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

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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.

 ??  ?? Mobsters Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky owned stakes in the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana, shown here in the late 1930s
Mobsters Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky owned stakes in the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana, shown here in the late 1930s
 ??  ?? BELOW: Tourists swim and sunbathe at the elegant pool of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in this image from the 1950s
BELOW: Tourists swim and sunbathe at the elegant pool of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in this image from the 1950s
 ??  ?? LEFT, TOP: Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, an organised crime boss, presided over the Havana Conference held in the Cuban capital in 1946
LEFT: Meyer Lansky was a major organised crime figure and key player in the rise of criminal activity in Cuba
LEFT, TOP: Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, an organised crime boss, presided over the Havana Conference held in the Cuban capital in 1946 LEFT: Meyer Lansky was a major organised crime figure and key player in the rise of criminal activity in Cuba

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