Cuban Presidents in “free Cuba” 1898-1960 Before Castro

A Cigar History Museum Exclusive

© Tony Hyman

New material added November 16, 2010

    This 1957 flyer paints an ugly picture of Cuba under Batista, whom Castro soon thereafter unseated. Batista was not Cuba’s only corrupt leader. Similar complaints could have been leveled against nearly every Cuban government since the Spanish arrived.

    A popular misconception is that after the U.S. invaded and kicked the Spanish out in 1898, “free” Cuba became a paradise. True, the Cuban people were friendly, the weather hot and sticky, the rum, cigars, gambling and prostitutes were unexcelled for tourists, but the average Cuban lived as his ancestors had lived for centuries... amidst corruption and graft rivaling any government in history.

    There is no shortage of books on Cuban history. It’s my intent with this modest summary to encourage you to read a few, avoiding bitter polemics and the U.S. government’s propaganda, and focussing on the many scholarly works that exist.

	The Spanish-Cuban conflicts of the 1890’s, culminating in the Spanish-American War of 1898, had not been kind to Cuba. The island was essentially in ruins economically, 80% of the sugar mills (once the finest in the Caribbean) had been destroyed as were 700 coffee plantations.  Approximately 100,000 small farms were also wiped out, their livestock killed or run off, fields trampled, and peasant farmers hiding in the jungles, living off the land to survive.

	As the 20th century opened, the male Cuban population older than 14 totaled 1,075,000, one-third of whom (376,000 men) were unemployed, always a volatile situation. Another one-third (372,000) were involved in agriculture or fishing.  Of the remainder, about 134,000 men were classified as in “trade and transportation,” 73,000 were servants and a mere 9,000 men were engaged in the various professions, tho the census reported only 1,400 of them as having college degrees. Children aged 10 to 14 who were employed added 28,000 to the work force, two thirds of whom were in agriculture, the remainder roughly equally split between domestic service, factories, trades and an ominous 26 who were classed as ‘professional,” without explanation of what they were good at.

	Books like William Clark’s 1898 Commercial Cuba: A Book for Business Men and Robert Porter’s impressively named Industrial Cuba, Being a Study of Present Commercial and Industrial Conditions, with Suggestions as to the Opportunities Presented in the Island for American Capital, Enterprise, and Labour helped bring nearly a quarter billion dollars in new capital into Cuba from the U.S.

	Americans began to exploit Cuba immediately. By WWI, the island had become Americanized.  Architects, engineers and builders flocked from the states, as did the purveyors of ideas, preachers and school teachers.  American carriages, wagons, trucks and automobiles replaced the island’s ox carts and Victorias (horse-drawn carriages). Roads were built for the convenience of new-style modern business. American money became the monetary standard.  After the War, tobacco and sugar continued to account for 90% Cuban exports, with tobacco taking a larger percentage of the volume than ever before.  Cuba shipped $100,000,000 in sugar and $98,000,000 in tobacco, slightly more than half of which was for finished cigars and cigarettes. A high percentage of those exports were shipped by U.S. owned companies. 

	In 1902, after four years of rule by a United States Military Government, Cubans were told they could elect a government “of the people” for the first time in their history. 

Cuban demographics 1902

	The Cubans who could vote for a national government for the first time consisted of 551,639 males of voting age of whom slightly less than half could read and write.  Ethnic breakdown listed 264,000 as born in Cuba with about a 50/50 chance of being literate and a less than one-tenth of 1% chance of being college educated. Most of the 128,000 born in Spain could read and write, but literacy was low among the 151,000 described as “colored” with nativity unlisted; of these exactly 19 had been to college.  China contributed 11,000 resident voters, more than half literate.  The remaining handful, almost 9,000, had originally come from Puerto Rico, other West Indies, Africa and the United States.  
President Tomas Estrada Palma

