CubaBrief: Sixty nine years ago today Cuba’s last democratic government was overthrown: The Batista Dictatorship and Democracy’s decline in Cuba

Sixty nine years ago today democracy ended in Cuba when General Fulgencio Batista carried out a coup d’état against the democratically elected President of Cuba, Carlos Prio Socarras. Professor Jaime Suchlicki, of the Cuban Studies Institute analyzed the conditions and circumstances that led to the 1952 Batista dictatorship.

Fulgencio Batista (Left) Carlos Prio Socarras (Right)

Fulgencio Batista (Left) Carlos Prio Socarras (Right)

In a Memorandum of Conversation, by the Ambassador in Cuba (Willard Leon Beaulac) with Dr. Miguel Angel de la Campa, Minister of State datelined Habana, March 22, 1952 and marked secret the U.S. Ambassador indicated that according to Dr. Campa:

“ Cuba intended to restore normal relations with countries toward which the former Cuban Government had had an attitude of hostility. He mentioned Spain and the Dominican Republic in particular. He said he thought the United States should recognize promptly; that it was in our interest that the situation should develop in an orderly way. I reminded Dr. Campa that our Government had not been consulted about the coup d’etat and that Cuba could not expect automatic recognition from us.”

On March 24, 1952 in a memorandum by the Secretary of State Dean Acheson to President Harry S. Truman expressed surprise and ” deplore[d] the way in which the Batista coup was brought about and is apprehensive that this kind of thing may occur in other countries of Latin America where elections are being held this year.”

Secretary of State Dean Acheson and President Harry S. Truman

Secretary of State Dean Acheson and President Harry S. Truman

The U.S. eventually recognized the Batista regime, but the ambivalence remained. On May 20, 1957 Fidel Castro requested that the United State stop sending arms to Batista. The United States complied with an arms embargo imposed on the Batista regime less than a year later.

In January of 1958 the United States was pressuring Batista to restore Constitutional guarantees in exchange for the sale of arms.

On March 14, 1958 the State Department in a telegram to the U.S. Embassy in Cuba requested that the export license for 1,950 M-1 rifles for the Cuban Army awaiting shipment be suspended. This was done because the State Department felt that the Cuban government had failed to “create conditions for fair elections.”

Manuel Urrutia

Manuel Urrutia

On March 17, 1958 Fidel Castro’s future candidate for provisional president, Manuel Urrutia, along with a delegation of other supporters in exile of the July 26th movement, met with officials at the State Department. They lobbied the U.S. government and argued that arms shipments to Cuba were for hemispheric defense, and they claimed that Batista using them against Cuban nationals was in violation of the conditions agreed to between the two countries. On the same day the Cuban Government presented to the U.S. Embassy in Havana a formal note protesting the delay in the shipment of M-1 rifles to the Cuban Army, and warned that it would weaken the Cuban government and lead to its possible downfall.
On March 26, 1958 in another telegram from the State Department to the U.S. Embassy in Havana the view was expressed how the arms embargo could lead to the fall of Batista’s regime:

“Department has considered possibility its actions could have an adverse psychological effect GOC and could unintentionally contribute to or accelerate eventual Batista downfall. On other hand, shipment US combat arms at this time would probably invite increased resentment against US and associate it with Batista strong arm methods, especially following so closely on heels of following developments:
Government publicly desisted from peace efforts.Government suspended guarantees again.Batista expressed confidence Government will win elections with his candidate and insists they will be held despite suspension guarantees but has made no real effort to satisfy public opinion on their fairness and effectiveness as possible means achieve fair and acceptable solution.Batista announced would increase size arms and informed you he would again undertake mass population shift Oriente, and otherwise acted in manner to discourage those who supported or could be brought to support peaceful settlement by constructive negotiations.

The United States would continue to pressure Batista to hold free elections and leave office for the remainder of 1958. Earl E. T. Smith, the U.S. ambassador to Cuba, on December 17, 1958 delivered a message from the State Department to Fulgencio Batista that the United States viewed “with skepticism any plan on his part, or any intention on his part, to remain in Cuba indefinitely.”

