Machado's fall and today's crisis
On 12 August, 1933, 83 years ago, Gerardo Machado y Morales was ousted from power. This class of development, a constant in our political history, is closely linked to militarism (the predominance of the military element in government), rule by strongmen, and weak civic education.
José Martí, convinced of militarism's perniciousness, on October 20, 1884 wrote to Generalissimo Máximo Gómez: "What guarantee can there be that public freedoms, the only object justifying launching the country into a fight, shall be better respected tomorrow? Just as it is admirable to give one's life in the service of a great idea, it is abhorrent to use a great idea to serve one's personal hopes of glory or power, even if this means risking one's life."
Although the Constitution of 1901 set the presidential term at four years, and that one could serve as president for two consecutive periods, and even, with an absence in between them, for a third, for the Cuban military class this was insufficient.
The most honorable president Cuba had, Tomás Estrada Palma, who rose to the rank of general in the Independence Army, made the decision to stand for re-election, thereby sparking the Guerrita of August 1906. Similarly, in 1917 General Mario García Menocal, upon the conclusion of his first presidential term, announced his intention to run for re-election, leading to a rebellion known as La Chambelona.
Gerardo Machado, also a general in the War of Independence – although in 1924 he had declared that "his greatest glory would be not to aspire in any way to reelection," and reaffirmed this in June of 1926: "I think that in our country a presidential reelection is dangerous, and experience compels us to recognize this "– saw to the passage into law of a constitutional reform measure (that presidents Mario García Menocal and Alfredo Zayas had previously supported) in order to remain in power. Machado's extension prompted student protests that led to a general strike, which eventually drove him from power on August 12, 1933.
During his administration Machado did give the country's economic development a powerful boost. His attempt to revitalize public life, struggle for order, and flashes of progress, indicate this. Anticipating Keynes, to an extent, he embraced government intervention as regulator of the economy; developed a vast construction plan: Cuba's Central Highway, Malecón (Havana's breakwater and esplanade), the university steps, the Capitol Building, the Avenue of Missions and Fraternity Park, among others; implemented a policy of tariffs based on more modern concepts to stimulate domestic production; and initiated the development of the processing industry. Therefore, some economic scholars consider him "the most estimable president of his time."
Amidst a strong global economic recession that led to a drastic deterioration in living conditions, Machado responded to those who opposed the extension of powers with repression, and, though he assured that no strike would last more than 24 hours, was driven from power by the fiercest strike in the history of Cuban labor.
Machado's ouster was followed by seven years of political instability. On 12 August 1933 General Alberto Herrera took over the country's leadership, and on that very day he was replaced by Colonel Carlos Manuel de Cespedes (his son). On September 4, 23 days later, a military uprising toppled Céspedes, replacing him with a five-member Government: the Pentarchy, which lasted six days.
On September 10 of that year university professor Ramón Grau San Martín was president for 127 days, until the army chief, Fulgencio Batista, appointed Carlos Hevia, who remained in office for just three. On January 18, 1934 the journalist Manuel Márquez Sterling was president for only three hours, and his place was taken by Colonel Carlos Mendieta until 11 December, 1935, when he was relieved by Secretary of State José Agripino Barnet.
In the elections of January 1936 Miguel Mariano Gómez was elected, who was removed and replaced by Colonel Federico Laredo Brú, who mediated between Batista and the opposition, issued a political amnesty, approved the most advanced labor legislation of the Republican era, and convened the Constituent Assembly that drafted the 1940 Constitution.
After the Constitution, through free and democratic elections, Fulgencio Batista took office on October 10, 1940. He was followed by Ramón Grau San Martín on October 10, 1944; who was followed by Carlos Prio Socarrás on October 10, 1948, until March of 1952, when a military coup led by Batista shattered the constitutional order, which had already been undermined by corruption, violence and gang activity, until seven years later he was removed from power and another cycle began, during which the military would dominate.
These cycles of re-elections, coups and revolutions have been repeated and will recur until Cubans, drawing upon our own virtues and civic behavior, are able to step up and figure prominently as subjects determining our nation's destiny. As Benjamin Constant said: "No matter how great, or judicious, or brilliant a man is, he should never be fully trusted with a country's destiny." This is a lesson that we have not yet learned.
“The Republic is now in crisis,” warned Enrique José Varona, “because many citizens have come to believe that they can ignore public affairs ... this selfishness is very costly. So costly that we could lose everything.”
"I've always been opposed," said Cosme de la Torriente, "to the armed forces intervening in political struggles, and military revolts and uprisings, as they have never have produced any benefits, even the slightest, which could not have been achieved in another way, while they have brought about terrible consequences."
In the 31 years from 1902 to 1933 all the presidents were elected, but only one was not a military man. Between 1933 and 1940, except for Miguel Mariano Gómez, no president was elected. Between 1940 and 1952 Batista was in power for four years, and those of civil origin, like Ramón Grau San Martin and Carlos Prío Socarrás, emerged into politics in the context of violence that led to the struggle against Machado.
Overall, of the 16 Cubans who occupied the presidency between 1902 and 1952, nine of them were military leaders. And, of the 50 years between 1902 and 1952, the presidency was occupied by elected civilians for only 12 years: Alfredo Zayas, Ramon Grau San Martín, and Carlos Prío Socarrás, for four years each. Then, as the culmination of militarism, of the 83 years between 1933 to 2016, in 64 of them the presidency was occupied by three military leaders: General Batista, Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro, and Raúl Castro.
In light of this record it is hardly difficult to conclude that the predominance of military men - whether elected or appointed – has hampered the development of a democratic culture in Cuba during the first 50 years of the Republic, and that the exacerbation of this trend in the last 64 years has only rendered the attainment of such a goal more distant. The result is a precariousness civic culture, and non-engagement by citizens, which explains, to a large extent, the critical situation in which in our country is mired.