	Under close US supervision Cuba was permitted to elect Tomas Estrada Palma as its first President in 1902. On May 20 of that year, the U.S. Military Government handed the reins of the island over to its newly elected President and, after four years of occupation, American troops began withdrawal the same day.  
	Things went smoothly for about three years, but after Palma was reelected amidst valid charges of fraud, intimidation and murder, Cubans continued their century long tradition of taking up arms against a government of which it does not approve. The government of Cuba found itself totally unprepared for the armed insurrection of 1906.  Its artillery and rural guard were small and scattered and efforts to raise a militia were ineffectual.  President Palma appealed to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt for intervention. Roosevelt was not eager to get involved in another armed confrontation in Cuba, so dispatched instead a Peace Commission consisting of Secretary of War Taft and Assistant Secretary of State, Bacon.  

	Within a week or two, those two dignitaries efficiently interviewed the interested parties and leaders on all sides, a compromise was reached whereby all officials elected in the fraudulent 1905 elections would resign, including the Vice-President, Senators, Representative, Governors, and Provincial officials.  Insurgents had to put their guns away, and a constitutional convention for drawing up various laws. Palma chose to join other government officials and, with his cabinet, resigned, leaving a dangerous power vacuum.  Taft was left no choice but to take charge in an effort, according to his official proclamation, “to restore order, protect life and property in the Island of Cuba and islands and keys adjacent thereto and for this purpose to establish therein a provisional government.”

	There are those who refer to that as “the second invasion by the United States” but the historical record seems clear that the move was necessary and beneficial and that all reasonable steps were quickly and professionally taken to put the Cuban government back in the hands of Cubans as quickly as possible.  The only troops involved were a small detachment of marines whose sole purpose was to guard the treasury from looters. 

	Only a month after their arrival, Taft and Bacon returned to the U.S. having effectively prevented further bloodshed and stopping the insurrection. President Roosevelt appointed the Hon. Charles E. Magoon to take charge of Cuba.  Magoon was no amateur in Latin America having been former Governor of the Canal Zone, the government of which he organized, and American Minister to Panama. Magoon’s first task was to oversee an advisory law commission designed to rebuild Cuba’s electoral system.  With Magoon came advisors to assist each of the acting secretaries of the Cuban executive departments.

	Charles Magoon held the post of provisional governor with distinction, improving Cuba in numerous ways, with no hint of scandal or impropriety. Perhaps his only flaw was his firm belief that the values and procedures of Protestant business-minded North America could easily be transferred to laid-back Catholic tropical Cuba.  

	A very small scale insurrection occurred during Magoon’s time, but was of no consequence.  Magoon did have to face the infamous Huelga de la Moneda, a strike in which cigar makers demanded a 10% raise paid in U.S. money.  This came at a time when the Cuban cigar business was in a slump dominated by the powerful American Tobacco Company’s cigar arm, the American Cigar Company, which owned most of the means of Cuban production.  Magoon stayed neutral in the strike, American Cigar “won” but many disgruntled workers moved to Florida, New York or New Orleans...wherever they had friends or family to help them get resettled in the business.  Prices of Cuban cigars rose after the strike, and exports to both U.S. and England declined.  England, the world’s largest importer of Cuban cigars, cut imports by more than 40%, dropping to 60,000,000 cigars from 100,000,000 a few years previous.
President Jose Miguel Gomez

	The U.S. stayed in Cuba for another three years, but finally, after receiving the approval of the President of the United States, Jose Miguel Gomez, running an orderly and somewhat anti-foreigner campaign, became the second, if somewhat delayed, president in 1909, receiving a three to one majority over the conservative candidates, General Mario Menocal and Señor Rafael Montoro. The anti-foreigner message Gomez represented fell on responsive ears, as many Cubans were less than enthusiastic that U.S. investors had bought $200,000,000 worth of Cuban assets in the seven years the U.S. was in charge since the war, while England, France, and Germany had invested another $75,000,000 in acquiring “their share” of the Cuban economy.  Banks, railroads, telephones, ports, utilities, factories, sugar mills, cane plantations, tobacco vegas, and many of the most famous names in cigars were all in foreign hands.

