Cuba Yesterday and Today

The Island of Cork…

By C. Mariano Dominguez Gil

Since colonial times, governmental corruption has been an endemic disease from which our Motherland has not been able to be free from. Administrative abuses and unscrupulous Treasury thefts, made the Cuban people refer to Cuba as the "Island of Cork". No matter how much was stolen from the public Treasury, our dynamic entrepreneurial class and our hard working people were capable of keeping the island afloat preventing its sinking as a consequence of such fiscal irresponsibility.

Cuban professionals, merchants and businessmen had to be included as one of the world's most skillful ones for the sole reason they had been able to create wealth and prosperity within a state plagued with rotten politicians.

Among the first Presidents in Republican Cuba we had "mambises" (Cuban guerrilla fighters) such as Jose Miguel Gomez and Gerardo Machado, who not only were notorious for their arbitrariness and authoritarianism, but also because they filled their pockets with money coming from the National Treasury's chests.

Jose Miguel Gomez, also known as "Shark" (1908-1912), reached the rank of General during the Independence War, later on becoming the second elected President during the Republican Period.

Its government was characterized by political corruption, shady businesses and the introduction of gambling, and the citizenry popularized the expression: "Shark takes a bath but it also splashes around", in a frank reference of the sharing of the embezzlements among those who supported him.

Alfredo Zayas Alfonso's government (1920-1924) was corrupted to the marrow; from public employees to policemen to those close to the President.

Gerardo Machado Morales (1924-1933) was the fifth elected President of the Republic. He was also, a General in the Independence War but a few of our historians describe him more for his status as a cattle rustler than for his war actions.

He promised to end the prevailing corruption during Alfredo Zayas's presidential period. He had a humble origin and was almost illiterate, and was able to own valuable properties and industries, amassing a considerable fortune. His government was noted for great public works, but his dictatorial character and his corrupt condition were of the same magnitude.

Ramon Grau San Martin (1944-1948) was a weak President. From being a nationalist revolutionary (1933) he evolved into allowing a scandalous corruption all around him.

Being single, he appointed as First Lady his sister-in-law Paulina Alsina de Grau, who handled the public wealth at her whim. His nephew and Minister of Public Works, Jose San Martin, was nicknamed "Pepe Small Squares" because he embarked in the task of building small squares in Havana and to rebuild municipal parks—including the one in Güines—diverting to his pockets enormous profits.

How many times the construction of the highway to Rosario Beach was budgeted without placing even a stone? His Minister of Education Jose Manuel Aleman, nicknamed "The Sharpie" stole money budgeted for school breakfasts. It is calculated that he stole from the nation's Treasury around $200 million (today $2,166 million). That money, in cash, was diverted to Florida where it was invested in land, buildings, hotels and the Miami Stadium, giving it as a gift to his son in 1949 when he reached 17 years of age. In 1948 he acquired one third of Key Biscayne including exclusive Cape Florida for the sum of 1.5 million (today $15 million).

Aleman never had to answer to the law for his crimes. Impunity prevailed. Ironically, he had presidential ambitions. It is alleged that Miguel Suarez Fernandez, then President of the Senate, enjoyed more than 5,000 "bottles"—state or municipal jobs where you collected money without working— swelling his monthly income and benefitting his party members and political cronies.

In 1946, the diamond that marked kilometer 0 in the Capitol—which belonged to Tsar Nicholas II—was stolen. The scandal shook up Cuba. A few months later, the diamond showed up, wrapped in paper, on the desk of Ramon Grau San Martin in the Presidential Palace.

During Grau's government, political gangs controlled Havana streets. The shootouts were frequent and political figures were assassinated in full daylight.

Grau lived in a mansion on Fifth Avenue in Miramar and he sarcastically referred to it as his "hut".

Carlos Prio Socarras's government (1948-1952) was noted by an increase in corruption and violence which existed between different political factions. During the first months of his Administration the "Law against Gangsterism" was enacted, which obviously was never applied. Gangsters took advantage of full democratic guarantees to bribe, threat and execute political crimes.

Policarpo Soler, Rolando Masferrer, Orlando Leon Lemus, alias "The Red One", Julio Salabarria—the brother of the Director of the Bureau of Investigations during Grau's government Mario Salabarria—and other well known gangsters, would have the field to themselves.

Fidel Castro Ruz, a young law student, who was accused of Manolo Castro's assassination in 1948, his sworn enemy within Havana University, joined this group.

