A guest post by Asombra:
The Batista Myth
The moldy but persistent myths concerning the Castro “revolution” are kept alive by a mix of cynical propaganda, useful idiocy, indolent ignorance, bad faith and not-so-covert malice. These myths include the notion that Fidel Castro was the only viable alternative to Batista, addressed here, and the gross fabrication that pre-Castro Cuba was a poor, wretched, backward hellhole full of victims desperate for radical social change, addressed here. Myths, like sexual fantasies, are cheap and much easier than reality—you just make them up to suit your needs, so there are myths galore.
There is, of course, a Batista myth: Batista the formidable, hardcore, all-powerful and ruthless military dictator, a Cuban amalgam of Pinochet, Franco and Duvalier, with the requisite dash of Mussolini and even Hitler. I have said Batista was the second worst thing that ever happened to Cuba, because he made the Castro catastrophe possible, but he was not Cuba’s Voldemort (who would succeed him).
History is not just a bunch dates and events; they have to be put together like the pieces of a puzzle and interpreted in a coherent, logical, reasonable manner that makes sense of the available data–that is what I have tried my best to do in what follows.
As dictators go, Batista was anything but formidable. He was inconsistent, erratic, dense, clumsy and vacillating due to conflicting priorities. Fidel was far more focused, single-minded and cunning, and a much bigger and better liar. If Batista had been like, say, Pinochet, the Castro business wouldn’t have gotten far, and even Pinochet was removed from power through an electoral, non-violent solution.
If Batista had been as ruthless as advertised, Fidel wouldn’t have lived past 1953 after masterminding the failed but bloody Moncada attack, or he would have been left to rot in jail, instead of being freed in 1955 after a very cushy prison stint. Two other prominent Batista foes engineered plots against him: ex-president Prío in 1956 and former Prime Minister Varona in 1957. Both failed and could have at least been jailed, but Batista merely deported Prío without confiscating any of his holdings in Cuba, and he also allowed Varona to leave the country. Prío continued plotting from abroad, giving significant financial aid to Castro which made possible the fateful Granma landing and its aftermath.
Batista never had absolute power or control, certainly not the kind Castro would later enjoy, partly because there was no precedent for such power in Cuba (which had known authoritarian but not totalitarian rule) and partly because that’s not what Batista ever sought or even imagined for himself. His ambitions were much more conventional and far less grandiose than Fidel’s, and they were focused on position or social standing and wealth, not power per se. He had no interest in controlling people’s lives, let alone reprogramming their minds. What he apparently wanted was to be a Big Shot with plenty of money, and a position so important that he couldn’t be marginalized or ignored for being a mulatto from a poor rural background with nothing refined or elevated to offer as compensation (unlike, for instance, the distinguished black poet and intellectual Gaston Baquero, who came from the same backwater town as Batista, yet reached the highest levels of Cuban journalism and was highly respected).
A critical area which Batista failed to control effectively was the information media. He obviously couldn’t control foreign Castro propagandists like Herbert Matthews of the New York Times, but he also failed on the domestic front, where the press was mostly pro-Castro and in some cases ready to distort, misinform and even fabricate false data to help the Castro effort (the highly popular and influential magazine Bohemia was especially notorious in its bias, doing things like inflating the number of Batista casualties at least tenfold–the man who ran it later committed suicide after Castro won and the mask came off). Batista did impose censorship, but it was done in fits and starts, in on-again, off-again fashion, which reflected his generally haphazard and poorly coordinated approach.
Batista’s weakness was due in no small part to being a soft-core dictator, one with personal “issues” that a successful despot cannot afford. After being a legitimately elected president during 1940-44, he went the dictatorial route in 1952 because he had no chance of winning the presidential elections later that year, which he would have much preferred. He carefully avoided the semblance of a military junta (which doesn’t bother Cuba’s current dictator) by forming a civilian government. He cared about legitimacy, or more precisely, about public perception and acceptance (things which made no difference to Fidel as long as he had enough power). Batista always wanted to be “respectable” and popular, to overcome his lower class, mixed-race background and be accepted as a “caballero” (he took much greater care over his dress, grooming and manners than Fidel, for instance). In other words, Batista was conflicted between doing what it took to keep his position and fear of being perceived as a crude, odious thug. Again, that was never Fidel’s problem after he seized power—he didn’t care what people thought of him as long as they were unable or afraid to rebel. An advantage of megalomania is that you like yourself so much that other people are irrelevant, assuming they don’t get in your way.
Batista wasn’t even formidable in military terms. Unlike the Castro brothers (whose military credentials are fraudulent and consist of posturing and dressing the part), Batista had actually been in the army and made sergeant, but the basis for his subsequent rise to general was largely political. When he had to function as a general and Commander-in-Chief against the Castro challenge, he wasn’t up to the task. He both underestimated the threat and mismanaged it, employing unsuitable and corrupt officers and issuing ill-judged or contradictory orders, which confused and frustrated efforts to quell the “revolutionaries.” Castro’s forces, despite ludicrous media hype, never amounted to more than 1500 men (which is a high estimate), and Batista’s army of 40,000 should have had little trouble defeating them. His army, however, was poorly led, demoralized and corrupt, to the point that it could literally be bought off (and was).
Thus, Batista, once a legitimately elected president whose dictatorial phase was never popular with the Cuban people (including many rich “oligarchs”), was always on shaky ground. Since 1950s Cuba was doing very well economically and its society was vibrant, forward-looking and full of hope for the future, Batista was a political albatross around Cuba’s neck, one that could and would have been overcome without any need for “revolution”–especially a duplicitous one that promised democracy and delivered totalitarian tyranny instead. Unfortunately, despite notable exceptions, Cuba’s political class had always been suboptimal, to put it kindly, and Cuba was a very young country with corresponding immaturity and growing pains. In any event, Batista HAD to leave office for good after the 1958 presidential elections, in which he did not run because he was no longer constitutionally qualified to do so. One of his people was a candidate, and wound up “winning” because the election was fixed, but that could have been sorted out in due course. Alas, Voldemort, aka Nosferatu, aka Fidel Castro, would have no such solution. He had publicly declared beforehand that even if the 1958 elections were fair and honest, he would NOT recognize the results as valid, no matter who won (since it would not have been him). That astonishing piece of arrogant presumptuousness should have given him away, but by then there was too much delusion and too many vested interests in his triumph. Disaster ensued.
Batista’s rule, though I wish it had never happened, was not the real problem in and of itself. It was like a highly undesirable but self-limiting disease which, albeit very distressing while it lasts, eventually runs its course and allows for full recovery. The real problem is that it served to set the stage and create the conditions for a far more destructive, refractory, resistant and malignant disease, the Castro cancer. Batista, however venal and corrupt he may have been, ultimately wanted the approval of the Cuban people, and his ambitions were modest enough, relatively speaking, that they could be satisfied without causing serious lasting damage. He was an ordinary, run-of-the-mill, even negligible Latin “strong man,” not a monster of perversity and megalomaniacal ambition who didn’t need approval, only submission and servitude. Such a monster, alas, replaced him, and while Batista never set foot in Cuba after 1/1/59 and died in 1973, the monster still lives, and his monstrous regime still stands.