	After Gomez was elected U.S. troops once again moved out, leaving Cuba to the Cubans. Gomez took over a Cuba largely physically recovered from the recent wars, with a prosperous economy, and a moderate but not insurmountable public debt.  Gomez was congenial and popular, and joined the tradition established by Cuban leaders for the previous 400 years by becoming rich in office and helping friends share the profits. 
        Gomez re-instituted cockfighting and a national lottery, which, though flagrantly crooked at times, was immensely popular with the ever hopeful population.  Lottery tickets were sold everywhere, and it was popular for groups of poor Cubanos to group together to buy single tickets. 
President General Mario G. Menocal

	In 1913 the Conservatives backed General Mario G. Menocal, who ended up elected because of divisiveness among the opposition.  Paternalistic in an “el patron” tradition, Menocal appealed to the working class despite his aristocratic, mill-operator and military background. While in office, among many other accomplishments, Menocal unified the armed forces, regulated tobacco exportation, and replaced Spanish, French and English currency with a new Cuban monetary system. A Cuban silver dollar was created as were 5, 10 and 20 dollar gold pieces. These coins did not replace paper currency of the U.S. which would remain standard in Cuba for most of the next century. Huge numbers of small denomination coins were issued as all but the wealthiest shopped for life’s necessities on a day by day basis. Menocal’s reforms were not popular in all quarters, political tension became sporadically violent, and the United States threatened Cuba that it would intervene with troops again. The U.S. President warned Menocal that he was to keep the peace at any cost.

	Doing some good did not keep Menocal from joining a long line of Cuban leaders who exploited  the wealth and resources of the island for personal gain. During his eight year administration, it is estimated that 25% of all customs revenue, mas o menos $8,000,000, found its way into the private accounts of Menocal and other officials.  Between 1908 and 1920, during the terms of Presidents Maximo Gomez and Mario Menocal, 372 government officials were indicted for embezzlement, fraud, homicide, postal infractions, tampering with the lottery, misappropriation of funds and violations of the election laws. Corruption remained so bad during the following decade that 483 indictments were handed out in 1923 alone. Indictments were empty gestures, however, because government officials regularly passed a form of amnesty law giving each other immunity from criminal prosecution. Graft was a Cuban game nearly everyone  played.

	The cigar industry, meanwhile, flourished, as only exclusive purveyors to the world’s wealthy can.  Cuban cigars became readily accessible, sold across America, throughout Europe, and found in the counters of fine hotels around the world.  No big city tobacconist or fine restaurant was without a Cuban selection, often banded exclusively for the shop. Everyone of distinction in Europe, the U.S. and South America bought and smoked Cuban cigars. Cuban cigars did not need to advertise. The quality and pricing made that unnecessary.  The people who could afford them knew where to find them. Actual output from the 100 or so Cuban cigar factories in the export business was not huge in comparison of the output of U.S. factories. While 50,000,000 Cuban cigars averaging about $.45 each were being smoked, 6,000,000,000 U.S. domestic cigars selling for less than 15¢ were also put to the match.  Cuban cigars were the best, but they were definitely of the elite.  

        The impending World War One in Europe drew U.S. attention away from Cuba, as the U.S. Civil War had done some 75 years previously.  Charges of voter fraud in the 1917 election once again led to sporadic shooting, but a full armed insurrection was headed off as both parties agreed to Supreme Court arbitration.  Not everyone was willing to wait, and yet another gun-toting Liberal uprising occurred in 1917.  A display of American naval force in Guantanamo Bay and Santiago de Cuba harbor, both located in rural Oriente province where Cuban revolutions tend to begin, helped Menocal, himself reportedly a superb military tactician.  The insurrection was speedily put down.  

