History of War
Cuba and the Mob
The influence of organised crime fuelled the excesses of Batista’s Cuba and hastened the rise of the Marxist revolt that followed under Fidel Castro
Criminal organisations operating in Cuba and the US played a shadowy role in the rule of the Batista regime
During the week of 22 December 1946, a who’s who of organised crime in the United States and Italy gathered at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana. The so-called Havana Conference was a watershed event in the history of the criminal underworld in the Americas. The meeting was called by gangster kingpin Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano and organised by his longtime associate Meyer Lansky. Among the topics discussed was the Mafia’s future plans for continuing domination of the island country’s lucrative illicit business and entertainment activities.
By this time, criminal enterprise was well entrenched in Cuba, dating back to the Prohibition Era of the 1920s, when the country was a frequent sanctuary and embarkation point for boats running rum and other contraband liquor to the United States, a mere 145km to the north, from outside US territorial waters. Following the 1933 Revolt of the Sergeants, new and greater opportunities emerged. Luciano reportedly dispatched Lansky to Cuba with $3 million to bribe the leader of the country’s armed forces, buying his cooperation in expanding criminal activity to include hotels, casinos, nightclubs, drug trafficking and prostitution. The target of the bribe was none other than Fulgencio Batista, one of the sergeants who had overthrown the legitimate government of Cuba. Batista had subsequently appointed himself chief of the Cuban armed forces with the rank of colonel.
A decade later, Batista had become the de facto leader of Cuba, later ascending to its presidency, and the tentacles of organised crime had steadily stretched throughout the island’s economy. Lansky and Batista were closely associated, actually partners in the ownership of the Hotel Nacional, and when Luciano arrived in Havana for the high-level meeting, he invested $150,000 in the property and also became a partner. Reportedly, a subsequent discussion between Lansky and Batista at the Waldorf-astoria Hotel in New
York laid the foundation for deeper cooperation between the Mafia and the corrupt Batista administration. Batista was assured that he would receive huge kickbacks for granting licences to new hotels, casinos, racetracks,
“CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE WAS WELL ENTRENCHED IN CUBA, DATING BACK TO THE PROHIBITION ERA OF THE 1920S”
and nightclubs – in exchange for essentially granting Lansky a free hand to further exploit the Cuban economy, reaping tremendous profits. Through the coming years, Batista’s Swiss bank accounts were also believed to have received millions of dollars.
Meanwhile Luciano, who had been deported to Italy from the United States and banned from reentering the US, secretly moved to
Cuba. For a time, he was directly involved in the illicit activities; however, once US authorities discovered that he had violated the terms of his parole and deportation agreement brokered for his cooperation with the Allied war effort during World War II, they demanded his return to Italy. In 1947, Luciano was arrested and booked on a freighter sailing to Genoa.
Nevertheless, after the Havana Conference, business boomed. The Cuban capital became a mecca for pleasure seekers from the United States, including prominent elected officials such as senator and future US president
John F Kennedy and entertainers including Frank Sinatra, Eartha Kitt, George Raft and many others. During the 1950s, an estimated 270 brothels operated in Havana, hotels and nightclubs were packed with tourists, and gambling dens were beehives of activity, while the trade in marijuana and heroin flourished. Cuba became a way station for drugs transported illegally from South and Central America to the United States.
American author David Detzer visited
Havana and observed: “Government officials received bribes, policemen collected protection money. Prostitutes could be seen standing in doorways, strolling the streets, or leaning from windows. One report estimated that 11,500 of them worked their trade in Havana. Beyond the outskirts of the capital, beyond the slot machines, was one of the poorest, and most beautiful countries in the Western world.”
While Luciano, Lansky and other organised crime figures made millions, their lavish life led to their demise in Cuba. Inevitably, the exploitation of the Cuban people came with its own price. Batista had apparently lined his pockets with the tacit approval of the US government, and hatred for the corrupt regime and its American benefactors erupted in Fidel Castro’s Marxist revolution.
When Castro’s fighters finally reached
Havana on 1 January 1959 the hotels and casinos were deserted. The days of decadence and hedonism were over and the reign of organised crime in Cuba came to an abrupt end.