Ambassador Earl E. T. Smith

Ambassador Earl E. T. Smith

The U.S. government had dealt Batista a mortal blow, and fourteen days later the Cuban dictatorship fell, and the Castro era had started. The struggle for the restoration of democracy in Cuba continues 62 years later.

Cuban Studies Institute, March 10, 2021


Cuba Insight

Background to Revolution: The Batista Dictatorship and the Decline of Democracy in Cuba

By Jaime Suchlicki

Convinced that he could not win the presidential elections scheduled for June 1952, General Fulgencio Batista overthrew President Carlos Prío’s regime in a bloodless and masterfully executed coup d’état on March 10.  The coup was almost entirely dependent on army backing and caught the Cuban population, as well as Prío and his followers, by surprise.  Batista quickly consolidated his position by replacing dissenting army officers with his own loyal men, exiling, or arresting key Prío supporters, and taking control over the mass media.  Prío himself sought asylum in the Mexican embassy and later left the country.

Batista justified his move by claiming that Prío intended to perpetuate his own rule and that the tendency toward violence evident in the country required the order or authority that only he could provide.  Yet, other reasons perhaps better explain his actions.  Batista was surrounded by a small and intimate group of ambitious and unscrupulous politicians who had been excluded from the political process by the two preceding Auténtico administrations.  Batista himself longed for the power he once held and hoped his move would win him the popularity he always coveted but never achieved.  His weak position as the elections approached, and the maneuverings of President Prío, who bribed a number of Batista’s allies into shifting their support thus minimizing his political possibilities, convinced the old general that the only road to power was through violence.

The ease with which Batista took over underscored the weakness of Cuba’s political institutions and the tendency toward violence that pervaded the political process.  The legislative branch was weak and permeated by corruption.  Even the judiciary had lost prestige because of its subservient role to the executive branch.  The popular Ortodoxo party was leaderless and largely ineffectual since Eduardo Chibás, the popular party leader, committed suicide in 1951.  The Auténticos’ corruption and inability to bring profound structural changes to the Cuban economy had cost them a good deal of support and discredited them in the eyes of many Cubans.  The failure of this democratic reformist party was perhaps the single most important factor contributing to the 1952 coup and the events that followed.

The Cubans reacted skeptically to the new situation.  Had it not been for the depressed status of the political life, as evidenced by the lack of respect for political figures, gangsterism, and graft that prevailed during the previous administrations, perhaps the Cubans would have reacted more vigorously.  Batista’s performance in 1944, when he allowed free elections, and his promises now for honest and impartial elections in November 1953, contributed to the people’s acquiescence.  The swiftness of the coup and the display of military power by Batista also did much to contain whatever outbursts of opposition that did occur.  Interested in stability and economic development, business groups, both local and foreign, welcomed to a large extent a regime that would impose order.

The importance and power of the business community had grown significantly, helped in part by the rapid economic growth experienced by the island in the 1940s.  World War II had paralyzed sugar production in many areas of Europe and Asia, making possible the further expansion of Cuba’s sugar industry.  At the same time, the deterioration of international trade during the war years gave Cuba an extraordinary amount of foreign exchange that would otherwise have gone toward the purchase of agricultural and industrial import items.  All of this served to accelerate the diversification process in Cuba’s economic development.  Domestic production flourished, and other new productive activities were established. This circumstance was put to good use by Cuban entrepreneurs, who began to occupy relatively important positions in the development of the island’s economy.

Several other factors helped to accelerate Cuba’s economic growth in the postwar years.  The moderate nationalistic policy in the international economic field, adopted during the administrations of Grau and Prío (1944-52). achieved important tariff concessions.  Cuba’s commercial banking institutions expanded, and the credit facilities offered by these institutions permeated all private economic activities.  After 1950, the year in which the National Bank of Cuba began to operate, Cuba counted, for the first time in its republican life, with an official and central bank.  The official banking system was expanded a short time later with the establishment of the BANFAIC (Agricultural and Industrial Development Bank).  With the assistance of the commercial banks, the system could now coordinate the credit needs required by the pace of economic development of the non-sugar productive sectors.

