Requiem for a Strongman

Brass Tacks

Fidel Castro's "total war" against Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista has been, to date, a total failure. The general strike called for last Wednesday did not materialize as planned, and indications are clearer than ever that Castro does not enjoy widespread support among the Cuban people.

The rebels, after a few scattered attacks at Government communications in Havana, have been forced once again to retreat into the Sierra Maestra mountains of Oriente province. Fighting still goes on in Oriente, but Castro's gains have been miniscule; he is in precisely the same military position he occupied at the start of his "total war" ten days ago. All that he has achieved has been embarrassment for himself.

But the rebel leader says, "If I lose, I'll try again and again and again. If Bastista loses, he's through." There is a good deal of truth in Castro's statement; the tide has recently been running against strongmen in Latin America. Batista may defeat Castro now and perhaps again later, but he is bound to be deposed eventually.

Castro's failure at this time does not imply popular support of the Batista regime. It indicates rather public apathy and possible mistrust of Castro's intentions and methods. Newsmen reported that outside of Government circles it is difficult to find anyone ready to say a kind word for General Batista. Although his position has been strengthened by Castro's current failure, Batista is in trouble, and everyone--including the strongman--knows it.

Fulgencio Batista first came to power in Cuban politics as the leader of the "Sergeants' Revolt" in 1933. He ruled the island effectively for eleven years and voluntarily retired in 1944, a rich man.

His successors, Ramon Grau San Martin and Carlos Prio Socarras, were constitutionally elected. But while Grau and Prio grew wealthy amid unparalleled graft and corruption, the ex-strongman became restless in his premature retirement. In 1948 he supported a presidential candidate who was soundly defeated. Then, in 1952, Batista ran for the presidency himself. Eighty-two days before the election, when it became obvious that he would lose, Batista staged an army coup, regained power, and has held it ever since.

But there has been almost constant opposition to the regime--from Prio (in exile in Miami), from a group of Havana businessmen, more recently from Castro. These three groups now comprise an uneasy rebel alliance.

Batista nonetheless has maintained control; the army remains firmly in his hands. Eusebio Mujal, Cuba's top labor leader, is a Batista man; he was instrumental in halting Castro's threatened general strike last week. Castro's guerrillas have made no friends by burning millions of pounds of sugar cane--a senseless waste of the island's natural resources that angers many Cubans.

Despite Castro's lack of success, however, Batista is in an unenviable position. Strongmen who die in bed usually do so in exile. If he is smart, Batista would like very much to retire again as he did in 1944; he is once again rich. He is not running in the general election scheduled for November 30, and the Batista-supported candidate--Prime Minister Andres Rivero Aguero--has been campaigning as a "great compromiser," promising political amnesty for rebels. Rivero may be sincere; if he is, Castro and his men are wasting their time, for Batista will be giving constitutional government back to the Cuban people in the fall.

If, on the other hand, Batista intends to cling to power and Rivero turns out to be just a puppet, December will no doubt see an intensification of violence in Cuba. The Cuban people have adopted an attitude of wait-and-see; it is becoming apparent that Castro should have done the same. Rigged elections are an excellent occasion for a popular uprising. If Batista tampers with the November vote, the Cubans may be roused from their apathy--as the Venezuelans were several months ago--into an active revolt that will end Batista's regime.