Havana Nocturne:
How the Mob Owned Cuba . . . and then Lost it to the Revolution

Author: T. J. English

Published by William Morrow, 2007

The Mob

The author, T.J.English

The author, T.J. English

Meyer Lansky began his career as a teenage car thief and a successful gambler, successful because he was more intelligent than most others he gambled with. While a teenager, he became friends with Charles (Lucky) Luciano, four years his senior, after Lansky refused to let Luciano shake him down for money. Luciano, it is said, was impressed by Lansky's bravery.

Luciano was a Catholic who had arrived in New York from Sicily at age ten and had grown up in a Jewish neighborhood. Luciano was an enterprising young man. He founded a bootleg liquor empire after the government created prohibition in 1920, the year Luciano was 23 and Lansky 18.

Lansky moved up from bootlegging to collections from and the distribution of juke boxes. He was a Jew who mixed well among Catholics because of his intuitive diplomatic instincts. He became friends with every major Mafia leader. He was respected for his ability to make things work smoothly, without offending. Getting along was important in business, and a part of his diplomatic skills was making sure everyone got his share. Lansky became a businessman, above the world of drugs and prostitution and would always resent being considered with less respect than other businessmen with big names, such as Joseph Kennedy.

The author, T.J.English

Meyer Lansky (Wikimedia commons)

Also friends with Luciano and Lansky was another boy from their neighborhood, Ben Siegal. Beginning in the early 1930s he was called Bugsy, referring to craziness – a name Siegal disliked. Siegal was four years younger than Lansky and had joined Lansky in stealing cars and gambling. Siegal was ambitious and aggressive and served the mob in a way that Lansky did not have to. Siegal was a hit man. He did not know how to get along as well as Lansky did, and in 1937 the mob got rid of him by sending him to Los Angeles to sniff out opportunities related to the movie business. Lansky visited him in the early 1940s and tried to sell him on the idea of making Las Vegas, a small dusty town, into a gambling center. Siegal warmed up to the idea. But finally Siegal became such a pain to the mob that Luciano, it is said, ordered him killed. His crime against the mob is said to have been extorting money from them during the building of the Flamingo hotel. Siegal was assassinated in the home of a "mob girl," Virginia Hill, in her Beverly Hills home near Doheny Boulevard, between Santa Monica and Sunset Boulevards – shots heard during the day by Yours Truly, who was 13 and a paperboy in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood.

Government Authority

During the early part of World War II, U.S. naval intelligence was using the mob as "their eyes and ears" at New York's waterfront, where much of the commercial activity was Mob controlled. The Navy was concerned with "spies and saboteurs on the waterfront." (T.J. English, p. 22.)

It was with Lansky whom they negotiated. And Lansky won Luciano's freedom from the penitentiary, from a 1936 conviction that claimed Luciano had been the leader of the largest prostitution ring in the history of the United States. Luciano's sentence had been 30 to 50 years in prison. Luciano was released from prison under an agreement to return to his native Sicily.

From Italy, Luciano moved to Cuba, where he tried to maintain his mob boss status. Lansky had been developing business interests in Cuba in conjunction with the mob. The U.S. Narcotics Bureau was aware of Luciano being in Cuba. The U.S. State Department asked the Cuban government to deport Luciano, but the Cuban government stalled. President Truman authorized a cut-off of all supplies of legitimate medicinal drugs to Cuba until Cuba deported Luciano, which Cuba did on March 29, 1947 – while Lansky remained in Cuba, bent on making Havana an economic success for himself and his associates.

Fulgencia Batista

Batista had been Cuba's military leader in 1933, the year that Lansky had proposed to Luciano to contact Cubans in order to "buy in" to the development of the gambling infrastructure there. It was to Batista that Lansky went, with a suitcase of money as an introduction.

Batista was Cuba's military leader until 1940 and Cuba's president from 1940 to 1944. And following his presidency he lived in the United States.

T.J. English describes Lansky and Batista as "largely self-educated" and "forced to forego formal education early in life because of economic hardship." Batista, he writes, "professed to love books." Throughout Batista's life, writes English, Batista boasted that at the age of thirteen he had saved enough to buy a biography of Abraham Lincoln.

Batista returned to Cuba and ran for president in 1952. A poll showed him trailing two other candidates. English describes Cuba's military as controlling the elections and Batista as controlling the military. All radio stations, newspapers and other sources of information were under military control. Unable to win the election, a military coup on March 10, with tanks and other combat vehicles to the presidential palace, put Batista back in power. The "big lie" was applied, Batista telling the Cubans that the military had acted to save them from corruption, destroyed institutions, disorder and sinister plans.

