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When the United States repealed Prohibition in 1933, the country's organized crime and smuggling syndicates saw a massive portion of their profits, gained from the black market of alcohol, dry up. Then came World War II and a strange period of governmental and criminal cooperation; while the military attacked the Nazis in Europe, the Mafia protected the domestic waterfronts from fascist sabotage. After the war, while the entire spectrum of American life was pulsing with potential and growth, organized crime bosses saw the profits they had become accustomed to, but that law enforcement and the society at large could no longer tolerate, dwindle to a fraction of what they were. Having served his end of a bargain with the US government, iconic New York-based kingpin Charles "Lucky" Luciano was released from a federal prison and deported to Italy. Gangsterism seemed to have hit a dead-end in America.
Seven months after being shipped off to exile in Naples, Luciano was aboard an ocean freighter headed for Caracas, Venezuela. This is where T.J. English, a noted true-crime novelist and television screenwriter, begins Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba… and Then Lost It to The Revolution, a heavily-researched, thoroughly-sourced, nitty-gritty account of how the most raucous and notorious social and criminal circles overlapped for a decade and how it all came tumbling down.
Beginning with Luciano, who in late December of 1946 made his way to Cuba after a few stops in Latin America, English lays out the story of how Havana, dubbed more than three centuries earlier by King Philip II of Spain the "Key to the New World and Rampart of the West Indies," came to live up to the title in the most unexpected ways. At Luciano's behest, a group of nearly two-dozen of the Mob's most powerful players met on the top floors of the Hotel Nacional in Havana to re-anoint him as the head of organized crime and to set a course for the criminal underworld of the Americas.
As English recounts the story through a fascinating mix of legends, state records, deposition transcripts, and interviews with those in the know, a legendary real-world decadence that rivals any tale of fiction unfolds. Though there was a bit of organizational cleanup at the Hotel Nacional, including a vote to eliminate Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, the bigger picture was to lay the plans for the establishment of the Mob's own criminal state in Cuba. Under the leadership of Luciano's life-long friend Meyer Lansky, the top American mafia and Cosa Nostra leaders -- including Santo Trafficante, Albert Anastasia, Don Vito Genovese, Joseph Bonanno and Frank Costello -- set into motion a nearly hemispherical business plan that would eventually turn Havana into "the Monte Carlo of the Caribbean."
As English explains it, the Mob had its eye on the island for decades, and for good reason; Las Vegas was nearly twice as far as Havana from cities like New York and Boston, and came with the legal ramifications of being in the United States. But it wasn't until the post-war confluence of convenient air travel, economic prosperity, and the shakeup of the Kefauver hearings (and the subsequent pressure on the FBI to curtail organized crime) that Cuba became a primary focus of the Mob. Then, in March of 1952, with the return of dictator Fulgencio Batista, the American crime syndicate was able to deliver itself to a promised land of unchecked power less than 100 miles from the tip of Florida. In Batista, who even then was considered an example of extraordinary corruption, the American gangsters found a partner for an "enigmatic alliance [that] would eventually form the core of the Havana Mob."
The story of modern Cuba, of course, also hinges around another man. When Batista returned to power in the spring of 1952, he did so at the expense of national elections, set to take place three months later. At the time Batista was a member of the Cuban Senate and an actual candidate for the Presidency, albeit in last place of a three-way race. When Batista's bloodless coup (described by English as "more like a surreptitious rape than a murder") preempted the elections it also derailed the political career of a young lawyer, activist and candidate for a seat in the Cuban parliament. That man, of course, was Fidel Castro. After mounting a failed legal challenge to Batista's government (which had been quickly recognized by the United States), Castro's life took a far different trajectory from those of the Cuban military and social elite who fell in league with the Havana Mob. What helps to make Havana Nocturne so fascinating is that within its nearly 400 pages English details both sides of these "diametrically opposed forces" and, through extensive research and interview sources, documents that although "the huge gulf between [them] could not be reconciled," the Communist revolutionaries and the leaders of the Mafia's Caribbean wonderland were nonetheless all focused on controlling a small island nation, roughly the size of Virginia, and "were one day bound to collide." And collide they did.
