With a broad smile illuminating his face and the halo of being a cordial man, the last president of Cuba elected by direct vote of voters in free co-micios that would never be repeated during the Republican era came to power in 1948. Still quite young – he was just 45 years old – and after a metheoric ascent, Dr. Carlos Prío Socarrás became the nation’s first representative.
His government, widely criticized and very ill-studied by historiography, was left as a last democratic exercise in the time of the Republic and as a portico of one of our most terrible historical calamities: the military coup of March 10, 1952. It was less than four years in which Prío faced problems that he did not always manage to solve, but which contemplated now, at the height of more than half a century, leave the feeling that this was a positive stage.
Each politician, if acting with a minimum of independence and originality, imprints an indelible imprint on his management. Carlos Prío bequeathed his. To define it you have to search a little in its personality, not as attractive as that of its predecessor, Ramón Grau San Martín, although it does with certain complexities that suggest why of certain attitudes.
Prío was a contradictory man: bold and timid at the same time, able to face a bloody dictatorship like that of Gerardo Machado and, at the same time, incredibly docile in the face of the early life of Fulgencio Batista. I find it hard to admit that it was the same character who acted in both historical scenarios so differently. They say this duplicity had something to do with the frustration I felt when I couldn’t be an actor. What is obvious is how changing his personality was. The indefatigable opponent, the creative legislator and the energetic minister were just three facets of a man who, from time to time, fell into periods of abulia and abandonment. Those who knew him well have said he was retracting and avoiding his responsibilities. Perhaps this explains the passivity with which he reacted in front of the barracks that cast him out of power.
This negative trait does not override one of the most admirable features of this habanero born in the early twentieth century: his cordiality. This is precisely how he presented himself to voters during the 1948 campaign, as a close and affectionate man, of a muambise family and revolutionary record, capable of governing Cuba’s destinies. Although he was undoubtedly favored by the fact that he was the candidate of the ruling party, he was able to beat the rest of the competitors in the presidential race in good lid. Behind them were Dr. Ricardo Núñez Portuondo, former GP of General Machado and emblematic figure of the Liberal-Democratic coalition; Senator Eduardo Chibás, leader of the Orthodox Party; and Dr. Juan Marinello, an alternative to a Marxist party that never won the majority vote of citizenship at the ballot box.
Ramón Grau San Martín immortalized his regime as that of Cubanity. Carlos Prío preferred that his transcend as that of cordiality. Both politicians shared the same affiliation: they were part of the Cuban Revolutionary Party (Authentic), a reformist conglomerate that came to power in the mid-1940s promising the modernization of Cuban society. The authentic torch passed from the doctor’s hands to those of the lawyer as a sign of historical continuity, but Grau and Prío’s styles differed from each other. Charismatic and cantinflesque, the Professor of Physiology had the cunning of an old fox, while his disciple, though skilful and sympathetic, was less seasoned in conducting public affairs.
Facing the disappointment that motivated the Grausist stage in many sectors of the Cuban people, Carlos Prío Socarrás wanted to give his government a nuance of freshness and independence. He distanced himself from his predecessor politically and personally, avoiding at all costs the scandals that engulfed Dr. Grau San Martín. On it gravitated the famous Cause 82, which accused him along with other figures of his regime of having embezzled 174 million pesos. The rivalries between the two politicians weakened the Authentic Party, which had already suffered a severe blow with the splitting of the Orthodox Party. This, together with the errors of the 1944-1952 stage, determined that public opinion would lose confidence in authenticism as a political force.
President Prío continued to drag many of the scourges that had proliferated during the previous government. Corruption, for example, followed the agenda, with truly outrageous expressions in the official spheres. Nepotism had new faces, such as that of Antonio Prío, brother of the Head of State, who was confided in the strategic Ministry of Finance. As for the gangster groups facing each other on the streets, it must be said that much was talked about and little was done against them. The tormented cordiality regime sought to control violence by handing out ministerial positions in fabulous quantities and imploring gangsters with a “group pact” to smooth out discrepancies.
The story also recalls other unfortunate episodes, such as certain limitations on fundamental freedoms. There were sensitive blows against the Communist Party, left-wing unions and the hottest journalistic spaces of the moment. But let us not forget that the world then lived in the middle of the Cold War, fierce combat between two irreconcilable worldviews: the capitalist and the communist. In the West – here I include Cuba – this confrontation hurt the validity of democratic rights, but it did not overdo them, something that did occur in the countries of Soviet orbit, where civil liberties were pure fiction.
Moreover, if we compare what happened on the island with what happened in other nations, the restrictions on freedom under Prison were negligible. Citizens continued to speak, publish, gather, associate, choose and criticize their leaders without major setbacks. As Latin America began to fill with authoritarian governments and right-wing dictatorships, our country was an oasis for those fleeing oppression. Among those who knocked on the Creole gates was Venezuela’s overthrown president, the novelist Rómulo Gallegos, whom the civil authorities received with all the honors. However, while admitting that the attacks on civil rights were motivated by the Cold War, it should be emphasized that there was also a share of awkwardness and lack of vision in some government provisions.
