Batista, a Tropical Messiah

Six decades of indoctrination can somewhat distort our view of the past.

Fulgencio Batista was born on January 16, 1901, the feast of Saint Fulgentius / Archive

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yunior García Aguilera, Madrid, 5 May 2024 — Fulgencio Batista landed a major role in the soap opera that is Cuba on September 4, 1933, during the Sergeants’ Revolt. He went on to become its biggest star, earning the grandiose nickname The Man. How could an unknown sergeant go from bit player to leading man? How did a short peasant with a ruddy complexion manage to dominate the front pages during several chapters of our nation’s history?

His father, Belisario, fought in the Cuban War of Independence. In spite of being illiterate, he managed to educate his son while regaling him with stories of battlefield exploits. Little Beno’s first teacher was a girl from the village. Though not actually a trained educator, she did teach children to read. He would later enroll in a run-down Quaker school. After a day of cutting sugar cane and doing household chores, the boy would study at night. There are photos of him working as a tailor or carpenter, before he had any hint of a mustache.

His mother Carmela, by contrast, was a deeply religious woman. Batista would recall, however, how level-headed she could be, taking him in 1910 to watch the path of Halley’s Comet rather than succumbing to the fear and superstition which led the town’s other residents to hide under the covers at the time. He would lose her five years later when he was just fourteen years old.

There are photos of him working as a tailor or carpenter, before he had any hint of a mustache

A fan of the railroad, the young Batista managed to become a conductor though his true vocation was putting on a military uniform. Six decades of indoctrination might somewhat distort our view of the past. It is difficult for us to understand what impact the sight of the Rural Guard might have on a peasant of that time. However, there are stories that claim every Cuban peasant would look up from the fields or out the door of his hut whenever a pair of them rode by on horseback. It was a mixture of fascination and fear. And that was what Batista wanted until he achieved it in 1921.

He did not particularly distinguish himself as a soldier but he did use his free time to take a correspondence course in shorthand. The habit of walking around all day long with books under his arm earned him the nickname The Man of Letters, something he certainly did not mind. The most distinctive thing about that period of his life was that he became part of President Zayas’ security detail at a farm in Wajay. It was there that he met his first wife, Elisa Godínez, whom he would marry in 1926.

A year later he would be promoted to corporal, hardly an extraordinary accomplishment. He would have to wait another year before being promoted to sergeant-major and given a job as stenographer at the Cabaña fortress. Dreaming of becoming a captain was perhaps too lofty a goal for a soldier from such humble beginnings, someone without money, family connections or notoriety.

Batista gave a speech in which he employed all of his father’s working-class eloquence and all his mother’s wonder at seeing Halley’s Comet pass overhead

After the fall of President Gerardo Machado, civilian and military officials were unhappy with Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. A rumor, a mere rumor, was the trigger that sparked the mutiny. There was talk that the government was going to reduce the Army’s staff and cut salaries. That was how the Gang of Eight, led by a certain Pablo Rodríguez, came to be. One of the reasons Batista got involved was because of his skills as a typist. And he had an old Ford which allowed the conspirators to get around.

But Batista had another trick up his sleeve. He knew how to speak in public. Pablo Rodríguez never imagined he would have to step aside for a stenographer, who would end up sidelining him in the history books. Batista gave a speech in which he employed all Belisario’s working-class eloquence and all Carmela’s wonder at seeing Halley’s Comet pass overhead. He spoke of the “soldier-man” and emphasized with a peasant’s rage the word “dignity.”

At the conclusion, he said just one thing: Viva Batista! A week later he was a colonel and would go on to become the the Cuban Strongman, a nickname he had for a quarter of a century.


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