“THIS DAY IN CUBAN HISTORY…. – Carlos Prío Socarrás (1903-1977)”

A publication of the Cuban Studies Institute

Carlos Prío Socarrás (1903-1977).  President of Cuba, 1948-1852.  Born in Bahía Honda on July 14, he became involved in politics at an early age, becoming active in the Directorio Estudiantil Universitario while studying law at the University of Havana in the 1930s.  He was elected to the constitutional convention of 1939 and to the senate in 1940.  He served as prime minister in 1945 and as Grau San Martín’s labor minister, 1947-1948.  In 1948 he won the presidency as candidate of the Partido Revolucionario Cubano (Auténtico).  Unlike his immediate predecessors, he was an experienced statesman who emphasized that the executive and legislature had to work together.  His administration was faithful to the constitution of 1940, respected civil liberties, and secured major achievements in social legislation, such as the retiro azucarero and retiro harinero (sugar and flour industry workers’ pensions) and the rebaja de alquileres (rent stabilization).

He established the Banco Nacional de Cuba, extended major highways, and began construction of the national library.  Sugar export agreements with the United States, the United Kingdom and West Germany brought the island an economic boom.  The senate ratified the Rio de Janeiro Treaty of Mutual Assistance and a Treaty of Political Asylum.  But while espousing democratic ideals, his administration was beleaguered by the gangsterismo inherited from the Grau administration.  Not only did he refuse to take an effective stand against the gangs, but many were protected by members of his own cabinet. He himself was involved in the widespread corruption among government officials, which began to reach alarming proportions.  He responded to the protests this evoked with his Nuevos rumbos (“new directions”) programs, which purged the most corrupt members of his government, including his own brother, without rooting out the problem.  By 1950 Eduardo Chibás and his Partido del Pueblo Cubano (Ortodoxo) had achieved great popularity through their vocal attacks on official graft.  Despite Prío’s achievements, a cynicism about politics became general.  To become a politician was to enter an élite, a new class above the interests of the people.  Political figures in general, and the president specifically, were the object of popular mockery.  Chibás’ criticism helped undermine not merely the government’s authority, but the stability of Cuba’s already fragile political institutions.

As the presidential elections approached, an Ortodoxo victory seemed likely.  But in 1951 Chibás committed suicide, producing a vacuum in the Ortodoxo leadership.  Batista seized the opportunity to stage his own bloodless coup, March 10, 1952.  Prío sought asylum in the Mexican embassy and them moved from Mexico to Miami in 1953.  There he worked actively against the new regime and was arrested for violating the 1939 US Neutrality Act.  In August 1955 he returned to Cuba under the terms of Batista’s general amnesty.  His subsequent activities included support of Fidel Castro, and in May 1956, faced with a charge of conspiring against the regime, he had to return to Miami.  There he was instrumental in organizing a council of national liberation, which included representatives of all non-Communist opposition groups, most of which he financed.  He was briefly imprisoned for planning an arms delivery to rebels in Cuba.  Afterwards in July 1958 he took part with Castro in forming a “Junta de Unidad” against Batista’s government.  When the Revolution of 1959 triumphed, he returned to Cuba and voiced support of the new regime.  Eventually, however, he became disillusioned and went back to live in Miami, until his eventual suicide in 1977.

*Jaime Suchlicki is Director of the Cuban Studies Institute, CSI, a non-profit research group in Coral Gables, FL. He is the author of Cuba: From Columbus to Castro & Beyond, now in its 5th edition; Mexico: From Montezuma to the Rise of the PAN, 2nd edition, and of the recently published Breve Historia de Cuba.