Machado entered the presidency with widespread popularity and support from the major political parties. However his support declined over time, especially following his 1928 re-election, which violated his promise to serve for only one term. As protests and rebellions became more strident, his administration curtailed free speech and used repressive police tactics. Ultimately, in 1933, he was forced to step down in favor of a provisional government headed by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes y Quesada and brokered by US ambassador Sumner Welles. He has been described as a dictator.
Machado was born in the central Province of Las Villas (now Villa Clara). He had two younger siblings, a brother Carlos and a sister Consuelo. He married Elvira Machado Nodal (28 October 1868 in Villa Clara – 1968) and they had three daughters: Laudelina (Nena), Ángela Elvira and Berta.
He spent his childhood on his family's cattle farm and in his early 20s engaged in growing and selling tobacco. During Cuba's Ten Years' War against Spain (1868-1878), Machado's father joined the Cuban rebels and attained the rank of major.
When the Cubans launched their War of Independence against Spain in 1895, Machado joined the rebel forces and rose to the rank of brigadier general. He was one of the youngest Cuban generals in the war. He fought in the middle provinces.
After the war ended, Machado turned to politics and business. He became mayor of Santa Clara and during the administration of José Miguel Gómez (1909–1913), he was appointed inspector of the armed forces and later secretary of interior. Soon after, he engaged in farming and in business investing in public utilities. He grew wealthy and returned to politics in the early 1920s.