The Batista era was a golden age of tourism for Cuba. North Americans flocked to the island for relaxation and to stay at the famous hotels and casinos. The American mafia had a strong presence in Havana, and Lucky Luciano lived there for a time. Legendary mobster Meyer Lansky worked with Batista to complete projects, including the Havana Riviera hotel. Batista took a huge cut of all casino takings and amassed millions. Famous celebrities liked to visit and Cuba became synonymous with a good time for vacationers. Acts headlined by celebrities such as Ginger Rogers and Frank Sinatra performed at the hotels. Even American Vice-President Richard Nixon visited.
Outside of Havana, however, things were grim. Poor Cubans saw little benefit from the tourism boom and more and more of them tuned into rebel radio broadcasts. As the rebels in the mountains gained strength and influence, Batista’s police and security forces turned increasingly to torture and murder in an effort to root out the rebellion. The universities, traditional centers of unrest, were closed.
Exit from Power
In Mexico, the Castro brothers found many disillusioned Cubans willing to fight the revolution. The also picked up Argentine doctor Ernesto “Ché” Guevara. In November of 1956 they returned to Cuba on board the yacht Granma. For years they waged a guerrilla war against Batista. The 26th of July movement was joined by others inside Cuba who did their part to destabilize the nation: the Revolutionary Directorate (the student group that Batista had alienated years before) almost assassinated him in March of 1957. Castro and his men controlled huge sections of the country and had their own hospital, schools and radio stations. By late 1958 it was clear that the Cuban Revolution would win, and when Ché Guevara’s column captured the city of Santa Clara, Batista decided it was time to go. On January 1, 1959, he authorized some of his officers to deal with the rebels and fled, allegedly taking millions of dollars with him.
After the Revolution
The wealthy exiled president never returned to politics, even though he was still only in his fifties when he fled Cuba. He eventually settled in Portugal and worked for an insurance company. He also wrote several books and passed away in 1973. He left several children, and one of his grandchildren, Raoul Cantero, became a judge on the Florida Supreme Court.
Batista was corrupt, violent and out of touch with his people (or perhaps he simply didn’t care about them). Still, in comparison with fellow dictators such as the Somozas in Nicaragua, the Duvaliers in Haiti or even Alberto Fujimori of Peru, he was relatively benign. Much of his money was made by taking bribes and payoffs from foreigners, such as his percentage of the haul from the casinos. Therefore, he looted state funds less than other dictators did. He did frequently order the murder of prominent political rivals, but ordinary Cubans had little to fear from him until the revolution began, when his tactics turned increasingly brutal and repressive.
The Cuban Revolution was less the result of Batista’s cruelty, corruption or indifference than it was of Fidel Castro’s ambition. Castro’s charisma, conviction and ambition are singular: he would have clawed his way to the top or died trying. Batista was in Castro’s way, so he removed him.
That’s not to say that Batista did not help Castro greatly. At the time of the revolution, most Cubans despised him, the exceptions being the very wealthy who were sharing in the loot. Had he shared Cuba’s new wealth with his people, organized a return to democracy and improved conditions for the poorest Cubans, Castro’s revolution might never have taken hold. Even Cubans who have fled Castro’s Cuba and constantly rail against him rarely defend Batista: perhaps the only thing they agree on with Castro is that Batista had to go.
Castañeda, Jorge C. Compañero: the Life and Death of Che Guevara . New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
Coltman, Leycester. The Real Fidel Castro. New Haven and London: the Yale University Press, 2003.