The Truman administration recognized Batista's government on March 27, 1952. Eisenhower was elected in November, and in 1953 the Eisenhower administration sent an ambassador, Arthur Gardner, who was "an enthusiastic supporter of Batista." Continues English: "Batista was a friend to American corporations and investors, and he was, in keeping with the tenor of the 1950s Cold War politics, increasingly anti-Communist." In November 1953, Batista outlawed Cuba's Communist Party and shut down its various newspapers. (English, p139.)

Fidel Castro Joins the Story

A young lawyer and political activist, Fidel Castro, denounced Batista's coup as "a brutal snatching of power." They are not patriots, he said, "but destroyers of freedom, usurpers, adventurers thirsty for gold and power." On July 26, 1953 Castro and followers launched a military attack on the Moncada barracks near the city of Santiago. Fidel and his brother Raul survived and were thrown into prison. Sixty-one of the approximately 120 attackers died.

Batista won the elections that he had promised for 1954, and he responded with magnanimity. English writes that Batista began "to loosen some of the more egregious restrictions on civil liberties." In 1955, Cuban legislators passed a bill granting general amnesty to political prisoners. Batista signed the bill, and on May 15 among the released were Fidel and Raul.

Economic Good Times

Cuba's sugar industry was doing well. Cuba had a higher standard of living than any other island in the Caribbean and most other countries in Latin America. And a big part of the economic success was the new era of gambling and glamorous hotel-casinos that attracted tourists. According to English, the showgirls at the mob-owned Tropicana Hotel "were renowned the world over for their voluptuousness, and the cabaret showcased a kind of sequin-and-feather musical theater that would be copied in Paris, New York, and Las Vegas." The Tropicana, he writes became "a magnet for international celebrities, musicians, beautiful women, and gangsters." Mob money helped create this. Lansky was manager-in-chief of the casinos. He knew how to run gambling operations with efficiency and good will.

In Havana, policemen received a cut from the bordellos. The sex trade fed off tourism, and it was left to the Cubans, as was the trade in narcotics, while Batista was taking credit for eliminating Cuban-born gangsters – gangsters of the kind who might compete with his U.S. mob associates. The Cuban press described Batista's U.S. mob friends always as American businessmen or casino operators. Censorship in Cuba, writes English, "made it nearly impossible for journalists to investigate financial corruption since it almost always linked to the government." (English, p234.)

Santo Trafficante Jr.

Santo Trafficante

English writes that "Every Monday at noon, a Lansky-appointed bagman was allowed into the presidential palace through a side door. He carried with him a satchel filled with cash, part of a monthly payment of $1.28 million that was to be delivered to the president." Batista never met the courier. He used a relative as an intermediary.

Senator John F. Kennedy passed through Havana in 1957. "He was shown around Havana by Senator Smathers," of Florida, who was friendly with the mobster Santo Trafficante and with Meyer Lansky, both of whom "later claimed to have met Kennedy in Havana." English writes that "Ostensibly, the trip was to visit the recently appointed U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Earl E. T. Smith." Smith was a millionaire stock broker who, like other recent ambassadors to Cuba, was an ardent Batista supporter. According to English, Trafficante arranged for Kennedy to spend an afternoon with "three gorgeous prostitutes." English writes that Trafficante and Lansky "would later express disgust to friends and associates that a U.S. senator who preached law, order, and decency would accept sexual favors arranged by known mobsters like them." Later, adds English, Trafficante kicked himself for not having secretly filmed Kennedy's dalliance. (Pages 210-11.)

Castro Up, Batista Down

When Kennedy was having his arranged fun in Havana in 1957, Fidel Castro and his comrades had been in the mountains in eastern Cuba engaging in an armed rebellion. Aboard an old boat, the Granma, Castro and a group of 81 followers had arrived in eastern Cuba on December 2, 1956. Batista's military had killed, dispersed or taken as prisoners most of them before they could make it into the protection of the mountains – the Sierra Maestra.

In the mountains, Castro and his small group of guerrillas won support and armed fighters from among the impoverished locals. Batista claimed that Castro had been killed, but on February 17, 1957 Castro met with a New York Times journalist, Herbert Matthews, who published his interview with Castro, and this gave Castro significant publicity in the United States and eventually in Cuba.

Elsewhere in Cuba, underground anti-Batista groups were organizing. In the summer of 1957, the strongest among them, in Santiago, merged with Castro's 26th of July Movement – named for the date of the failed attack on the Moncada barracks back in 1953. Castro's movement gained popular support in the cities and countryside, and his army grew to over eight hundred men.