        World War One destroyed the important European market for Cuban cigars, causing the closing of yet more cigar factories.  Cuban consumption of cigars rose to 118 per man, woman and child, but there were still plenty for the tourists who became enamored of prohibition-free high-living Cuba of the 1920’s.  Cigarette consumption in Cuba rose dramatically as it did in Europe and the United States. Americans became enamored of the new white burley blends (Camels, Lucky Strike, Old Gold and Chesterfield) sold in a cup pack.
President Alfredo Zayas

	Menocal gave way in 1921, to  Gomez’s former Vice-President, Alfredo Zayas, a lawyer, opportunist, and man of virtually no scruples, regarded by many as Cuba’s most corrupt administrator, a mark of some singular distinction given the history of this lovely but embittered isle. Throughout Zaya’s administration, the U.S. “pushed” for reforms, but was reluctant to intervene with military force.

	Having lived through 400 years of graft, greed and corruption, the average Cuban citizen could not be blamed for being somewhat resigned, but also resentful and distrustful of government. Graft and greed were a way of life. Since 1860, Cubans had faced a blood thirsty war in which one-third of its population was slaughtered, short-lived revolution after short lived revolution, two invasions by the United States Army and Navy, humiliating surrender terms, 7 years of U.S. occupation, civil strife and one corrupt government after another. It’s no wonder one prominent historian described Cubans as “defeatist and cynical.” 

	U.S. President Harding sent a special envoy, Enoch Crowder, to Cuba to help peacefully settle differences between the always restless populace and its less than honest leadership.  In 1922, Crowder oversaw the establishment of an “Honest Cabinet” designed to combat corruption, waste, and over employment in government.  The Cabinet did not, however, do the obvious and cancel numerous government contracts designed to make ranking officials wealthy.  When the J.P. Morgan company gave Zayas a huge loan, reducing his dependence on the U.S. government, Zayas disbanded the Cabinet and “politics as usual” returned.

	During the 1920’s, all of Latin America was witnessing a movement among the young and intellectuals for reforms.  In twentieth century Cuba, reform has always meant less corruption and less U.S. interference in Cuba, particularly important at a time when Coca-Cola, Hires, Hershey’s and other large buyers of sugar were gobbling up sugar plantations and refineries.  Freedom parties, Communists, labor movements, union leaders, socialist alliances, workers parties, veteran’s groups, patriots groups, and splinter groups of all types called for reform of the corruption, and the U.S. out of Cuban affairs.  “One hundred years of the U.S. is enough!” was commonly heard.
President General Gerardo Machado

        Into all this stepped General Gerardo Machado, Cuba’s fifth, and perhaps most honest pre-Castro President. Machado came into office with a reputation as outspoken and fair, and made an honest effort to expand public works while reducing corruption that had long been a part of government employment.  Under Machado, the late 1920’s saw the completion of a modern central highway tying the two ends of Cuba together for the first time.  The construction of 300 miles of modern road, with all railroad crossings overhead or underground, was smart commercially, and helped immediate unemployment problems, particularly among the young. 

        Machado was also responsible for a beautiful new $17,000,000 capitol building closely modeled after the U.S. Capital (but on a smaller scale), which he symbolically opened on the day of his second inauguration.  A giant diamond was set in the floor of the capital, and from that point all distances in Cuba were then officially measured (emulating the U.S. “zero milestone” just south of the White House in Washington). Special cigars were created for the occasion.

        During Machado’s first Presidency, Cuba became an ever increasing blend of the old and the new.  Cuba began making a shift away from reliance on the U.S. as a trading partner.  Cuba struggled toward self-sufficiency in agricultural and other products, reducing imports from the U.S. from $200,000,000 a year to slightly over $20,000,000, a full 90% drop.  The Nationalist Union and the Communist Party had been formed but in the 1920’s were of little significance in program, personnel or support.  

        Sadly, Machado’s successes went to his head, and he had the constitution changed to prolong his term, then was promptly reelected in a landslide, the natural result of banning opposing candidates from running for President.  Machado's personality change drew old war horses like Menocal out of retirement, and opposition rose in direct proportion to his increasing brutality toward opposition and censorship.  

