Before the Revolution

Reviewed by Tom Miller
Sunday, July 13, 2008


How the Mob Owned Cuba -- and Then Lost It to the Revolution

By T.J. English

Morrow. 396 pp. $27.95

On our first date, my wife-to-be and I went to the Karl Marx Theater in Havana for the Cuban premiere of "Havana," directed by the late Sydney Pollack. Outside, the glitter of a Hollywood opening had been replicated with velvet ropes, a red carpet and searchlights circling the sky. On the screen, Pollack used the final days of the Batista regime as a backdrop for a love story between Robert Redford and Lena Olin. For my money, though, the star was Mark Rydell as Meyer Lansky, the mobster who brought high-stakes organized crime to Cuba. Lansky finally gets to play the lead in T.J. English's excellent new book, Havana Nocturne, which traces the mob's Cuban activities, a wild adventure that Lansky initiated, manipulated and rode to the bitter end.

The mob in Havana started out auspiciously enough on the top floors of the Hotel Nacional in late 1946, when more than 20 gangsters from the United States gathered at Lansky's invitation to set up their forthcoming Havana gambling enterprises and to arrange the spoils. Cuba, beyond U.S. laws but easy to reach, had a malleable government that would tolerate high-stakes gaming. The Havana mob -- peopled by familiar names such as Santo Trafficante, Thomas Lucchese and Lucky Luciano -- dreamed that "Havana would be a party that never ended."

Throughout the 1950s mobsters flew in and out of the Cuban capital establishing an empire that controlled casinos, hotels and nightclubs. They resolved their quarrels with threats, guns and hit men. Corruption was the norm and bulging offshore profits the reward. There was enough for everybody. Even the Kefauver Committee hearings, a series of Senate proceedings aimed at exposing organized crime, made them downshift only temporarily. Oh, it was a grand old time. Pan American airlines, which had controlling interest in the Nacional, Havana's premier gambling hotel, charged $39 roundtrip from Miami, inexpensive even in those days. You could bring your car on a ferry boat and catch a show with "an international swirl of race, language, and social class." The mob set up a croupier school for ambitious Cubans. In 1957 Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy came to town and was said to have been the only man in a four-person orgy arranged by Trafficante. Briskly paced and well-sourced, Havana Nocturne has the air of a thriller with the bonus of being true.

Lansky couldn't have gotten as far as he did in Cuba without the help of dictator Fulgencio Batista, who seized power in 1952. Lansky provided unlimited funds for the dictator's coffers; in return Batista extended protection to the mobster's underworld empire. According to English, "their enigmatic alliance would eventually form the core of the Havana Mob." At one point Batista named Lansky his "adviser on gambling reform," an appointment that must have made them both chuckle.

But Batista's coup, which derailed pending elections, had thwarted a young politician named Fidel Castro, who converted his electoral frustration into a revolution that grew in tandem with the obscene profits of the Havana mob. "The huge gulf between these two diametrically opposed forces could not be reconciled," writes English. "They were one day bound to collide."

When the Castro revolution prevailed, mobsters, who once had the run of Havana, became outcasts. To dismantle the casinos, Castro appointed a "minister of games of chance," future Watergate burglar Frank Sturgis. But the mob was not through with Cuba; in the following years gangsters provided the funds and the assassins for numerous attempts to kill Castro, in hope that a new government would re-open the casinos. Unlikely. "We are not only disposed to deport the gangsters," Castro said soon after taking over, "but to shoot them."

English, a true crime writer whose previous books include Paddy Whacked and The Westies, provides a detailed account of the personalities and elements that made up Cuban life. His well-researched descriptions of how business, gambling, politics, revolution, music and religion all played off each other give Havana Nocturne a broad context and a knowledgeable edge. Interviews with Lansky's granddaughter Cynthia and his chauffer-bodyguard Armando Jaime Caiselles lend color and credibility to a subject full of bullet holes.

Movies from "Week-End in Havana" (1941) to "The Godfather: Part II" (1974) to Andy Garcia's "The Lost City" (2005) romanticize Havana as an enormous, louche amusement park where everyone bopped till they dropped. English doesn't portray it that way, nor did most of the city's citizens live that way. In fact, most Habañeros knew of the high-rolling shenanigans only through the press and went about their lives in something approaching normalcy until the revolution thundered in. Still, they saw the rank corruption and the crumbling civil society and knew whom to blame: the thugs, hit men, gangsters, mobsters, mafiosi and their sycophants (not to mention their molls) who for one decade had it all. ·

Tom Miller's 10 books include "Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba," to be reprinted with a new introduction in September.

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