May 23, 2013
Rosa Lowinger on Cuba Before Castro
Posted on Oct 10, 2008
This New Year’s Eve will mark the half-century anniversary of a night when Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, in anticipation of Fidel Castro’s advancing revolutionary army, abandoned the island he had ruled on and off for nearly 25 years. For Cubans over a certain age, it was a where-were-you-when-Kennedy-was-assassinated kind of moment, remembered with intensity and vivid detail. My parents, for example, recall that they were partying at a neighbor’s apartment in Vedado, a middle-class Havana neighborhood. They had stayed home instead of going to the Tropicana cabaret—their usual New Year’s Eve activity—because they had heard rumors that nightclubs, which had been bombed repeatedly in the preceding years, were going to be sabotaged. My folks were weary of the war and hoping that Batista would finally step down, but like any good Cuban they nonetheless spent New Year’s Eve dancing, drinking rum and eating with friends. Sometime after midnight, they saw a military airplane fly low overhead, then bank to the right over the Straits of Florida. At the time, they did not know that the plane was carrying Batista and his family. The next morning, the evidence was everywhere: Mobs were racing down the streets of Havana, ripping up the parking meters and trashing casino gaming rooms. People were waving flags and shouting “Viva Fidel, down with Batista.” The Castro years had officially begun.
In the ensuing five decades, as neither Cuba’s government nor U.S. policies toward Cuba have substantively changed, several dozen books in English and Spanish and thousands of pages of newspaper and magazine articles have been devoted to the subject of that night and the decades that preceded it. It is no wonder. Not only is the stalemate between our two countries endlessly interesting, if not frustrating, Cuba of the epoch was a dazzling setting for political calamity. Fueled by a thriving economy that failed to trickle down to the nation’s poorest people, 1950s Cuba was in the throes of an artistic boom that was unparalleled in the island’s history. The nation’s legendary musicians, having already influenced world music with rhumba and Latin jazz, came up with the electrifying mambo and cha-cha-cha. The nation’s architects were at the vanguard of midcentury Modernism. Havana was the gambling capitol of the Western Hemisphere—a title that Las Vegas would inherit after the revolution—and this produced a cabaret scene that featured a stew of stunning showgirls, glittering costumes, steamy underground sexuality and American mobsters who enriched themselves and their corrupt political associates beyond imagination.
By T.J. English
William Morrow, 416 pages
Havana Before Castro
By Peter Moruzzi
Gibbs Smith, 256 pages
In recent months, two notable nonfiction titles have been published about Cuba of that era: T.J. English’s “Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba Then Lost It to the Revolution” and Peter Moruzzi’s “Havana Before Castro: When Cuba Was a Tropical Playground.” [Editor’s note: To read parts of “Havana Nocturne,” click here.] English paints the complex portrait of the American mob’s near-control of Cuban gambling. Best known for his books on Irish and Asian gangs in New York, English uses his profound understanding of organized crime to tell a compelling story of greed and influence in which the Cuban government, led by dictator Batista, worked hand in glove with mobsters such as Meyer Lansky. Their dream, which English explains was to turn Cuba into “a criminal state whose gross national product … would become the means to launch further criminal activities around the globe,” was thwarted by the Cuban revolution. In English’s account the drama of those events is framed not as the traditional clash between Batista and Castro, but between Castro and Lansky.
Anyone who’s seen Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” based on Mario Puzo’s novel, or read biographical material on Lansky, Charles “Lucky” Luciano or other mobsters of the era, knows the basic story line of this book: The mob ran the large 1950s Havana casinos that catered to the tourist population, and those activities were a large part of the mob’s revenues during the period. The reason is simple enough: Gambling was legal in Cuba and illegal in the United States. Gamblers, considered criminals in the United States, could set up as legitimate businessmen in Cuba and continue to engage in all manner of legal and illegal enterprises. All they had to do was pay proper homage, i.e. exorbitant bribes, to Batista and members of his government. Cuba’s gambling industry was not founded by the mob, nor was the culture of freewheeling sexuality that accompanied the casino-tourist trade a product of the mob. Indeed, the most opulent and famous of the casino-cabarets, Tropicana, was owned by a Cuban. Nonetheless, the close associations of all the gamblers operating in Cuba, including Tropicana’s owner, with the oppressive ruling dictatorship was viewed by the revolutionaries and many ordinary Cubans as a symbol of all that was wrong with Cuba during the Batista era. As a result, once Castro took power the casinos were shut down and the gamblers ousted.
English’s assemblage of the material follows this traditional line of understanding, but his account contains much new material, including detailed interviews with men like Armando Jaime Casielles, Lansky’s former driver—to whom, not incidentally, he dedicates this book—and Bernard Frank, Lansky’s former lawyer. English is also a great raconteur, and the pitting of Lansky against Castro is storytelling at its finest. For what could be a more compelling, cinematic vision of the Cuban drama than to line up adversaries of such urgent motivation as Castro and Lansky? Set up side by side as in English’s book, the two come off as brilliant men with giant dreams and hubris to match. Their inevitable clash, which has the cathartic quality of Shakespearean or Greek drama, is also peppered throughout with delectable tidbits, like stories about Lansky’s stunning Cuban mistress, John F. Kennedy’s Havana tryst with three prostitutes, and Cuban sex star Superman’s prodigious manhood.
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