        As the 1920’s came to a close, things were generally not going well for Machado, who remained popular with conservative businessmen in Cuban and the U.S. but faced ever increasing opposition from all other sides, especially among students and intellectuals.  As the 1930’s began, Machado shut down the University.  Students used the resulting free time to conduct a small but vigorous campaign of terrorism against the government.  Machado responded by using the secret police to murder rebel leaders and arrest Tobacco Worker’s Union officials.  As the political situation deteriorated, the worst happened.  The United States, Cuba’s largest market, settled into its Great Depression. Exports to the U.S. dropped dramatically.  

        Just before the Depression hit, Cuba shipped $363,000,000 in sugar, tobacco, cigars and fruit to the U.S.  When the Depression hit, prices dropped to the extent that Cuban merchants shipped three quarters of the entire island’s exports, and brought in only $57,000,000 from the U.S. and another $23,000,000 from England and the rest of the world.  The price of Cuban sugar plummeted by 80%.  Imports into Cuba dropped from $257,000,000 to $51,000,000 during the same period, roughly half of which came from the U.S., the rest from Europe, Mexico, and Latin America.  The value of U.S. holdings in Cuba continued to rise as American investors pumped in another $250,000,000 into loans, construction and purchase of Cuban assets during the early days of the depression.

        The Cuban cigar market in the U.S. was hurt by the depression.  During the 1920’s, Cuban cigars were an expensive luxury and had to compete with high quality cigars made of cuban tobacco but in the United States.  Only 7% of the cigars sold in the U.S. in 1915 sold for 5¢ or less.  Good quality clear Havana cigars made in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Tampa, Key West and elsewhere were a luxury, costing from 10¢ to 25¢, with only a few higher.  Cuban cigars were an even greater luxury.  The top of the line Cuban cigar cost $5.00, with most Cubans selling for 35¢ to $2 during the 1920’s.  By 1935, in the United States, a full 95% of all cigars sold cost 5¢ or less.  That didn’t leave much room for Cuban cigars.  The importation of Cuban cigars and tobaccos dropped from $41 million a year to less than $14 million.  

        An already troubled Cuba fell into economic chaos.  Every class, every ethnic group, many professions, everyone was forming alliances and political parties, holding clandestine meetings or public rallies.  A popular American comedian remarked that “Cuba had 4,000,000 inhabitants, but only 2,000,000 political parties.  They’d have more, but women weren’t allowed to vote.”  

        Machado wouldn’t step down, using the army to increasingly brutalize the opposition.  But the army wasn’t being paid, which complicated matters, making them a less than reliable ally.
President General Alberto Herrera 
President Carlos Manuel de Cespedes

        With the 1932 Election of F.D.R. and his promise of a Good Neighbor policy to Cuba, Machado hoped his fortunes had changed, but this time the U.S. chose to let the Army remove him.  With U.S. approval, Army chief general Alberto Herrera took over, serving just long enough to appoint  Secretary of State Carlos Manuel de Cespedes as the next President.  All this took place under the day-to-day watchful eye of U.S. Ambassador, Sumner Welles, who kept a finger in virtually all Cuban governmental affairs of significance by maintaining his desk literally in the office of the Cuban President.

        Cespedes was not getting a “dream job.”  He faced widespread unemploy-ment, an economy in ruins, labor unrest, continuing revolutionary pressure from every side that didn’t agree with every decision.  Students, intellectuals, labor, and the Communist Party all called for a complete change of the government system “not the continual exchange of one incompetent thief after another.”  Unrest spread throughout Cuba during the 1930’s.  

        The movement toward Cubanization of their economy went into full swing in the 20’s and into the depression.  Cubans increased production of clothes, from underwear to shoes and linen suits and local production of women’s popular rayon dresses.  Canning factories were established so that wider distribution of fruit was possible. Unfortunately for Cuba, though these items were made in Cuba, the factories were often owned by foreigners overseas. 

