by Jerry A. Sierra
When Gerardo Machado y Morales was born on September 28 1871, the Ten Year War was in its third year, and the 30-year period of armed struggle and insurrection that finally separated Cuba from Spain had begun.
Machado was the youngest Cuban General in the war of independence that ended with U.S. occupation (in 1898) when he was 27. During the occupation he served as Mayor of Santa Clara, where he was born. Shortly after taking office as Mayor in 1899, a mysteriou /* s fire burned the records of his criminal past, hiding from the Americans the fact that prior to the war of independence, Machado and his father were cattle robbers. One fact he couldn't hide was that he only had three fingers on his left hand, the result of his early life in a butcher shop in Camajuaní.
After running unsuccessfully for governor of Las Villas, Machado went on to serve in various posts in the government of José Miguel Gómez.
Machado became involved in a number of business endeavors, such as a sugar mill called The Central Carmita, and served as vice president of the Compañía Cubana de Electricidad, which controlled most of the Havana utilities. He also remained an active member of the liberal party. He married his cousin Elvira Machado Nodal, and they had three daughters; Laudelina (Nena), Angela Elvira and Berta.
In 1924 Machado ran for president and defeated Mario G. Menocal of the Conservative Party to become Cuba's 5th president. As a businessman/candidate, Machado tapped into the resurgent nationalism of the time, and with the support of outgoing president Alfredo Zayas (which he traded for future seats in the cabinet), he enjoyed a great deal of popularity and easily won 5 of the 6 provinces (losing only in conservative Pinar del Rio).
Machado's campaign for national regeneration initially received wide support. He taxed American capital investments, initiated the construction of a 700-mile (1,127 km) central highway and promoted investments in tourism, industry and mining. His image at the time was what many to this day recognize as the most important achievement for a Cuban politician; he combined a genuine support for U.S. interests while defending the idea of Cuban sovereignty.
Wilfredo Fernandez, leader of the Conservative Party, said in December 1925 that Machado's programs were so "full of patriotism" that to oppose them is "unpatriotic." But the general economic situation was not good for Cuba in the late 1920s, and Machado's attitude towards opposing points of view was arrogant and dictatorial.
In April 1928, as dissension grew from university students against his "dictatorial tendencies," Machado ordered the University Council (made up of teachers and administrative officials), to convene disciplinary tribunals and expel the leaders of the Directorio Estudiantil Universitario (Student Directory). The students, which would later be recalled as the Generation of the Thirties, included Aureliano Sánchez Arango, Eduardo Chibás, Antonio Guiteras and others.
Through a combination of threats and bribes, Machado became the only legal candidate of the only legal political parties; the Liberal, the Conservative, and the Popular parties. He had earlier orchestrated the amending of the constitution to permit a 6-year term, and in November 1928 he won a second term, unopposed.
But the political climate was going through numerous changes. In 1929, exiled student leader Julio Antonio Mella was murdered in Mexico. Mella had been a leading opponent of Machado and a leftist thinker. The Cuban communists always blamed Machado, and Mella's surviving widow supported their suspicions.
Disenfranchised members of the political opposition, led by Mario G. Menocal (conservatives) Miguel Mariano Gómez and Carlos Mendieta (Liberals) made up the formal opposition. Along with the murder of Mella, and the economic crisis that followed the extreme drops in sugar prices during the Wall Street crash of 1929, opposition against Machado grew rapidly.
And just as the opposition grew, Machado's retaliations became harsher and more violent than before. His secret police, known as the "Porra," went furiously after the opposition, and their brutality became another reason to oppose Machado.
In 1931, the old leaders of the independence movement lead a revolt against Machado that involved student groups, organized labor and secret societies of middle class professionals (such as the ABC). Out of this volatile and chaotic situation Dr. Ramón Grau San Martín emerged as a voice of reason, but Machado retaliated with the bloodiest campaign to date.
On December 23 1931, as the political opposition all over the island called for fair elections, Machado announced that he would stay in office until May 20 1935, "not a minute more or a minute less."
"By the end of 1932," wrote Jules R. Benjamin in The Hispanic American Historical Review (Vol. 55, #1 - Feb. 1975), "the militant response of the Cuban proletariat to both the depression and the dictatorship had become one of the major threats to the regime."
"United States attitudes during this period," Benjamin adds, "further complemented the disorientation of nationalist ideology. Washington began to take a stand in favor of political reform in Cuba and held forth the progressive goals of the early New Deal as indicative of its new policy toward the island."
By early 1933 the confrontations between Machado's government (the police and the army) and the political opposition (students, organized labor, the ABC) had grown in violence and frequency, often resembling an all out war.
On May 8 1933 Sumner Welles arrived in Havana, sent by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to oversee the growing "Cuban situation." On July 21 Welles insisted on the reinstitution of the constitutional guarantees that Machado had removed in June 1931. Machado responded in a stern tone; "The re-establishment of the guarantees is a prerogative of the President of Cuba and will be done when the President considers it necessary."
Not being able to influence Machado, Welles negotiated an end to his presidency, and ushered in the age of Batista.
After Machado left Cuba, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (son of the Cuban hero of the Ten Year War) became provisional president. He was unseated by Batista's infamous Revolt of the Sergeants on September 5 1933.
Machado died on March 29 1939, in Miami Beach, Florida.
Return to 1924