Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2017
The Revolution of 1933 lasted only a few months before it failed, victim of confused leadership and the inability to understand the reality of national politics as much as by the machinations of the United States government. President Gerardo Machado had been misgoverning the nation for years but the Great Depression of the 1930s created so much distress that he ceased to be able to rule. The revolution was a revolt against him and the economic depression. To do it, the students, professors, and young people involved an element of the military. As is common in Latin American history, a military man was the ultimate winner. The story is a complicated one. Louis A. Pérez, Jr., Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution (New York, Oxford University Press, 1988) and Luis Aguilar, Cuba 1933: Prologue to Revolution (Ithaca, Cornell /University "Press, 1972).
Sumner Welles, the diplomat sent by President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States, to stabilize Cuba met with President Gerardo Machado on May 11th. By July, Welles met with various dissident groups, including the radical terrorist group, the ABC, in the United States Embassy in Havana.
In August, 1933 there was a general strike and the Cuban generals abandoned President Gerardo Machado. He fled to Nassau on August 12, 1993, with ABC terrorists shooting at his plane as it taxied on the runway! General Alberto Herrera Carlos, the next in line became president but resigned so that Dr. Manuel de Céspedes, favored by Welles, could become provisional president. He did not last long. The Revolution of 1933 saw to that.
Céspedes restored the 1901 Constitution but his position was shaky at best. The economic crisis was severe and he had no workable ideas to deal with it. Sugar prices were at their lowest and the sugar harvest was only two million tons. People were killing former Machado agents. Armed bands were seizing sugar mills in the countryside. In Havana, a student directory, former or would-be university men, led organized agitation and rioting. Marxist thought was very popular, something which upset many Cubans as well as US officials. Much of what they were doing, however, was ventilating left-wing nationalism.
On September 4, 1933, numbers of radical, hot-headed young people gathered at Camp Columbia, the principal army base near Havana , and met with representatives of enlisted men and their non-commissioned officers. Leading the army enlisted men was a 33-year-old sergeant, Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar. Batista, who was a mixture of Spanish, African, and Chinese, had worked his way up to sergeant through intelligence and the ability to read and write. He was a secretary for officers and used this position to study the loci of power within the army. The social distance between the officer corps and the enlisted me was vast and officers ignored the legitimate complaints of the common soldier. The officers, in a dispute with the government, had left the base. The enlisted men refused to disband. In effect, they had mutinied, spurred on by the young. This unlikely combination or alliance overthrew the government.
On September 4th, Batista and five other sergeants arrested the army chief of staff at pistol point and took control. He and his men quickly removed almost every army officer and too control on Havana. They gave power to a five-man group with Dr. Ramón Grau San Martín being the most important. Batista was promoted to colonel and army chief of staff. September 10th,
Sumner Welles was caught off guard; he never expected a coalition of leftist civilians and usually docile non-coms. He asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt to send US soldiers to restore order. FDR refused because he was trying to break the US habit of armed intervention in Latin America.
By September 20, however, Grau San Martín emerged as provisional president; a committee was dysfunctional. Grau San Martín was a physician and a physiology professor at the University of Havana. His progressive views made him a hero to leftist students who were tired of the conservative, corrupt, and pro-US governments of the past. Grau San Martín abrogated the 1901 Constitution with its hated Platt Amendment and proclaimed a social revolution. Grau San Martín very quickly, the government decreed an 8-hour working day, that farmers could take the land that they were working, that women could vote, and other left-wing measures. The decrees were operationally meaningless for the government could not enforce them. Protections for workers did not mean much when there was no work to be had. The US did send warships to stand off Cuba just in case but left the Cubans, with the quiet urging of Welles, to sort thing out for themselves, believing, correctly, that the Grau San Martín government had too many enemies. His Secretary of Government/Interior, Antonio Guiteras, was a rival who sought the support of the Marxist left. The old guard, including former officers, opposed him. Without Batista and the army, his government could not survive.
Batista saved the regime on October 2, 1933 from hundreds of armed, deposed officers in the Hotel Nacional. On October 10th, the ABC and Guiteras withdrew from the government and agitated more violently than ever. Batista chased them into exile. Welles, of course, did not like the Grau San Martín regime for it did not represent the interests of US investors nor show promise of creating a stable government. Batista was coming to agree with Welles.
Secretary of State Cordell Hull, attending the Inter-American Conference in Montevideo, Uruguay, in December, 1933 was heckled by Cubans. Nevertheless, the US neither sent troops to Cuba not recognized the Grau San Martín government. the British tried to pressure the US to recognize this government, for it is almost impossible for a Cuban government to survive without US recognition.
In January, 1934, FDR, Hull, and the new ambassador indicated that they would never accept Grau San Martín as Cuban president so Batista ousted Grau on January 4th and took the presidency for 32 hours. Then he passed it to Carlos Mendieta. The US immediately recognized him, not understanding Cuban politics. He could not last because he had no support. Of course, conditions did not improve for several years.
In May, 1934 the US negotiated a treaty which did not include the Platt Amendment. In August, the two signed a reciprocity treaty. It specified little or no duty on US goods in exchange for Cuba getting 22% of the US sugar market and a .9˘ tariff on sugar. US investment had dropped to $500 million as US investors withdrew capital from abroad to salvage what they could of their US domestic enterprises but this was a temporary phenomenon. Cuban ownership of their major industry, sugar, increased from 2% in 1929 to 49% by 1949. US investment moved to other enterprises, particularly public utilities. The US government loaned money to the Cuban government, which it needed to survive..
The Revolution of '33 was dead. Cuba was in the hands of a military man who would seek his own self interest. Calling it a revolution is a misnomer and reflects the fantasies of progressive Cubans than reality. There was no wholesale attempt to restructure society as there was in the French or Russian revolutions. What happened was an attempt as reform, the kinds of reforms one saw under the conservative government of Otto von Bismarck in 19th century Imperial Germany or during the early 20th century in the United States.