        Afraid of anything that would upset grown and tentative stability, the Cuban military responded to the 1933 threat of a strike by the Tobacco Worker’s Union by raiding their Havana Headquarters, burning their records and smashing all their machinery and equipment. They feared spread of a reform movement to other workers and a general uprising. Acts like this spurred  the very movement the crime-ridden conservatives and military feared.
The revolutionary junta forms a provisional government

        Finally, a revolutionary junta took over the government of Cuba and announced the formation of a Provisional Revolutionary Government, the establishment of a modern democracy and the beginning a new Cuba.  Presumably while looking at a thousand points of light at the other end of the bridge to the 21st century.

      The United States government’s refusal to recognize the revolutionary government was largely based on blow by blow communiques from their conservative “observer” Sumner Welles, who, in retrospect appears to have filed biased report after biased report, deliberately portraying the new government and other major Cuban players to be more radical and more dangerous to U.S. interests than actually was the case.  

        That isn’t to say the Cuban situation was smooth or that U.S. companies, large and small that owned Cuban railroads, water companies, electric companies, transportation, telephones, shipping, sugar and tobacco had no cause for alarm. Sentiment against U.S. ownership in Cuba and involvement in its affairs was more than a century old. The Revolutionary government managed, for a while, to get all the factions to work together, politicizing some Cubans for the first time. Cubans unified against American and European ownership of the largest portion of the Island’s economy and the corruption and brutality of leaders the United Stated supported.  
The Junta appoints President Ramon Frau San Martin

        Welles, nervous at hints of social reform, recommended F.D.R. send troops to suppress the “ultra-radicals” whom he distrusted.  Recognizing the danger to Cuba of yet another armed invasion from the U.S., the provisional junta capitulated, dissolved itself, appointing Ramon Frau San Martin as President. Once again, the United States, not approving of the choice, refused to recognize the legitimacy of the government.  

The U.S. supports General Fulgencio Batista

        Fearing a collapse of public order, the strong Fulgencio Batista was appointed colonel and army chief, and ordered to maintain stability in the Armed forces.  Business interests saw rule by law as a definite positive.  They may have liked the Army’s new strong armed peace keeping tactics, but were a lot less enthusiastic about Martin’s new government.  Heavy student involvement with their ideology of tolerance and humane government presaged the U.S. youth dominated reforms of the American 1960’s.  

        Radicalized by young idealists, ecstatic to be the first 20th century legitimate  Cuban government to be formed without U.S. approval or interference, brought social and economic reorganization, life style improvement and political reorganization.  
	• Water and electricity rates were lowered by 40%, a reform which
                    did not thrill U.S. owners of those utilities.  
	• Ceilings were placed on the amount of interest banks could charge for
                    land and other loans, another move greeted less than enthusiastically
                    in the United States where the bank owners resided.
	• Minimum wages were established, which all the out-of-country owners 
                    of sugar plantations especially hated.
	• The first worker’s compensation laws were established.
          •  Women got the vote.
	• The University was made autonomous from the government.
	•  Peasants were guaranteed the right to own the meagre rural lands upon
                    which they lived, among other agrarian reforms. 

        Batista and the army, originally partners with the intellectuals, became increasingly disaffected.  Ambassador Welles played upon those fears, promising support of the U.S. government to the army, as the only force capable of keeping order. Welles stressed the importance of business to Cuba, and that above all, businessmen want order. 
U.S. backed General Fulgencia Batista takes over

        Continued U.S. behind-the-scenes intervention, near civil war, some strikes, and a murder or two later, and the U.S. backed Fulgencia Batista became in charge of the government, set up a series of puppet presidents until 1940 when he himself was elected president and began to orchestrate a regime of graft and corruption on a scale previously unknown in a nation with 500 years of serious practice.

        Batista was not entirely reprehensible. As an Army man he was well aware of the dangers of Army men, so removed a great deal of power and income from the military.  Unfortunately for Batista, this alienated a lot of people with guns, seldom a good policy in a volatile country with so much practice holding uprisings.  