In the postwar years national entrepreneurs intensified the process of “Cubanizing” the sugar industry, which had begun in the 1930s.  In 1939 Cuban capital owned 54 sugar mills, which produced 22 percent of the total sugar production of the island.  In 1952 there were 113 Cuban-owned sugar mills, which accounted for 55 percent of the total sugar production, excluding those sugar mills operated by foreign sugar companies in which Cuban capital participated to the point that in many cases Cubans owned the majority of the capital stock issued.  Cuban entrepreneurs, who had become an important factor in the commercial, sugar, and financial sectors, demonstrated great ability in developing new production, and in taking advantage of the combination of favorable circumstances.

Batista encouraged the growth of Cuban capital and his return to power stimulated foreign investment.  The mining sector, helped by sizable investments of U.S. capital, expanded its production of nickel, cobalt, and other minerals.  The government helped develop new tourist centers and the tourist industry became one of the island’s most important sources of revenue.   Public works projects neglected or left incomplete by the Grau and Prío administrations, were financed and completed with the concomitant graft.  Low-cost housing was made available through government credits, and a badly needed water system was built for Havana.  The cattle industry expanded to the point where it ranked high compared to the rest of Latin America.  

Yet despite this process, the Cuban economy suffered from certain structural weaknesses which prevented any sustained period of rapid economic growth.  Chief among these was an excessive concentration on sugar production and foreign trade; a critical dependency on one mayor buyer-supplier; substantial unemployment and underemployment; and inequalities between urban and rural living standards.

Closely tied to its role of sugar supplier was Cuba’s excessive dependence on the United States for trade relations.  The advantageous position of Cuban sugar in the United States was bought with fairly sizable Cuban tariff concessions which limited the growth of domestic industry and favored imports of U.S. manufactured goods.  In the 1950s about 75 percent of Cuban imports came from the northern neighbor, while some 65 percent of Cuban exports found their way to U.S. markets.  Most investment funds came also from U.S. financial centers, although domestic banking showed remarkable growth after the creation of the National Bank.

Unemployment and underemployment were widespread.  A 1956-1957 study found that about 17 percent of the labor force was unemployed with another 13 percent classified as underemployed.  Even during the sugar harvest months some 200,000 persons were without jobs, and this figure jumped to 457,000 during the “dead season.”  The high proportion of workers engaged in service occupations (36 percent in 1957) was a clear indication of vast underemployment.

Living conditions differed greatly between urban and rural areas.  Outside major urban centers, livable housing and educational and health services were scarce and of poor quality.  For example, the rural illiteracy rate was almost four times that of the urban area.

Most new housing in the 1950s consisted of multiple dwelling units and suburban residences in and around Havana.  At the same time rural immigrants poured into make-shift neighborhoods occupying any vacant urban land.  With few employment opportunities available, these neighborhoods became centers of indigency, crime, or, at best, underemployment.

Despite these weaknesses, the economic progress of the mid-1950s and the elimination of the gang violence so prevalent during the Auténtico administrations gained for Batista the support of the business sectors not intimately linked with the opposition groups.  Batista also moved to gain labor and peasant support.  He continued the pro-labor policies initiated by the preceding administrations, and through bribery, flattery, and intimidation, won the support of key labor leaders. Controlled by Eusebio Mujal, Cuba’s labor czar, the Cuban Confederation of Labor cooperated as an independent ally of the regime, but with Mujal retaining an autonomous hold on the confederation.  Batista also introduced numerous decrees extending to small tenant farmers the right of permanency already enjoyed by sugar-growing tenant planters and expanding his base of support in the rural areas.

Despite the apparent support of business, labor, and peasant groups, however, Batista failed to develop an active base of political backing.  His illegal administration and Batista’s failure to achieve popularity eroded his policies.  Political loyalties were often the result of intimidation or expediency and for that reason were often short-lived in Cuba.  Batista’s actual political base was now narrower than in the 1930s.  Even within the armed forces, and particularly in the middle and lower echelons of the officers’ corps, there were numerous disgruntled Ortodoxo and Auténtico officers who engaged in conspiratorial activities against the regime.

