1940 was Cuban democracy's culminating year. As Europe's own democracies collapsed one by one at the approach of the twin evils of Fascism and Communism, then in an alliance of raptors, a circumspect Caribbean nation, which Robert Frost compared in a poem to Switzerland, taught the Old World a lesson in representative government by adopting the most socially-advanced constitution of its time, which was to be a model for the states of a resurrected Europe.
The first president elected under the aegis of the 1940 Constitution, and, at age 39, the youngest in Cuban history, was Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar, who defeated his longtime rival Ramón Grau San Martín. As constitutional president, Batista surprised even his critics who expected him to govern as the sergeant-turned-colonel he was; but Batista was not cast in the traditional presidential mold. He was in every way a man of the people and took pride in being one. He had a genuine concern for the working man which was not acquired from political tracts or social gospels but from having been a laborer himself all his life, in the canefields, the railroads and the army, and he translated the solidarity that he felt for others like himself into something more substantial than hand-outs and sinecures to his followers. His administration fostered both progress and stability in Cuba. The prosperity was fueled by Cuba's powerful economy, which grew every year regardless of whom happened to govern or other external circumstances; the stability without violence, however, was a precious commodity, which future democratic presidents without Batista's antecedents would find it impossible to maintain.
The first challenge that confronted Batista on assuming the presidency was a coup planned by the Chiefs of the Army and Police, who liked Batista the strongman better than Batista the democrat. Batista, the master of the bloodless coup, was also the first Cuban president to put down a coup, without shedding a drop of blood, of course. Instead, he rounded-up the plotters and put them on a plane bound for the U.S. with all their relatives and possessions.
The U.S. was happy to oblige because it also needed a stable Cuba, more then than ever. Cuba was the most reliable Latin American ally of the United States in World War II. The Cuban Congress passed and Batista signed a Declaration of War against Japan and Germany immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Although Batista sent no Cuban contingent to fight in the war, following the example of President García Menocal in World War I, 2000 Cubans did volunteer for service in the U.S. Armed Forces. Cuba supplied the U.S. with 90% of the nickel it needed for war production, 80% of the manganese, 60% of the chromium and 40% of the copper. Incredible as it may seem today, Cuba was then one of the world's great mineral producers and the closest source for these essential elements in the production of armaments. Cuba also contributed to the war effort by holding down the price of sugar to pre-war levels, which in World War I had climbed several times above the price of gold. Cuba's price controls on sugar cost it billions of dollars and may be viewed as one of the largest monetary contributions to the war effort of any of the Allies.
Cuba also accepted more than 30,000 refugees from Naziism and nearly 500,000 from the Spanish Civil War, more than did the United States (not proportionally, but in raw numbers). The Cuban Navy sunk a German submarine and Cuban Intelligence captured a German spy who was transmitting by shortwave radio information on U.S. maritime traffic to the U-boats. His name was Heinz August Luning and he was the first and only individual sentenced to death and executed under martial law in Cuban republican history. [The Constitution of 1940 had abolished capital punishment in civil courts].
In a broadcast from Nazi Germany to Latin America, the announcer warned: "We know of your activities, Batista. Do not think that Havana is outside our reach." For the duration of the war, there was in fact a total blackout along the Havana coastline, which was patrolled by hundreds of German and American U-boats.
Batista's greatest achievement as constitutional president did not come at the beginning or middle of his tenure, but at the very end. Prohibited by the Constitution of 1940 from running for re-election, Batista threw his support behind his former prime minister Carlos Saladrigas, who lost in a landslide to the populist Grau San Martín in an election that made front page news around the world even in the midst of World War II.
The world and especially Latin America hailed Batista's defeat as the birth of democracy in the Americas. Not the fact, of course, that Batista's surrogate lost, but the fact that Batista acknowledged the defeat and turned power over to his enemy Grau. But not only that: Batista even exiled himself from Cuba to guarantee that Grau would not govern under a shadow.
In the then 130-year history of the Hispanic republics nothing like this had ever been seen before. In a sense it was like a second war of hemispheric liberation: the first, led by Bolívar, had freed the continent from colonial misrule; this latest one promised to usher the end of authoritarianism in Latin America, effectively freeing it from the arbitrary rule of its homegrown tinpot dictators. Even The New York Times hailed the triumph of democracy in Cuba: "Let no one ever say again that democracy doesn't exist in Latin America; it does, in the youngest [sic] of her republics."
