Cuba lies just off the Florida Keys but for most of us, it might as well be in Outer Mongolia. It is technically illegal for American citizens to visit Cuba unless you have a certain status (journalist, politician or, more recently, if you have family in Cuba). While it may be technically against the law to visit Cuba in practice there are no sanctions for doing so. You just need permission to catch a flight through another country. The Cuban government is anxious to part you from your nice, fat American dollars.
This February, the Cuban Revolution turned fifty years old. From reading Havana Nocturne by T.J. English, this is truly remarkable. For much of its history Cuba was the prototypical banana republic, run by all sorts of figurehead presidents and dictators, many of whom were actually at the whim of capitalist masters in the United States. This fifty-year reign of socialism was possible only due to Fidel Castro and his dictatorship. In truth, he remains one of Cuba’s many dictators, often ruthless but at least unique in that he does not appear to be corruptible. It is remarkable that his state has survived so long, although having complete control of the army, the police and a network of spies obviously helped. It is unclear if Cuba’s socialism will long survive Castro’s death.
From reading Havana Nocturne, I learned that Cuba’s communist state was a commensurate result of the egregious corruption that preceded it. For decades, U.S. presidents and Congress have railed against Castro and his communist state. However, as English makes clear, Castro was made possible through the unenlightened policies of many U.S. administrations. FDR, Truman and Eisenhower all placed their hopes in various Cuban strongmen, even though they knew they were corrupt and the Cuban people were getting the shaft. Time and again in Cuba, our capitalistic impulses overrode our common sense and democratic principles.
For those enamored with unfettered capitalism, Cuba in the 1950s was an ideal laboratory. The results were not pretty. The United States was very concerned that its sugar and other companies on the island remain unfettered; we did not worry about the costs of these policies on its people. We largely looked the other way while strongmen like Fulgencio Batista opened the doors wide to the Mafia. In the 1950s, Cuba in general and Havana in particular became thoroughly corrupt. Mafia interests built huge resorts and casinos that resulted in graft in hitherto unseen scales. Batista was on the take and squirreled away millions in Swiss banks, but Cuba in general was awash with graft. The Cuban military and police ensured that the people went along and secretive death squads silenced most opposition.
Tourists, principally American, were largely mindless of the corruption. They were attracted to Cuba like moths to a flame. For those longing from an escape from the neo-Puritanism of the 1950s, Cuba was their refuge. John F. Kennedy was among the prominent politicians who came to Cuba and indulged his wild side with lavish, Mafia-financed sexual orgies. Pretty much any eccentricity or kink could be satisfied in Cuba in the 1950s. Whores were plentiful and cheap. Live sex shows were bountiful and in classier places were part of large stage shows catering to hundreds of tourists at a time. Even homosexuals could find some tolerance for their lifestyle in the red light districts in and around Havana.
All this was made possible by the Mafia, which saw Cuba as its parasitic state. The notable mobster Meyer Lansky acted as something of a Mafia CEO for mob interests in Cuba. Taciturn by nature but ruthlessly ambitious, Lansky was the primary catalyst that turned Havana into a Mafia run empire. He made sure that all his cronies, even mobsters he did not like, had their share of the Havana action and its profits, which at the time seemed potentially limitless. His goal was to create a state the Mafia could corrupt and control indefinitely. Until the Cuban Revolution finally undid it, he found in Batista the means to realize his vision.
Those fascinated by the underworld will find much to enjoy in this meticulously researched history, which explores how the Mafia so successfully exploited Cuba. The result was a 1950s version of Sodom and Gomorrah. Every imaginable vice was available in Cuba, for a price of course. Las Vegas had but a shadow of its vice. Cheap tourist flights to and from Havana brought in people who seemed to have limitless interest in gambling, boozing, floorshows, dancing and whoring. In spite of its corruption, Havana of the 1950s was often classy. Its gambling casinos were unrivaled in size and usually included ornate showrooms that booked the top stars, including Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. The Mafia fascinated Sinatra. He even purchased a share of a Mafia run resort hotel.
Though the setting is principally in Cuba, English explores the many mobsters in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, their personalities, connections, feuds and rivalries. While most mobsters were more interested in money than violence, some had few qualms about killing others to advance their interests. Lansky was amazingly successful at getting mobsters to cooperate. They realized all could prosper if they could get along. Lansky’s low-key nature was the key to making this large criminal enterprise work.
For such pragmatic businessmen, greed was the mob’s eventual undoing. The Mafia eventually allowed their empire to grow too large and too corrupt. Since their success depended on Batista’s henchmen to keep the Cuban people in check, the larger the corruption grew the more the Cuban people resented it. As English makes clear, Cuba is communist today largely due to the egregious corruption of the 1950s in Cuba. Fidel Castro, his brother Raul and fellow revolutionaries like Che Guevara found a country ripe for revolution and sick of exploitation by foreigners.
It seems likely that Cuba’s experiment with socialism will end with the Castros. Based on its history, it is likely to return to its banana republic status, with another succession of strongmen and corruption. Perhaps though this time it will be different and U.S. administrations will be more focused on its people than exploiting the country and its people for its abundant resources.
T.J. English performs a valuable service by meticulously exposing the details of this period in Cuban history. It is a time that predates a middle-aged man like me. Without this book, these details would be lost to history. Since they have now been captured for posterity, perhaps both the United States and the Cuban people will not revisit these mistakes in the decades ahead.