Fidel Castro and other members of the revolution, according to English, "understood the true nature of Good Times in the capital city." English writes that "To the enemies of the Batista regime, a moral rot had taken hold in Havana."

Batista sent his military against Castro, including his airforce, and as militaries often do, their sloppy applications of murderous might made more enemies. Castro's forces grew in strength. Sailors mutinied at a base in Cenfuegos. Three hundred sailors and civilians were killed, and during the siege 40 surrendered and were summarily executed.

Writes English, "By March 1958, Cuban business leaders had begun to abandon what they viewed as a sinking ship." At the Battle of Jigue in July 1958, one of the first major frontal confrontations of the war, a commanding officer and an entire platoon of the Cuban Army surrendered to Castro's forces. The soldiers were treated with respect and then let go. Some soldiers left Batista's army and defected to the Revolution. It was the classic guerrilla strategy, writes English: "Win hearts and minds, and their asses will follow."

In the summer and fall of 1958 the mob began to look for alternative places for their tourist gambling enterprises. They went to the Dominican Republic, which was under the brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo. But nothing substantial was agreed upon.

In March 1959, the U.S. government suspended all arms shipments to Batista on the grounds that the weapons were for self-defense against a foreign power and not to be used against fellow Cubans. According to English, this "came as a shock to Batista." Batista shifted to arrange for guns from the Dominican Republic and some from Central America. Multiple plane loads of guns flooded the island, some destined for the rebels and some for the Cuban army – guns in and money out.

By December 1959 the idea had spread in Havana that Batista could not last much longer. Communications between Havana and the rest of Cuba suffered from the rebels having severed telephone wires, bombed electrical installations and closed off highways. Batista had not been appearing in public. According to T.J. English he had been watching movies in his private screening room. "His favorites were American horror flicks, especially Dracula movies and anything starring Boris Karloff. On Sunday nights the president invited his declining circle of friends over to play canasta."

The mob had been pursuing the creation of a grand new hotel, the Monte Carlo, to be run by a company with investors that included on its board of directors "some of the most famous names in the world of business, politics and entertainment," among them Frank Sinatra.

Batista Departs

Havana was festive during the holiday season and remained so to New Year's Eve. At 3 A.M., on January 1, Batista, his family and some close friends fled the island aboard an airplane that took them to the Dominican Republic. Batista had been told by his friend, the U.S. ambassador, Earl Smith, that he would not be allowed to return to his home in Florida.

In the small hours of the morning, Lansky's driver sped him from casino to casino. Lansky ordered managers to collect and give him all money, and he ordered the casinos closed – and fast, because he said, "at dawn the crowds will take to the streets and nothing and nobody will be able to stop them."

English writes that by 4:00 A.M., news of Batista having fled began to spread. People "gathered spontaneously in the streets." People cheered, sang, honked their car horns and, "as in any good Cuban celebration, buckets, sticks and cymbals were used as impromptu percussion instruments." People began targeting objects that symbolized the Batista regime. "Among the first to go were the parking meters," which were associated with Batista's brother-in-law. Next they struck at the casinos.

Castro and Lansky

After taking power, Castro shut down the casinos, canceled the national lottery and declared in one of his first decrees that cleaning up "vice, corruption, and gambling" was among the highest priorities of the new government.

Lansky had left Cuba but returned in March, 1959, staying at his favorite suite at the Hotel Nacional. "Mostly he was there to see if he could deal with the Castro regime [and] salvage his hotel-casino business," and he wanted to find his mistress. He remained in Cuba less than one month and failed on all points. Technically he was owner of the Hotel Riviera, but it was nationalized in October along with other big hotels.

Lansky's hopes of expanding to the Dominican Republic "were dashed for good in 1961" when Trujillo was assassinated. "He opened a couple of big casinos in the Bahamas and in England, but they were nothing compared with what he had in Havana." He and his fellow mobsters began their decline.

Santo Trafficante Jr. was expelled from Cuba as an "undesirable alien." According to Wikipedia he "came into contact with various U.S. intelligence operatives, and was involved in several unsuccessful plans to assassinate Castro." English writes of Trafficante's alleged involvement in the assassination of President Kennedy. He died of heart failure in 1987.

Meyer Lansky's worth, according to the Wall Street Journal in 1969, was near 300 million. Writes English:

The federal government designated Lansky as Gangster Number One. He was beleaguered with tax charges, a bogus narcotics charge for carrying prescription drugs through an airport, and threats of deportation.

The feds made Lansky's life miserable. Britain and Israel refused to allow him residence. In 1983 Lansky died of cancer in a Miami hospital, with his wife at his side. At the reading of Lansky's will it was revealed that his entire estate had ended at $57,000.

Copyright © 2008-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.