       Batista made a serious effort to improve conditions for Cubans other than himself.  He sponsored welfare legislation, public works improvements, pensions and insurance for government workers, minimum wage laws, rural schools staffed with teachers supplied by the army, and other reforms, personally pocketing only a reasonable share of the various earmarked funds.  
Presidents Grau and Socrarras and gangsterismo

        WWII proved beneficial to Cuba, and temporarily saved Batista.  Asian sources of sugar and tobacco were cut off, thus increasing U.S. demand.  Sugar and tobacco production doubled, and Batista’s popularity rose accordingly.  The downside was the loss of the lucrative European cigar market and a 90% drop in tourism during the war years. Batista lost the election of 1944 to Grau, who was succeeded in 1948 by Carlos Prio Socrarras.  Each, as had been the case with each Cuban administration save one, the reign of graft and favoritism continued.

        But by the end of the war a new era descended upon Cuban government, described as gangsterismo by one prominent Cuban historian.  Violent clashes between rival factions became the order of the day, in part fed by refugees from the revolution in Spain.  Private armies, essentially thugs, surrounded each of Cuba’s elite.  Assassinations, intimidation, and violence entered all facets of life as students and thugs clashed with and among each other.  As a high school and college student, a young Fidel Castro was influenced by the idealism and the violence which surrounded his education.

        With world trade once again flowing, the Cuban economy stagnated. This tiny island nation had no new jobs being created for the 25,000 young people entering the workforce in 1950, an annual number that would double during that decade. The government payroll shot from a war time high of 60,000 employees to 189,000 only seven years later, an alarming increase that didn’t count 30,000 new names drawing some form of government pension.  Power by job control, a concept Boston, New York and Chicago political machines had been teaching for generations, became the order of the day.  By 1960, Cuban unemployment reached 350,000 men under 30.

        The economy stagnated for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the exploitive and dangerous nature of a valuable two crop economy, both of which dependent on world prices.  Sugar accounted for 85% of all Cuban exports, making it highly subject to fluctuations in the world market in the 1950’s. It’s only other economy was tourism, and Cuba worked hard to become the playground of celebrities of all stripes, sizes, nationalities and sides of the law.  Tourist dollars were important. 

General Batista declares himself President

        Rather than hold an election in 1952, Batista declared himself President in violation of the Cuban Constitution.  He pledged order, stability and no more labor unrest, music to the ears of most Cubans, the U.S. government and especially American businessmen who owned most of the island.  So cynical had the Cuban population become about its own government, that there was little opposition when Batista simply took over, promising to hold free elections again, a couple years down the road.  Not surprisingly, not all Cubans acquiesced to this rather abrupt precipitous take-over, but Batista’s well trained troops quickly put down even hints of revolt, including beating back the attack in Santiago de Cuba led by Fidel Castro in July of 1953, a year after Batista’s illegal take-over of the government.  Batista did keep his promise, and in 1954 held elections in which he ran with virtually no opposition, and carried the 40% of the population who voted.  Within a year opposition forces were once again carrying guns.

        Eventually it would be one of the smallest of those bands, once reportedly reduced to only eighteen men, who won a continuing series of small victories, gaining supporter after supporter among the rural population of Southeastern Oriente province and in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. Victories over two Government Rural Guard outposts, symbols of arbitrary government oppression and cruelty as long as  anyone could remember, brought more and more Cubanos to Castro’s side, intellectually if not physically.  Expanding success in the countryside was followed by acts of urban terrorism, a strategy rare in Cuba’s long and violent history.  By the late 1950’s, hundreds of army and navy officers were arrested for anti government activity, not a complete surprise considering the long enmity between Batista and the army officers, whose long arms of graft and power he had dismembered a decade before.

