Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar (January 16, 1901 – August 6, 1973) was a Cuban military officer and politician who served as the elected President of Cuba from 1940 to 1944, and as its U.S.-backed military dictator from 1952 to 1959, before being overthrown during the Cuban Revolution.
Batista was born in the town of Veguita, located in the municipality of Banes, province of Holguín, Cuba, in 1901, to Belisario Batista Palermo and Carmela Zaldívar González, who had fought in the Cuban War of Independence. He was of Spanish, African, Taíno and Chinese descent.
His mother named him Rubén and gave him her last name, Zaldívar. His father did not want to register him as a Batista. In the registration records of the Banes courthouse, he was legally Rubén Zaldívar until 1939, when, as Fulgencio Batista, he became a presidential candidate and it was discovered that this name did not exist in the birth certificates; he thus had to postpone the presentation of his candidacy and pay 15,000 pesos to the local judge.
Both Batista's parents are believed to have been of mixed race and one may have had Indigenous Caribbean blood. Batista was initially educated at a public school in Banes and later attended night classes at an American Quaker school. He left home at age 14, after the death of his mother. Coming from a humble background, he earned a living as a laborer in the cane fields, docks, and railroads. He was a tailor, mechanic, charcoal vendor and fruit peddler.
In 1921, he traveled to Havana, and in April joined the army as a private. After learning shorthand and typing, Batista left the army in 1923, working briefly as a teacher of stenography before enlisting in the Guardia Rural (rural police). He transferred back to the army as a corporal, becoming secretary to a regimental colonel. In September 1933, he held the rank of sergeant stenographer and as such acted as the secretary of a group of non-commissioned officers who led a "sergeants' conspiracy" for better conditions and improved prospects of promotion
Batista initially rose to power as part of the 1933 Revolt of the Sergeants, which overthrew the provisional government of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes y Quesada. He then appointed himself chief of the armed forces, with the rank of colonel, and effectively controlled the five-member "pentarchy" that functioned as the collective head of state. He maintained this control through a string of puppet presidents until 1940, when he was himself elected President of Cuba on a populist platform. He then instated the 1940 Constitution of Cuba and served until 1944. After finishing his term he lived in Florida, returning to Cuba to run for president in 1952. Facing certain electoral defeat, he led a military coup against President Carlos Prío Socarrás that preempted the election.
Back in power, and receiving financial, military, and logistical support from the United States government, Batista suspended the 1940 Constitution and revoked most political liberties, including the right to strike. He then aligned with the wealthiest landowners who owned the largest sugar plantations, and presided over a stagnating economy that widened the gap between rich and poor Cubans. Eventually it reached the point where most of the sugar industry was in U.S. hands, and foreigners owned 70% of the arable land. As such, Batista's repressive government then began to systematically profit from the exploitation of Cuba's commercial interests, by negotiating lucrative relationships with both the American Mafia, who controlled the drug, gambling, and prostitution businesses in Havana, and with large U.S.-based multinational companies who were awarded lucrative contracts.
To quell the growing discontent amongst the populace—which was subsequently displayed through frequent student riots and demonstrations—Batista established tighter censorship of the media, while also utilizing his Bureau for the Repression of Communist Activities secret police to carry out wide-scale violence, torture and public executions. These murders mounted in 1957, as Fidel Castro gained more publicity and influence. Many people were killed, with estimates ranging from hundreds to about 20,000 people killed.
Catalyzing the resistance to such tactics, for two years (December 1956 – December 1958) Fidel Castro's 26th of July Movement and other nationalist rebelling elements led an urban and rural-based guerrilla uprising against Batista's government, which culminated in his eventual defeat by rebels under the command of Che Guevara at the Battle of Santa Clara on New Year's Day 1959. Batista immediately fled the island with an amassed personal fortune to the Dominican Republic, where strongman and previous military ally Rafael Trujillo held power. Batista eventually found political asylum in António de Oliveira Salazar's Portugal, where he first lived on the island of Madeira and then in Estoril, outside Lisbon. He was involved in business activities in Spain and was staying there in Guadalmina near Marbella at the time of his death from a heart attack on August 6, 1973.