from an authoritarian left wing dictatorship to a totalitarian communist one that continues to hold power in Cuba today. Fidel Castro in a 1960 interview with a Brazilian journalist explained his disdain for elections:

“It never functioned in Latin America. Elections are a myth. The parliamentary system in Cuba reflected the old system, which we are now destroying. Elections now would be a step backward, with time and effort wasted in sterile discussions and theoretical considerations.”

President Prío Socarras departed for exile again in December 1960 as the Castro government turned into a communist military dictatorship.

On June 11, 1961 Carlos Prío Socarras addressed 1,200 Cubans in exile and pledged to aid the Cuban underground. He would go on to aide and plan efforts to combat Castro’s military dictatorship as he had done earlier against Batista’s.

As the 1960s drew to a close and the armed struggle against Castro’s dictatorship had failed, Carlos Prío in 1973 sought to preempt efforts at a negotiated solution in which democratic Cubans were not participants. He boldly proposed that Cuban exiles seek to insert themselves in the dialogue taking place between Nixon and Breshnev and negotiate the island’s future. The proposal was met with wariness and opposition going nowhere.

Carlos Prío Socarras died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on April 5, 1977 in his garage in Miami. From his youth battling the Machado dictatorship as a University student in the 1930s, to his later struggles against Batista in the 1950s, and Castro in the 1960s and 1970s he spent a life struggling against dictatorships of all ideological tendencies.

October 10th is a day Cubans reflect on their country’s founding and the protracted struggle for independence from Spain that began 151 years ago in the town of Yara. Under Cuba’s old democratic system October 10th was the day that the democratically elected president would assume office. It should also be the day to remember President Carlos Prío Socarras, and the democratic and prosperous Cuba that existed during his administration.

When Fidel Castro died in 2016 and celebrations erupted in the streets of Miami, Prío Socarras’s granddaughter was interviewed by the Associated Press. Isabella Prio is 20 years old and a junior at Boston College. She was born in Miami, but expects to “return to Cuba someday to help shape the island’s future, though she’s never been to the country where her grandfather was once president and refuses to visit until it’s a democracy.” The article ends with her saying, “It’s a new chapter for us,” … “It’s definitely in the hands of the young people to take it over. We just have to be careful about how we go about it.”

The spirit of Yara lives on in the Cuban nation.