We have seen that divisions and sectarianism among the various revolutionary organizations enabled the establishment in January 1934 of a government delivered by US Ambassador Jefferson Caffery, controlled by the sergeant-named-coronel Fulgencio Batista, and represented by President Carlos Mendieta (see “Guiteras and the ‘government of 100 days’” 8/11/2014; “The Communist Party of Cuba in the 1930s” 8/13/2014). And we have seen that continuing divisions among the revolutionary forces was an important factor in enabling the Caffery-Batista-Mendieta government to survive (“The lesson of sectarianism” 8/15/2014).
Prior to the overthrow of Machado, “the chiefs of the armed forces were subordinate, in law and in fact, to civil authority, and they did not participate in the taking of political decisions” (Chang 1998:320). The role of the armed forces of the neo-colonial republic prior to 1934 was limited to carrying out repressive measures authorized by the president and other civil authorities, in exchange for which the chiefs were granted participation in the looting of the public treasury. But the coup d’etat of September 4, 1933, which led to the Grau “government of 100 days,” and the coup of January 15, 1934, which established the Caffery-Batista-Mendieta government, greatly strengthened the role of the military in political affairs, inasmuch as the military had played a central role in both events. Accordingly, after the fall of Machado, “Batista and his army emerged as the true arbiters of the situation. The traditional political parties, fragmented and involved in endless fights that promoted their ambitions, only would occupy the space in governmental management that the formal maintenance of republican institutions required. Real power would be in the hands of the military chiefs, with Batista at the head” (Chang 1998:346).
Through a series of laws and decrees between February and April of 1936, a number of institutions were created, all under the direction of the chief of the army and dedicated to such tasks as the creation and operation of rural schools and the providing of social services and services of public health. By virtue of a law of August 28, 1936, these various institutions were united in the Corporative Council of Education, Health, and Welfare, which pertained to the military. These measures increased the power of Batista and the military, by giving them control over areas that ought to be under the civilian authority of the government. The Corporative Council, for example, and not the office under the direction of the Secretary of Education, appointed teachers to the rural schools. Similarly, the Corporative Council appointed health specialists, social workers, and administrators necessary for the various programs of social and health services (Instituto 1998:348-50).
In addition to increasing his power, the Corporative Council also enabled Batista to improve his image, which had been severely damaged by his “well-earned fame as an oppressor of the people” (Chang 1998:349), earned during the Grau government. The programs of the Corporative Council involved the military with the rural peasantry, converting officers and soldiers into agents of social change that were improving the conditions of life (Chang 1998:349). However, Federico Chang Pon considers the program to be demagoguery, in that it sought to attain social support for the personal ambitions of Batista (see also Arboleya 2008:109). In his view, the paternalistic character of the program, its idealistic solutions, and its lack of technical support reveal its essentially demographic character (Chang 1998: 350).
The usurpation of power by the military led to constant tension between Batista and President Mendieta. The conflict came to a head in a dispute concerning the management of the state budget. On December 14, 1936, Batista met with the chiefs of the armed forces, and it was decided to make an accusation against the president before the House of Representatives, accusing him of threatening members of the Congress in order to coerce them to support the legislation that he supported. On December 24, the Senate, presided by the Supreme Court, declared the president guilty of violating the free functioning of the legislative power, and he was removed from office, replaced by Vice-President Federico Laredo Brú. The removal of the president demonstrated and reinforced the power and ambitions of Batista (Chang 1998:352-55).
In August 1937, Batista launched the Plan for Social-Economic Reconstruction, a program dedicated to improving the conditions of life in the countryside. The program was launched by Batista personally, and it was accompanied by an ample propaganda campaign that proclaimed its benefits to the people. However, the proposed program did not touch the large landholdings, which was the principal structural source of rural poverty. And although the proposed program would have provided some support to small and middle peasants dedicated to sugar production, it provide no support for landless peasants or for peasants who were not tied to sugar production. In fact, analyses of the proposal maintain that, if it had been implemented, it would have led to loss of land and pauperization for 60% of peasant small landholders (Chang 1998:357-560).
Chang considers the Plan for Social-Economic Reconstruction to have been another example of Batista’s demagoguery. He maintains that the astute Batista understood that he could not obtain the support of the workers and students through such deception, as a result of his previous repression against these sectors. So he was attempting to establish a social base of support in the rural population, which had less developed political consciousness and had been less directly repressed by the armed forces under his command (Chang 1998:359; see also Arboleya 2008:109).
But the demagogic maneuver did not work. The plan never attained necessary popular support. Leaders of the popular movement provided penetrating analyses of the plan, exposing its deceptions and contradictions. At the same time, the international situation was changing, which was establishing conditions for a different road for Batista, namely, cooperation with the progressive and revolutionary popular forces of the nation. So in May 1938, Batista announced a postponement of the plan, which was actually the first step in its abandonment. Batista was moving toward an alternative strategy of a democratic opening, as we will see in a subsequent post.
Arboleya, Jesús. 2008. La Revolución del Otro Mundo: Un análisis histórico de la Revolución Cubana. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.
Chang Pon, Federico. 1998. “Reajustes para la estabilización del sistema neocolonial” in Instituto de Historia de Cuba. 1998. La neocolonia. La Habana: Editora Política.
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