The establishment of the Batista dictatorship had a profound impact on the content and tone of literature.  Writers decried the moral decomposition of the republic and even questioned the ability of the Cubans to govern themselves., Although themes like nationalism, reformism, and anti-Americanism were still present in the literature after 1952, they were now impregnated with pessimism and sadness over the future and over the retrogression that the return of a military dictatorship meant for Cuba’s political development. Writers pointed out that there was a feeling of general guilt over the Cubans’ inability to live up to the founding fathers.  They insisted that the Cubans rejected their individual responsibilities by claiming that society as a whole was not fulfilling its collective responsibilities and came to believe that they never deserved men like Martí, Maceo, or Gómez.

The idolization of Martí grew even stronger after 1952.  Two events, the half-century commemoration of the birth of the republic in 1952 and the one-hundredth celebration of Martí’s birth in 1953, gave rise to a literature attempting to assess the development and status of Cuba at such significant junctures.  A variety of books and articles appeared on Martí’s life and on the epic struggle for Cuba’s independence. In them, and especially in numerous speeches, Martí’s teachings were contrasted with the conditions in which the dictatorship had submerged Cuba.  Old revolutionaries, idealistic youngsters, intellectuals, journalists, and crooked politicians as well, invoked Martí.  They all seemed to find shelter and comfort by repeating his words and bathing in the baptismal stream of his thought.

Writings and speeches soon gave way to violence, however.  The imposition of strict censorship by the Batista regime silenced all criticism.  Opposition leaders were either jailed or exiled.  Repression increased.  The voices that clamored for a peaceful solution to the interruption of Cuba’s constitutional process were soon drowned by voices clamoring for violence.  Cuba again was submerged in protests, terrorism and violence, a violence that finally culminated in a major revolution.

U.S. State Department

Office of the Historian


Memorandum by the Secretary of State to the President 1

secret [Washington,] March 24, 1952.


  • Continuation of Diplomatic Relations with Cuba

In this memorandum I recommend for your consideration the continuation of diplomatic relations with the Batista Government in Cuba. If you approve the recommendation, I suggest that you authorize me to make the announcement on Thursday, March 27.

As you know, on the early morning of Monday, March 10, General Fulgencio Batista with the support of a group of officers of the Cuban Army overthrew the duly constituted Government of President Carlos Prío Soccarás. Batista’s revolution came as a complete surprise both in Cuba and in this country and his revolution was carried out with remarkable ease and over virtually no resistance. Ambassador Beaulac in Habana has followed the situation with great care and he has reported that Batista is in complete control of the Cuban national territory and machinery of Government and that there is virtually complete acquiescence in his regime on the part of the Cuban people. Batista has not interfered with the Cuban labor unions or with the operations of the Inter-American Regional Office of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions which is located in Habana. Eusebio Mujal, head of the Cuban Confederation of Workers, has publicly supported Batista as have representative business and commercial associations.

The Batista regime has formally requested our recognition and has made satisfactory public and private statements with regard to Cuban intention to fulfill its international obligations; its attitude towards private capital; and its intention to take steps to curtail international communist activities in Cuba. In connection with this latter point the Batista Government on March 21 refused to allow two Russian couriers with diplomatic pouches to enter Cuba from Mexico, and the new Cuban Foreign Minister has stated that he will not allow Russians to use diplomatic pouches in the future. While Batista when President of Cuba in the early 40’s tolerated communist domination of the Cuban Confederation of Workers, the world situation with regard to international communism has changed radically since that time, and we have no reason to believe that Batista will not be strongly anti-communist. [Page 872]

The new Cuban Foreign Minister, Miguel Angel de la Campa, signed the Stockholm Petition2 two years ago, but the Embassy and the Department are satisfied that this need not be taken as indicating softness towards communism and in fact our reports are that Mr. de la Campa is anti-communist.

