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The Search for Stability, The Machado Years

Gerardo Machado, Sumner Welles, Platt Amendment, sugar prices, leftist group

By 1920 political corruption, economic collapse, and financial desperation caused many groups to form new political organizations. Agricultural and industrial workers formed trade unions, which organized as the National Workers’ Federation of Cuba. Other workers formed the Radical Socialist Party. Women, determined to win legal and social rights, formed women’s rights organizations. In 1925 Communist associations united to form the Cuban Communist Party. Intellectuals who opposed the government formed the Grupo Minorista, which argued for cultural renewal and political reform. A new generation of Cubans proclaimed an idealistic nationalism aimed at social justice in Cuba. Suddenly the hopelessness of the previous 14 years changed to indignation, and citizens made clear that they expected more from their government than corruption and compliance with foreign economic interests.

As the 1924 elections approached, Zayas’ Conservative Party, too long associated with corruption and cooperation with the United States, had little chance of victory. The opposition parties, however, agreed on only one thing: the Platt Amendment had to go. Beyond that, political positions were deeply divided. Moderate nationalists sought compromise with the United States and modest reforms that would benefit the laboring classes. Radical activists demanded a reduction in U.S. economic holdings and socialist solutions to relieve economic hardship and promote economic equality.

The Liberal Party nominated Gerardo Machado, a former general, as their presidential candidate. Machado promised to cut back on government bureaucracy, limit the presidency to one term, revise the Platt Amendment, provide more public services, and pay public debts. Machado won by a landslide. For the first three years of his presidency, Machado was extremely popular. He put laborers to work on major construction projects, controlled sugar production to keep prices high, taxed imported products to protect Cuban industries from foreign competition, and invested in agricultural diversification to reduce Cuba’s reliance on sugar. The Liberal, Conservative, and newly formed Popular parties pledged their support to the president and his policies.

World economics, not domestic disagreement, first shook Machado’s hold on power. Beginning in 1926, sugar prices fell. The government held down sugar production by 10 percent to support sagging prices. Thousands of laborers were out of work and tens of thousands faced chronic underemployment. Disgruntled laborers began work stoppages and slowdowns, and Machado met their actions with police repression. Still, the majority of Cubans continued to support Machado. In 1927 the Liberal, Conservative, and Popular parties suggested that Machado seek another term of office. With Machado’s approval, a Constituent Assembly amended the constitution to create a six-year presidential term. This would allow Machado to hold office until 1935.

With this act, Machado alienated many moderate nationalists who had supported him. Rumblings of protests began in 1928 when Machado ran unopposed for a six-year presidential term. A leftist group, the University Student Federation, staged violent protests in the streets of Havana. The government responded by closing the university indefinitely. The members of the Federation then dissolved the group and formed the more radical Student Directorate. They fanned out over the island, organizing workers, intellectuals, and women to seek a return of democracy and social justice.

The Great Depression of 1929, not dissent from the Left, finally destabilized the Machado regime. Cuba was hit especially hard. Sugar prices, already low in 1928 at $2.18 per pound, dropped to $1.72 per pound in 1929. By 1933 a pound of sugar sold for $.57 per pound. The government and businesses laid off employees and reduced pay for the remaining workers. Poor peasants migrated to cities and slept in parks, on streets, or in flophouses, and people starved to death throughout the country.

Demonstrations demanding jobs, decent wages, and the right of workers to unionize and strike increased in frequency. In 1930 Machado decreed spontaneous demonstrations illegal and authorized police to break up political meetings. Moderate and radical groups unified in opposition to Machado. Feminists, students, workers, teachers, agricultural workers, and small farmers took to the streets and sabotaged government installations. In response Machado became even more brutal. He established the Porra, a special police force trained to arrest, imprison, torture, and execute dissidents. As moderates watched the repression, discontent grew against Machado’s government, even in aristocratic circles. In 1932, as civil order deteriorated, Machado suspended the constitution.

In April 1933, Sumner Welles, the U.S. assistant secretary of state, arrived with instructions to mediate talks between Machado and his opposition. Machado refused to make any concessions to the opposition, which was divided. The moderates favored a return to the 1901 constitution and Machado’s resignation, while the radicals demanded deep social, economic, and political reforms.

When the talks failed, Welles became convinced that Machado had to resign. Two unrelated events sealed Machado’s fate. A strike by bus and streetcar workers evolved into a general strike demanding Machado’s resignation. At the same time, an anti-Machado faction took command of the military. Faced with public unrest and a loss of military support, Machado resigned in September 1933.

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