Prosecuting the society of the time, a shrewd man, Francisco Ichaso, stated that in Cuba “power has been the tomb of revolution and in it lie buried romantic dreams, good intentions, noble civic ideals, selfless feelings patrated”. His words summarize the tragedy of Carlos Prío Socarrás and those who accompanied him in the second authentic government. Coming from the 1930 Generation – which Grau ironically called “the 30 percent generation”, they were at first young people of beautiful ideals who defied the rigour of dictatorships and encouraged a new order under the 1940 Constitution; young people who looked into the power to realize from there the transformations that the country desperately demanded. Once at the summit, however, they threw away the great promises and reissued the pettiness of the old politicians they once fought.
I have the impression that Cuban democracy of the 1940s was still too indefiable to withstand the mistakes of leaders who, instead of strengthening it, engaged in personal enrichment and ended up sinking it. There is the great sin of men like Carlos Pio. I would also venture to say that the opposition, perhaps without proposing it, contributed to this historical debacle by directing devastating attacks on the public faces of that fragile democratic institutionality. I am thinking specifically of Eduardo Chibás, a character whom I admire for his honesty and verticality, but whose excesses I cannot cover up.
Chibas repeated that “a morally ill country, which has become accustomed to composing, cambalache and guabineo, can only be healed with a relentless cure of intransigence”. That’s why he sacrificed his future within authenticism, founded a new party, and embarked on a moralizing campaign that would take him to the grave. Politicians as consistent as he has been in this corner of the Caribbean. However, in his quest to oppose Carlos Prío, Chibás crossed the line. In almost all his attacks he was right, but the form, the verbal envelope, was not appropriate for a society in full democratic learning.
From the CMQ radio grandstand, the pages of Bohemian magazine and the rallies of the Orthodox Party, the Senator laid his finger on the most lacerating sores of Cuban time. Anthological were his interventions in favor of popular interests. But he overdid it in the harshness of criticism. For example, he once called the prime minister, Manuel Antonio de Varona, “irresponsible, thief, incapable and clumsy.” On another occasion, addressing the President of the Republic himself, he proclaimed to the four winds that Carlos Prío represented a “rotten regime”. Too much stridentity for a society that could yield to the temptation to identify the ineptitude of a handful of politicians with the failure of the democratic system as a whole.
In fact, the nearly four years Carlos Prío Socarrás spent in the presidential mansion of Refugio No.1 deserve to be focused with greater indulgence. Beyond setbacks, the country progressed materially and enjoyed a climate of democratic freedoms not very common in our history. Sugar activity continued to thrive, the industry broadened its horizons, trade expanded, and government revenues reached a record high. An interesting fact should be highlighted: in 1952, Cuba’s income comfortably exceeded those of most Latin American countries. An enlightening sign of how at the forefront we were was the advent of television, thus becoming one of the first nations to debut this ingenious medium.
Around 1950, when he was in the middle of his term, the President accentuated the reformist rims through the so-called “new directions” policy. It was an effort to reduce corruption and endow the Constitution with 40 of the supplementary legislation it was crying out for. Significant institutions emerged such as banco Nacional (responsible for issuing, protecting and reinforcing our currency and with a visible participation in Cuban economic life), the Agricultural and Industrial Development Bank (which worked to give a strong impetus to agricultural and industrial companies), the Court of Auditors and the Court of Constitutional and Social Guarantees.
It would be unfair to forget the government’s support for education, which significantly multiplied the number of secondary, technical and specialized schools. Perhaps most memorable happened in higher education, with the birth of the universities of Oriente and Las Villas. If public money had not suffered the voracity of so many corrupt politicians and had been better employed, progress in the social field would have been greater.
Obviating some conjunctural authoritarian gangs, President Carlos Prío behaved from power as a good Democrat. A dictatorship would not have tolerated a tenth of the criticism that rained down on the Head of State. Senator Chibas would have been wiped off the map in the blink of an eye. However, democratic coexistence did not succumb and even pergulated the island’s foreign policy, which signaled enormous vitality. Without breaking the alliance with the United States, Cuba moved freely on international stages: she participated in important postwar forums and became host to some of them, launched the initiative to decolonize the remaining European positions in the Caribbean, lashed out at the traditional regimes and, as a memorable note, was a manager and signatory to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Looking again at those old days, one understands that the Republic did not deserve the end it had. It was imperative to reform it, to rectify what was wrong, but not to destroy it. And that is precisely what General Fulgencio Batista did on March 10, 1952. We will always reproach the late Carlos Prío for the tremendous mistake he made in allowing his rival to return to the country by giving him full guarantees and, above all, not to cut off the wings of that sly conspirator who took advantage of the goodness of democracy to shatter it. It was an extremely regrettable oversight that cost the cordial President dearly.
Yoel Prado Rodríguez: Degree in Journalism and History. Member of the Editorial Board of The magazine Amanecer, Diocese of Santa Clara.