FIU's Center for Cuban Studies is hosting a seminar at Graham Center on the Cuban elections of November 1958. From what El Nuevo Herald reports "Cuba: Between Bullets and Ballots" is based on the erroneous premise that these elections were fraudulent. I am the only living person to the best of my knowledge who knows the truth about Cuba's last democratic elections. I suppose I have the responsibility of revealing these facts for the historical record, and since I never promised my grandfather that I would keep them as a trust, I can do so now without betraying a personal confidence. Since he always stood by his actions in those final days of the Cuban Republic, I feel no compunction myself to excuse much less apologize for them. Others, perhaps most, may take exception at his conduct, which, I think, only confirms the truth of his revelations, since men generally conceal that which indicts them in the eyes of their critics. If I have not made public these facts before it is because there was no audience for them. The elections of 1958 have been dismissed by most historians as irrelevant if not irreverent: at best, a solution to a problem that, by then, admitted of no civil solution; or, at worst, an electoral farce that was universally repudiated by everybody except Batista's most die hard supporters. It was neither.
More than 50 percent of the Cuban electorate participated in 1958 elections. Such a turnout would have been the norm in any U.S. election. Of course, the elections of 1958 were not held under normal conditions in Cuba but in the midst of a civil war. The rebels called for a boycott of the elections and warned that anyone who voted in the morning would be dead by noon. Having carried out indiscriminate bombings against the civilian population for three years, the rebels' threats were taken very seriously. Nevertheless, 50% of voters were not cowed by their threats and exercised their right of suffrage in what amounted to a public repudiation of Castro and his barbudos.
Six months earlier, in March 1958, Cubans had ignored Castro's call for a general strike, which was also phrased in the same menacing terms. Less than 10 percent of Cuba's workers succumbed to Castro's intimidation on that occasion, which Castro called the greatest defeat of the Cuban Revolution. Clearly, between March and November 1958, the rebels had succeeded in increasing their popular support from 10 percent to just under 50 percent. Their terrorist campaigns, however, were not solely responsible for this increment. In the interim, the U.S. had switched its allegiance from Batista to Castro and instituted an embargo on arms sales to the Cuban government. Never before had the U.S. undertaken such an action against a friendly government and its implications were not lost on anyone, least of all the Cuban people. Still, 50 percent of Cuban voters cast their ballots on November 3, 1958 in what was not only a repudiation of the rebels but of U.S. meddling in Cuban affairs, which, more than anything else, had brought us to such a juncture.
There were three main candidates running for president: former prime minister Andrés Rivero Agüero, who had the backing of Batista; ex-president Ramón Grau San Martín, who had run against Batista's candidate in 1944 and won; and Carlos Márquez Sterling, former Speaker of the House of Representatives and president of the constitutional convention of 1940. It was expected that Grau and Márquez Sterling would split the anti-Batista vote between them. Castro's call for a boycott of the election was also expected to diminish the vote for the opposition. In fact, the U.S. ambassador, Earl T. Smith, in another flagrant violation of Cuban sovereignty, met with both opposition candidates in a failed attempt to convince them to form a unitary ticket that could guarantee the defeat of Batista's candidate. Still, Batista was thought to be so unpopular in Cuba that even with the opposition divided it was far from certain that Rivero Agüero would prevail. Batista was not sure that his candidate could win, either; but was determined that the election of 1958 would not be a repeat of that of 1944, when he had allowed his handpicked successor, Carlos Saladrigas, to be defeated by his perennial rival Grau San Martín.*
Batista believed, and not without good cause, that a victory for Grau or Márquez Sterling amounted to a victory for Castro. Neither of the opposition candidates had agreed to continue fighting Castro's rebels and both had insinuated that they would ask them to join the government if elected. This would have been tantamount, of course, to handing power over to them. As president (1944-48) Grau had in fact granted complete freedom to gangsters like Castro, deputized them and had them compete for his favor. His administration had incubated all the nefarious personalities that took center stage in the Cuban Revolution. Marquéz Sterling, although an honest man, also believed that he could institutionalize the Cuban Revolution. [The rebels had such contempt for this member of the loyal opposition that they put him under house arrest when they seized power and would have had him shot except that they were too busy dispatching Batista's supporters to tackle (quite yet) his democratic opponents].
My maternal grandfather, Alberto García Valdés, was minister of communications at the time of the 1958 elections, which portfolio he had assumed after serving for one-week as minister of labor during Castro's failed general strike. As communications minister he was in charge of the railroads, motorized traffic and civil aviation; the postal and telegraph offices and radio and television. He controlled the distribution and collection of the ballots, the transmission of the results by telegraph lines and their release to the media. In short, he had it in his power to assure a victory for the government candidate had that been necessary and was disposed to do so to save the country from a Communist takeover.
Except that it wasn't necessary.
It was the Cuban people who made Andrés Rivero Agüero Cuba's last constitutional president in the last democratic election held on the island.
The election of 1958 was their last public repudiation of Fidel Castro.
My grandfather personally informed Batista of the results, who was astonished but not more so than the president-elect himself. Rivero Agüero was scheduled to be sworn-in on February 24, 1959. The U.S. did not allow him to take office but gave an ultimatum to Batista to resign by January 1st and clear the way for Castro.