The Department of State naturally deplores the way in which the Batista coup was brought about and is apprehensive that this kind of thing may occur in other countries of Latin America where elections are being held this year. Consequently, the Department and Ambassador Beaulac in Habana have been proceeding with great caution in this matter despite our very special position in Cuba which includes heavy capital investment, enormous international trade, the Nicaro nickel plant operation, the Guantánamo Naval Base, three armed services missions and the recent signing of a bilateral military assistance agreement which requires implementation. At least ten countries of Latin America have already announced continuation of diplomatic relations with Batista. These include Mexico, Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. France, Switzerland, Spain and China have also recognized Batista. We have been informed that Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay and possibly Costa Rica, which are among the leading democratic governments of the Hemisphere, will simultaneously act to recognize the Batista regime some time this week. We have been in consultation with those governments, and their view of the situation is roughly the same as ours. The United Kingdom, Canada and Austria have asked to be given advance notice of our action.

Under the circumstances I believe that it would be detrimental to the special relations that this country has with Cuba to hold up recognition any longer, and accordingly request your authorization to announce the continuation of diplomatic relations with Cuba on March 27 and to give suitable advance notice of this action to the interested governments .3

The New York Times, April 3, 1958

U.S. Embargo Set on Arms to Cuba; Shipment Halted

Rifles Ordered by Batista Are Held Up-Rochester Concern Is Indicted

By WERNER WISKARI Special to The New York Times

WASHINGTON, April 2–The United States Government has imposed an embargo on arms shipments to Cuba. Officials said today that it would not be lifted so long as the current tension continued.

News of the embargo came as a Rochester, N.Y., concern and three of its officials were indicted on conspiracy charges stemming from alleged attempts to send arms to the Cuban rebels. The indictment was returned by a Federal grand jury here.

The arms embargo was indicated in a little-noticed statement made available by the State Department about ten days ago. It suspended a shipment of 1,950 Garand rifles bought by the Cuban Government of President Fulgencio Batista.

Rifles Ordered in 1956

The rifles were understood to have been ordered in 1956 before Fidel Castro landed with a group of rebels in Cuba’s Oriente Province. No other United States arms shipments to the Cuban regime are now pending, it was reported today.

[The Cuban rebels have succeeded in paralyzing land communications between Oriente Province and the rest of the island.]

In its statement on the Garand rifles, the State Department said:

“In authorizing shipments of arms to other countries under the mutual security program, it has been our consistent practice to weigh carefully those Consigned to areas where political tensions have developed. We wish to be assured, for example, that the arms are destined for uses consistent with the objectives of our mutual security legislation. ”

Talks on Embargo Planned

Noting that the rifle shipment had been suspended pending consultations with appropriate Cuban officials,” the statement added:

“It would be entirely contrary to our policy to intervene in [Cuban] affairs and we do not intend to become involved.”

United States policy has been to sell arms to “friendly” Latin-American countries that are signatories of the Rio de Janeiro treaty of reciprocal assistance provided that the arms are not used for aggressive purposes.

Among members of Congress who have called for a halt in arms shipments to the Batista regime is Representative Charles O. Porter, Democrat of Oregon.

Placing the State Department statement into the Congressional Record on Monday, he hailed it as showing that “we have finally suspended” such shipments, which he described as “identifying us with the vicious police state ruled by Batista.”

Reached by telephone today, he expressed the wish that “the Administration would stand up and announce its ‘policies’ instead of forcing us to infer their existence on the basis of reliable but anonymous sources.”

In the grand jury action today, the Stanbern Aeronautics Corporation of Rochester and three brothers who control it were named as defendants.

The company and the brothers, Stanley J. Bachman, Jerome H. Bachman and Bernard Sidney Bachman, were charged with conspiracy to violate firearms legislation. The indictment also accused them of attempting to evade the Federal tax on the transfer of firearms and of executing false documents.

In announcing the indictment, the justice Department said it stemmed from information obtained by a Federal grand jury in New York. That grand jury returned an indictment Feb. 13 against Carlos Prio Socarras, exiled former President of Cuba, and eight others on charges of having conspired to furnish arms for the Cuban rebels.

Today’s three-count indictment named two persons as co-conspirators. They were identified as Luis Alfonso Silva y Tablada, who also had been named in the Prio indictment, and James L. Gentry, proprietor of the American Aircraft Parts Company of San Antonio, Tex.

The indictment charged that the defendants and co-conspirators would conceal the transfer of firearms to unregistered persons by means of fictitious sales to the Gentry concern.