        Resentment among the various factions was not only aimed at their own government, but was once again directed at U.S. companies who owned 90% of the Cuban telephones system, 90% of its electric power, half its railroads, and 25% of all the money in all the banks in Cuba.  In 1968, U.S. citizens owned one billion dollars in Cuban petroleum, mining, agriculture, and manufacturing, and services at a time when Cuban income was falling and unemployment rising to a 30 year high Interestingly, Havana ranked as the fourth most expensive city in the world in which to live; only Caracas, Ankara and Manila were worse.  

        By the late 50’s, middle-class Cubans, firm supporters of Batista’s at one time, found themselves worse off then ever, increasingly supporting the well-spoken, if somewhat long-winded, Fidel Castro, a declared supporter of the ideals of Cuban patriot, Marti, the hero of the abortive war of 1895. Student and labor activists, Batista’s most outspoken opposition, frequently were found bullet-riddled in public squares, often with bombs attached to their bodies as reminders to the population who was in charge. In a strategy favored by insurgents for two centuries, Castro’s supporters torched 75% of the sugar crop.  

Fidel Castro takes over the government

Castro’s victory was assured.  With victory days away, the Cuban Communist party finally threw their support to Castro, thus gaining several key positions when the government was later formed.  The final straw for the Batista regime came when the U.S. imposed an arms embargo in 1958.  Though the munitions
affected were few and insignificant, the message to Batista regarding the U.S. position was clear.  With the withdrawal of U.S. support, his brutal regime was doomed.  Batista and his supporters fled the island and a power vacuum ensued.  The overwhelming majority of cubans were delighted when, in 1959, the bright articulate Castro, stepped in and took power by the force of his personality.

        Amidst all the turmoil that followed WWII and ultimately led to the victory of the reformists under Castro, the Cuban cigar industry plugged along, still making the world’s finest cigars, but things were about to drastically change.

        In 1961, Castro, a traditional Cuban populist, aligned himself with the Cuban communists out of economic necessity.  With no money forthcoming from the United States to support his government, he declared the revolution to be socialist in nature, asked the Soviets for aid, and began nationalizing foreign and domestic enterprises, including banks, mines, utilities, and most large and medium industries, including cigars.  Literacy and housing became the goal of government.  Most upper and middle class people fell on hard times, losing most of their income property.  Those who could, migrated to the United States.  

        The 1962 embargo has seriously disrupted Cuba in many ways, but cigars do not appear to be one of them.  Every cigar Cuba makes, Cuba sells.  The best of the 20th century Cuban cigars equal the best of the past. The Nixon administration spread the false rumor that Cuba had plowed under the vegas and planted corn and beets and other vegetables.  The little bit of tobacco that is still grown “isn’t very good,” it was +claimed.  A prominent Swiss tobacconist pleaded with me during my trip to that beleaguered isle, “Please don’t write anything to dispel the myth that Cuban cigars are no longer the world’s best.  We’ll take all they can make.”

        Smokers in the U.S. have changed a lot since the early 1960’s when the United States embargo ended more than a century of self-interest paternalism regarding Cuba.  More than 40 years have passed since you could plunk 50¢ down on the counter of any tobacconist and walk out smoking a Belinda, Romeo y Julieta or Hoyo de Monterrey.  Less than one percent of U.S. cigar smokers have had the opportunity to try the classic ’50s brands so their pallets are unprepared for these blends from the Antilles.  Alas, recent political affairs have greatly reduced the variety available in Cuban cigars just as it has the cigars of other nations.  

        Those of us who love cigars celebrate with those we have today, but remember not too long ago when two dozen Cuban brands were made in more than 1,000 different blends, shapes and sizes.  

tony hyman

“No part of Cuba escaped the ravages of the war with Spain that ended in 1898.  From the eastern mountains across the central plains to the western valleys, the scene of desolation and devastation was the same.  It was a brutal conflict in which the opposing armies seemed determined more to punish the land than prosecute the war.”    [ Bethell: Cuba, A Short History, 1993 ]

Cuban Presidents of the 20th Century

               An Overview By Tony Hyman