During Prio's government the Treasury Tribunal was created, whose function was to investigate and judicially prosecute all those involved in public fraud.

He appointed his brother Antonio Prio as Minister of the Treasury who was involved in 1949 in the false incineration of currency bills officially annulled [the incineration of $39,960,000 (today $386,413,200) was ordered and retired from circulation due to its deterioration. Nevertheless, in lieu of the damaged bills, paper packages were burned which were verified by functionaries of the National Treasury].

Funds marked for education were pilfered, using them to pay for "bottles". Strong rumors circulated about the drug consumption in the highest official circles. True or not, a growing image of moral and political deterioration was taking shape.

Fulgencio Batista Zaldivar dominated the Cuban political scene during two periods, rising to power on account of coups d'état (1933-1944) and (1952-1958). The first period of Batista's political control started with a coup de état on September 4, 1933. From Sergeant to Colonel, from Colonel to General and from General to President, Batista controlled the political-military power, governing the country with a strong hand.

The corruption suffered during any government Cuba had, only changed actors and beneficiaries. The volume and size of the corruption was maintained. The Cuban Treasury was plundered.

In 1944 Batista left a disastrous financial situation to his successor.

Spruille Braden then Ambassador of the United States denounced "a systematic plundering of the public Treasury" pointing out "Doctor Grau will find empty boxes when he seizes power."

Batista left Cuba and settled in Daytona Beach, Florida, where he made millionaire investments living luxuriously. In 1948 he was elected Senator for Las Villas Province, returning to his country so that from his congressional seat, he would be able to prepare his return to power, submitting his presidential candidacy for the general elections to he held on June 1, 1952.

Being a distant third place according to surveys, less than three months before the elections, he deposed constitutional President Carlos Prio Socarras by means of a coup d'état on March 10 of the same year. The government's corruption continued by leaps and bounds. Batista made pacts with well known members of the American Mafia, such as Meyer Lansky, Santo Trafficante, Thomas Lucchese and Lucky Luciano, with whom he shared substantial profits coming from hotels and gambling casinos. His inner support circle, as well, enjoyed all kinds of special favors, protection and impunity regarding any type of illegal handlings, profitable or extortionate.

Batista had a unique or majority participation in each of the social and economic development projects sponsored and financed by the quasi public banking system such as the Foreign Commerce Bank, National Financing Company and others (The Cuban History, Arnoldo Varona, Editor).

General Francisco (Silito) Tabernilla Palmero in his memoirs "Palabras esperadas" ("Words Waited For") published in Miami, Florida in 2009, tells the story that Batista personally handled the granting of Ministry of Public Works contracts, imposing on contractors an added value of up to 35% on top of the total contract's value.

He also mentions that Chief of the National Police Brigadier Rafael Salas Cañizares received around $730,000 monthly due to gambling and bets. When Batista found out, he compelled Salas Cañizares to share with him such substantial income. When he fled the country during the early morning hours of January 1, 1959, Batista carried with him $100 million (today $820 million), leaving behind numerous investments in properties and businesses.

The Island of Lead…

Notwithstanding so many atrocities and abuses, the island did not sink; it stayed afloat… progressing and prospering until the arrival in 1959, of a gangster that bloodily made his debut as such in 1948 and who with a pistol in hand, grabbed 109,884 square kilometers of territory with six million inhabitants converting them into slaves.

Under the threat of rifles carried by lackeys dressed in olive green, he confiscated all production centers in the country. The total confiscated to American enterprises then amounted to $1,800 million [today $14,256 million (United States only claims $7,000 million)]. 3,000 Spanish families compelled to return to their homeland, claim $8,000 million.

The previous does not include other thousands of millions in properties and businesses confiscated to Cubans. Cuba's per capita gross domestic product in 1958 was the third in Latin America and the country placed 31 among the more developed in the world.

Today, Cuba is a non productive wasteland devastated by misery, while its rulers had deposited in safe places what they had stolen. The prestigious U.S. magazine Forbes, in 2006 estimated the personal wealth of Fidel Castro, at around $900 million.

Besides, it is of general knowledge that other hundreds of millions are deposited in foreign accounts in the name of the rest of Cuban governing elite. Cuba today is a plundered country, backward, in debt, being among the poorest in the world. Finally they achieved it: Cuba has been sunk…

(Copied from La Villa Magazine, Official Voice of Círculo Güinero de Los Ángeles,
Los Angeles, California, Year XLVII, January to April 2015, #208)

Translated by the Staff of Círculo Güinero de Los Ángeles



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