The history of the Cuban Revolution -- and the events leading up to, during, and after it -- is a history populated by enigmatic and charismatic figures, and it would be enough to paint Castro and the Mob as potent tips at the end of much longer spears. To simply say that Cuba, like Berlin, was a hotspot in the long battle of the Cold War has been enough for many great stories. But English, the author of Paddy Whacked and The Westies, brings a documentarian's eye for detail and almost schematic deconstruction to bear on one of the most dynamic and well-known times in the history of the Western Hemisphere.
Havana Nocturne is more than another rehashing of Communism versus Capitalism. English scratches off the neon-lit sheen of Hollywood's traditional portrayals of pre-Castro Cuba and details the inner workings of a society already on the verge of implosion. While gangsters built an empire under the protective wing of Batista, who went so far as to appoint Lansky as an official advisor on the matter of the country's gaming and casino policies, the rest of Cuba suffered. Of the hundreds of millions of dollars that flowed into the country from the United States, virtually all of it landed in Havana; the other 99-percent of the island languished in poverty, with staggering rates of illiteracy, infant mortality, and malnutrition.
While entire villages lived a subsistence life, the Mob's major players divvied up the turf and stoked the flames of Havana's booze-, drugs-, sex- and murder-fueled nightlife, running an ever-expanding gaming empire that routinely outpaced and outshone Las Vegas. The Havana Hilton, a jewel of opulence, was the largest and most lavish hotel in Latin America. Frank Sinatra, Ginger Rogers, Ava Gardner, Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and other celebrities mingled openly with Trafficante, Lansky, Luciano and their ilk. In 1957, a wealthy Senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy was shown around the town by his Floridian colleague, George Smathers, and subsequently introduced to Lansky and Trafficante. Trafficante proceeded to not only arrange an orgy for Kennedy with three high-class prostitutes, but stayed to watch via a two-way mirror.
By all accounts, Havana in the 1950s was the epitome of decadence. Celebrities came to enjoy exclusive parties. Vacationers came to enjoy the spectacle of the Malecon, the city's vibrant oceanfront boardwalk. Addicts came to drift away on an endless stream of liquor, drugs, and sex workers. All the while legends rose and fell, often brutally; after voicing his displeasure with Lansky's operation of the Havana casinos and attempting to establish his own gambling racket, Albert Anastasia was executed in New York. Then, on the first day of the last year of the decade, the fate of the island switched from amounts to numbers; the Mafia had controlled the wealth, but the Revolution had garnered the strength of the population. With Batista and a handful of his inner circle having slipped out of the country late on New Year's Eve (Meyer Lansky, "out of curiosity," would stick around until Castro himself arrived a week later), the Revolution quickly engulfed Havana. On the morning of January 1st the casinos and nightclubs were gutted, roulette wheels and blackjack tables drug into the streets and set aflame. The Hilton Hotel was commandeered as the headquarters of the Revolution.
When Castro and the Revolution took Havana, it was the end of an era, even if some refused to accept it. Trafficante, who had attempted to sidle up to the Revolutionaries only to be rebuffed, expected business to return to normal after a short time. "Castro is a complete nut," he exclaimed to his attorney, predicting that the Revolution was "a temporary storm" soon to blow over. Castro of course was anything but temporary, and El Comandante likewise had no interest in Trafficante, who was labeled an "undesirable alien" and expelled from the island. Though Trafficante would later become involved in the CIA attempts to depose Castro, those attempts were notoriously unsuccessful. The Mafia's reign in Cuba was over, and with it went vast sums of money, untold fortunes that the Havana Mob had been unable to get off the island. Of the millions he had amassed, when Meyer Lansky died his estate was valued at less than $60,000. His story, however, like that of the Havana Mob that he helped organize, is amazingly rich and, thanks to T.J. English, thoroughly documented. SEE ALSO: www.tj-english.com
SEE ALSO: www.harpercollins.com
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.
See other articles by Eric J Herboth.
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