After leaving office Batista embarked on a tour of South America, where he was hailed everywhere as the artifex of democracy in the Americas. In Chile, Batista was welcomed at the University of Santiago by Pablo Neruda in words which remind one of the poet's praise for another Cuban. If Batista had retired from politics for good, he would be remembered today as the greatest Cuban president and the first to raise the standard of real democracy in the Hispanic world.
On October 10, 1944, Ramón Grau San Martin was sworn-in as Cuba's second constitutional president under the Constitution of 1940. This was the second time that Grau had occupied the presidency, although previously he had done so provisionally in the aftermath of the 1933 Revolution. Grau has the distinction of being the first college professor ever raised to the presidency by a students' revolution. As a nationalist and social reformer, Grau's credentials were impeccable. He was known for his hostility towards the United States, which he learned to sublimate for his own and his country's good, though occasionally he would give vent to it, as in 1933 when he actually challenged the Marines to land (they didn't), or when he decreed a series of social laws, authored by Antonio Guiteras, to extend workers' rights and limit U.S. influence in Cuba, including the stipulation that Cubans must account for the majority of all employees in any business or sector of the economy.
Although the oldest man since Estrada Palma to be elected president of Cuba, Grau embodied the aspirations of the 1933 Generation, which believed that it had a champion in the old bachelor. And, in a sense, they did. He allowed even the most politically active (read fanatical) of his followers absolute freedom of action and immunity from prosecution. Their enemies having long passed from the political scene, the erstwhile students, many now in their mid 30s to early 40s but still nominally enrolled at university, engaged in internecine turf wars while competing for the favor of President Grau. These troublemakers were known as "gangsters" in Cuba, not the mafiosi that Communist folklore claims ran the island. Among these homegrown "gangsters," brave and reckless men for the most part, was one that would later come to national prominence and was as reckless as any but definitely not brave, having acquired a reputation for shooting his enemies in the back — Fidel Castro.
Grau's cynical reaction towards the "gangsters" was to let them alone, believing that so long as they were "only" killing one another they posed no threat to him or the Republic. He held their allegiance through no-show government jobs (botellas) and by conferring on them the honorary title of comandante (Grau never bestowed it on Castro, who adopted it anyway). These superannuated student comandantes were Grau's paper tigers, but he at least knew how to ride them.
Grau's term coincided with the end of World War II and the establishment of the United Nations. Cuba was one of 52 original signers of the U.N. Charter. Grau, despite his indifference to lawlessness at home, was a champion of the Rule of Law in the international arena. Cuba's voting record at the U.N. reflected this duality. Cuba voted against the United States on three of the most important issues to confront the U.N. after the end of World War II: it voted against the Nuremberg trials as a contravention of the longstanding legal proscription against ex post facto laws; it also voted against the establishment of autonomous U.N. organizations (which were all slated to become redoubts of anti-Americanism); and, finally, against the creation of the State of Israel. Whatever the probity of these votes, they do demonstrate that Cuba had ceased to be an instrument of the U.S. in international affairs. [Suffice it to say that as an ally of the Soviet Union Communist Cuba never once opposed it at the United Nations, defending even the invasion of Czechoslovakia].
Grau's administration also brought, or leastwise did not stop, unparalleled prosperity and economic growth to the country, which was even able to withstand without adverse consequences the hitherto unprecedented predations of his followers on the National Treasury.
Grau's handpicked successor, Carlos Prío Socarrás, himself a former student but not one of the gangsters, was not as adept at controlling them as was Grau. His solution, like Grau's, was to give them more not less freedom and to literally throw open the doors of the National Bank which he created. In this, as in all things, he continued his predecessor's policies, while blaming the gangsterism and rampant graft on Grau, who did not fail to take notice. This led to a schism in their ranks which diluted the power of both Grau and Prío and no doubt contributed to the reemergence of Batista.
On March 10, 1952, former president Fulgencio Batista, who had recently returned to Cuba from self-imposed exile and was a candidate for president again, fearful that his opponents would not deal as fairly with him as he had with them, drove to the Columbia Army Barracks and took power without firing a shot, to save the nation, as he said, from the rule of gangsters and communists. Most Cubans, even those who opposed Batista, approved of the bloodless coup. Even Prío approved to the extent of not even bothering to oppose the coup and fleeing the country on the first U.S.-bound flight.
In Part III: Batista consolidates power; the gangsters rally behind Fidel Castro and civil war erupts in Cuba under the patronage of the United States.