Fulgencio Batista by Frank Argote-Freyre
New Brunswick New Jersey, Rutgers University Press 2006
Reviewed by Lisa Voltolina


Pre-Revolutionary Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista is a muse traditionally avoided by scholarly biographers. Inspired in part by this aversion, Frank Argote-Freyre, assistant professor of History at Kean University, embarked upon the long-avoided task of recreating the enigmatic Batista and pre-Marxist Revolution era Cuba in a scrupulous biography printed by Rutgers University Press in the summer of 2006.

His aims are ambitious. Addressing the unacceptable state of Batista literature and the dueling interpretations of the military dictator's character, Argote-Freyre endeavors to provide an accurate representation of Batista and the Cuba that existed prior to Castro's succession without reputable works from which to draw. He writes, "The stereotypes are well known: pawn of the U.S. government, right-hand man to the Mob, iron-fisted dictator. There is some truth to these clichés, but they are superficial truths that barely scratch the surface of his multifaceted political career.” Making the most of little objective information, Argote-Freyre attempts to analyze more than the "Revolutionary Strongman” who surfaced from virtual anonymity during the Sergeant's Revolt of September 1933.

Argote-Freyre is mostly successful in his endeavors. Fulgencio Batista is certainly more expansive than a typical biography. Beginning with an analysis of the multiple factors contributing to the Cuban uprisings of the 1930s, Argote-Freyre cautiously demonstrates how Batista – a man born into abject poverty, a stenography teacher with a wife and children – may have found himself caught up in the momentum of a rebelling population, and assumed a dictatorship over his fellow revolutionaries while their backs were turned.

The scope of the biography occasionally over-extends itself, a problem Argote-Freyre gracefully addresses in occasional sidebars. He admits that certain subjects mentioned – world-wide economic depression, the first stirrings of World War II, the Cuban Revolution of 1933, the expansion of the Cuban middle class, the gradual development of democratic institutions, etc. – would need "a book in itself” to be accurately interpreted. The effect such an admission has on the credibility of the work is uncertain. The implication that information is missing may dissuade serious scholars from investing their time in a supposed "incomplete” text. It may be safe to assume, however, that the casual reader will be prompted to further investigate the facts.

The Cuban government is heavy-handed in censoring media addressing Batista's role in the transformative years in the country's history. Defined by his enemies, Batista is "a poster boy for a failed dictatorship, fleeing in disgrace in the middle of the night on January 1, 1959.” Of course, the Batista biographers directly contradict the images created by the government. The few biographies that exist were solicited (and perhaps written) by Batista himself, and therefore were committed to preserving his image favorably. These biographers make excuses for his political shortcomings, often fabricating information to placate the Cuban population who felt Batista had betrayed them.

Drawing on Cuban newspapers, political cartoons, government records, memos, oral interviews, and personal archives preserved by Batista's surviving family, Argote-Freyre refrains from proclaiming historical certainties based on any of his sources. The facts speak for themselves, without the interference of personal impressions. (On the rare occasion he interjects in the text, Argote-Freyre draws well-informed conclusions from the presented facts, but never without an obligatory disclaimer.)

Fulgencio Batistatranscends the established Batista caricatures to "uncover the real man – one with strengths and weaknesses and with a career marked by accomplishments as well as failures.” Argote-Freyre's study combines local and global events, historical fact and balanced interpretive analysis, which ultimately form a comprehensive text on the brief (and chaotic) Republican period of Cuban history.