136. Despatch From the Embassy in Cuba to the Department of State 1

No. 320


  • Emb Despatch No. 287, October 3, 19572


  • 1958 Elections: Electoral Outlook Six Weeks Prior to Elections

In the reference despatch the Embassy reviewed the outlook for the elections, then scheduled for June 1, 1958, at the outset of the electoral process. Since that time the date for general elections has been postponed to November 3, 1958, the revolutionary opposition has made an unsuccessful bid to overthrow the Batista regime (April 9, 1958) and now appears to be preparing for another attempt, and the Government has assumed extraordinary powers in a general effort to maintain order and liquidate the centers of insurrectionary opposition. During the past three weeks factors bearing on the elections have crystalized sufficiently to permit a more accurate analysis and evaluation of what is likely to be the outcome at the polls.

The Electoral Climate.

Without attempting to assign responsibility, it can be said that at no time since the opening of the electoral process last fall has the political climate been conducive to the holding of free and open elections. The revolutionary opposition does not want elections under Batista. They charge that the balloting would be fraudulent. They are probably fearful that a change in administration will predispose the people to give the President-elect a chance to resolve the national problem, thus weakening public toleration of rebel activity. It has announced that it will do everything within its power to prevent them from taking place. Ironically, the Government, which desires elections, [Page 218] has been confronted with an insurrectionary situation which threatens its very existence, and as a result it has resorted to a series of exceptional measures which work aginst the auspicious atmosphere which it seeks to establish.

The preliminary phases of the electoral process from all outward appearances seemed to move along fairly satisfactorily up to the end of January as political parties completed their reorganization and selected their national candidates. It was hoped that the restoration of constitutional guarantees, on January 25, 1958 would be the initial move in the establishment of a proper climate for elections, to be followed by such other steps as inviting the world press and UN or OAS observers to witness the elections. It had, however, the opposite effect. The lifting of censorship and the reinstitution of legal process through the civil courts gave the general public the first insight in six months into the scope of insurrectionary activity and the measures employed by the Government to cope with it. As a result criticism of the Government mounted and the rebels seized the opportunity to foment public unrest. A growing abstentionist trend within certain opposition parties manifested itself late in February. With the publication early in March of Fidel Castro’s manifesto3 calling for an all-out offensive against the Government in April, public apprehension grew to the point where the Government felt they had no choice but to suspend constitutional guarantees again and to declare a state of national emergency. Coming so close to the June 1 election date, it was to be expected that a postponement would be forthcoming. The Congress at the request of the Cabinet took this action on March 26 as it passed a law fixing the new date for elections for November 3, 1958.

On April 9, 1958 the revolutionary opposition launched their general strike to overthrow the Batista Government. It was a dismal failure. The people failed to respond to the strike call, thereby demonstrating that the rebels did not have the popular support which they mistakenly claimed. The Batista regime then decided to launch an all out military offensive against Fidel Castro in an effort to destroy him. With him out of the way, the Government reasoned, the principal obstacle to holding elections under a proper climate would be removed.

The build-up for the military offensive got under way in May. By July the Army was moving up from the lowlands into the foothills of the Sierra Maestra. In a series of engagements in late July and early August the rebels forced the Army to withdraw back into its garrison positions, and the offensive came to a halt. Following this setback, the Prime Minister, in a conversation with the Ambassador about the prospects for the restoration of guarantees, commented significantly [Page 219] that Batista had intended to restore guarantees 45 days prior to elections but had also expected that the campaign to eliminate the “26th of July” Movement would be much further advanced than it was.

In retrospect the lack of a proper climate for elections is due primarily to three factors:

The continued suspension of constitutional guarantees and other exceptional measures taken by the Government under state of national emergency.
The stated purpose and potential of the rebels to disrupt elections in certain areas.
Lack of public confidence in any of the presidential candidates running in the elections.

Continued Suspension of Guarantees: Except for a six-week period from January 25 to March 12, 1958 constitutional guarantees have been in abeyance continuously since August 1, 1957. Among these guarantees are freedom of expression, the right of assembly, and freedom of movement—indispensable elements for the establishment of a proper climate for uninhibited political campaigning. Under the two periods of national emergency the Government assumed exceptional powers—extension of controls over expression and means of communication, labor and management, education, and the judiciary—which further detracted from the electoral climate. The Government has now confirmed to the Ambassador that elections will be held on November 3, 1958 under a continued suspension of constiutional guarantees.

Potential of the Rebels to Disrupt Elections: As indicated above the revolutionary opposition has announced its purpose to disrupt the elections. It is difficult to estimate its potential to do so, but psychologically it is already having an important effect. This is reflected in the fact that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) is now considering measures which can be taken in the six provinces to minimize the risk of rebel interference. In Oriente, Camaguey and parts of Las Villas, which have more than one half of the total electorate, the danger is greatest. In Camaguey and Habana Provinces the TSE has already approved the concentration of rural polling places in the seats of the 35 municipal districts. It will probably follow this same pattern in the other provinces. By this device the Government plans to use what military forces are available for election security duty to provide maximum protection to the polling places in the major towns where garrison forces are maintained. Otherwise, with more than 8,000 polling places the Government would have to tie up some 16,000 soldiers for the purpose. Voters, of course, will presumably have to travel to the municipal seats to cast their ballots. It remains to be seen how much of a deterrent to voting this will be. The Embassy has received reports, as [Page 220] yet unconfirmed, that certain candidates (such as Masferrer in Oriente) are sending representatives into the countryside to collect the voting carnets of the rural population.

