Diplomat Sumner Welles, sent to Cuba earlier that summer by Franklin D. Roosevelt, appointed Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (son of the hero of the Ten Years War) as Cuba’s provisional president. Within the month he had been overthrown by an amalgam of students and army officers. In short order, a pivotal 32-year old sergeant named Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar (1901–1973) led a golpe called the Sergeant’s Revolt, which ousted the senior officers. (Batista was born out of wedlock and into dire poverty at Veguitas, near Banes, a backyard region of Oriente. His Chinese father was a sugarfield worker; his mother was black.) They handed power to a five-man civilian commission that named a leftist university professor, Dr. Ramón Grau San Martín, president.
Grau lasted only four months. He was far too reformist for Washington. Batista, self-promoted to colonel and chief of the army, was under no illusions as to the intentions of the United States, which sent 30 warships to Cuba as a warning. On January 14, 1934, Batista ousted Grau and seized the reins of power. Batista would have center stage until driven from power in 1959. Impressed by Batista’s fealty to Washington, in 1934 the United States agreed to annul the Platt Amendment—with the exception of the clause regarding the Guantánamo naval base . Following promulgation of a new and progressive constitution in 1940, Batista ran for the presidency himself on a liberal platform. Cuban voters gave him a four-year term (1940–1944) in what was perhaps the nation’s first clean election.
Batista at first displayed relative benevolence and good sense. He maintained enlightened attitudes on elections, civil liberties, public welfare, and workers’ rights, enacted progressive social reforms and a new, liberal constitution. For pragmatic reasons, Batista legalized the Partido Comunista de Cuba, and two leading Communists—Juan Marinello and Carlos Rafael Rodríguez—became ministers in his 1940–1944 government.
In the 1944 election, Batista’s hand-picked successor lost to Ramón Grau San Martín, the president Batista had deposed. Batista retired to Florida a wealthy man, leaving his country in the hands of men who permitted their administrations to again sink into chaos. Assassinations and bombings were once again daily events. Two rival gangster groups—the Socialist Revolutionary Movement (MSR) and Insurrectional Revolutionary Union (UIR)—ruled the streets. The public suicide on August 5, 1951, of Senator “Eddy” Chibás, incorruptible head of the Ortodoxo party, brought together a broad spectrum of Cubans fed up with corruption and student gangsterism.
In 1952 Batista again put himself up as a presidential candidate in the forthcoming elections. It soon became clear that he wouldn’t win. On March 10, only three months before the election, he upended the process with a bloodless pre-dawn golpe. One of the reform-minded candidates for congress whose political ambitions were thwarted by Batista’s coup was a dashing young lawyer named Fidel Castro. (In 1952, the 25-year-old lawyer had risen to prominence as the most outspoken critic of corrupt government and was being hailed as a future president.) Harry Truman immediately recognized Batista’s regime. Batista had forsaken his interest in the Cuban people. He had lingered too long in Miami with mafiosi and had come back to commit grand larceny hand in hand with the mob.
Batista initiated massive civic construction work that conjured a tourist boom, spurring economic growth and fueling prosperity. As the Batista epoch progressed, however, gangsters began to take over the hotels and casinos with Batista’s blessing—for a cut of the proceeds, of course. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that an infusion of foreign capital built Havana ’s mobster-run Las Vegas–style hotel-casinos with which prerevolutionary Cuba will always be associated. North Americans arrived by plane or aboard the City of Havana ferry from Key West to indulge in a few days of sun and sin. They went home happy, unaware that behind the scenes chaos and corruption were rife.
In November 1954, Batista won the presidential election. Though the elections were rigged, Washington quickly embraced the “constitutional” regime. Batista maintained his cynical rule with a brutal police force. Many Cubans were disgusted by the depth of repression and depravity into which Havana  had sunk, made more wretched by the poverty and destitution endemic in the slums of Havana and by the illiteracy and malnourishment that were part of the rural condition.
Batista’s secret police tortured suspected opposition members and hung them from trees while “militants of Castro’s Twenty-Sixth of July Movement placed phosphorous bombs in movie houses, buses, nightclubs, theaters, and parks,” says historian Rosalie Schwartz. “The President’s regime was creaking dangerously towards its end,” wrote Graham Greene  in Our Man in Havana.