Lack of Public Confidence in Candidates: Regrettably, none of the four presidential candidates are of such national stature as to inspire much enthusiasm in the elections. Rivero Agüero, the Governmental Coalition candidate and former Prime Minister, is a devoted follower of Batista. He is campaigning on a platform of “continuism” of the regime. Former President Grau San Martin, the nominee of the Auténticos, is advanced in years and a semi-invalid. Furthermore, he has behind him the tarnished record of his previous (1944–1948) government. Marquez Sterling, the candidate of the Free Peoples Party, has a good record centered on his presidency of the 1940 Constitutional Convention, but does not have good party organization. He is working under the handicap of being regarded in some quarters as a “straw” opposition candidate backed by the Government. Salas Amaro, leader of the Party of Cuban Unity, is a small-time politician with virtually no public following.

[Here follow sections entitled “The Government’s Position” and “The Situation of the Opposition”, outlining the candidates’ programs and qualifications.]

The Public Attitude.

The gauging of public opinion on the elections is a difficult and hazardous task under ideal conditions. In a country where strict censorship has been in effect for the better part of two years, it is virtually impossible to fix public attitudes with any degree of accuracy. No polls have been taken to the Embassy’s best knowledge. The press, which could give at least a clue to public reactions, has not been free to speculate on this aspect. Nevertheless, the Embassy, on the basis of a limited number of conversations with a fairly representative cross section of people, continues to believe that the bulk of the Cuban electorate, which is not committed to either extreme, regards the elections with an understandable attitude of cynicism and apathy.

Underlying this attitude are a series of considerations:

The lack of an electoral climate.
The weakness of the candidates.
The determination of the revolutionary opposition to interfere with the elections.
The unpopularity of the regime and distrust over how it will handle the elections.

[Page 221]

The lack of a proper climate for elections has been discussed in a previous section. This factor will further confirm the general attitude as it becomes known that the government will hold the elections under a suspension of civil liberties.

The presidential candidates do not inspire confidence in the elections. Batista in selecting the Government candidate did not pick a man, such as Amadeo Lopez Castro or Jorge Garcia Montes, with a reputation for integrity, competence, and independence. Instead, Batista selected a candidate considered to be a “yes man” with a record of unswerving personal loyalty to him. The divided opposition offers candidates which clearly pose the problem of whether any of them, if elected, can count with [on] sufficient public and military support to govern the country for any length of time after Batista steps down.

The determination and ability of the revolutionary opposition to disrupt the elections in certain areas tends to undermine public confidence in the elections. The unacceptability of the elections to the rebels means that their efforts to overthrow the Government will continue, and hence that the elections offer little hope of resolving this immediate problem. The rebel threat to interfere with the balloting has led the Government to take measures which will make it more difficult for the voter in the rural areas to get to the polls. This in turn may encourage fraudulent practices with the rural vote.

The lack of civil liberties over so long a period and the repression which has accompanied it, regardless of its justification in terms of meeting the provocation of rebel terrorism, has caused the Batista Government to lose popularity. This unpopularity in turn undermines confidence in the sincerity of the Government to abide by its promises of free access to the polls and honesty in the tabulation of the ballots.

The Embassy’s Assessment.

The Embassy believes at this juncture that elections will be held, with constitutional guarantees in suspense, on November 3, 1958 as scheduled, that they will be honest in the sense that intimidation will not be practiced at the polls and the votes will be counted fairly, and that they will not be fully representative since a substantial part of those eligible to vote, because of their lack of faith in the elections or because of reasons beyond their control, will not vote. Under existing conditions—the abstentions or inability to vote of a substantial part of the electorate, the absence of a proper electoral climate, the division of the political opposition, the lack of commanding appeal of the opposition candidates, the organization strength of the four parties comprising the Governmental Coalition, the support of Government employees, the backing of a majority of the leaders of organized labor, strong support among the colored population, and good economic conditions [Page 222]Rivero Agüero will win. Batista stated to the Ambassador that he believed that 60% of the electorate would cast their ballots: the Embassy believes the President is over-optimistic in this estimate if the President was referring to the total number of persons of voting age in Cuba.

Though the coming Cuban elections will not meet all the standards of an ideal democratic election, they are the best that can be had under the circumstances now prevailing. They are in the Embassy’s view infinitely better than a violent overthrow of Batista and far better than no elections at all. It is therefore in the interest of the United States to encourage them.

Looking beyond the elections the Embassy believes that it is in the best interests of the United States for the present administration to remain in power until February 24, 1959. With the inauguration of the new President it is hoped that the groundwork for a peaceful solution can be laid. The first step might be to select a Cabinet of able and respected citizens capable of changing some of the more undesirable features of the present regime and gaining the confidence and support of the Cuban people.

The first few months will be critical ones for the new Government. However, with the support of the armed forces, a declaration promising elections within two years (which a source very close to Rivero Agüero has assured the Ambassador will be done if the United States will give concrete evidence of support and encouragement to the new Government), and the support of the United States, the new administration may be able to survive and lead Cuba out of the present impasse. This would avert the holocaust which would undoubtedly follow a violent overthrow of the Government, avoid the uncertainties inherent in the political, social and economic orientation of the revolutionary opposition, and block the gains which the Communists expect to make through an extension of the existing stalemate or the overthrow of the government.

For the Ambassador:
Daniel M. Braddock
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 737.00/9–2658. Confidential. Drafted by Bowdler.
  2. Not printed. (ibid., 737.00/10–357)
  3. See Document 32.