Making the News

St. Petersburg Times

Originally Published:Sunday, May 10, 2009
http://www.tampabay.com/news/perspective/article999628.ece

High-rolling Cuba unlikely to return

By Susan Taylor Martin
St. Petersburg Times

Even as its economy slowly moves into the 21st century, Cuba still has the image of a place stuck in the '50s. That's largely because of all those big-finned Buicks and Cadillacs - relics of a colorfully corrupt era when Tampa's Santo Trafficante Jr. and other U.S. mobsters made Havana one of the world's gambling meccas.

Could Cuba ever regain its place as the Monte Carlo of the Caribbean? (Assuming, of course, the demise of the very antigambling Fidel Castro.)

"I seriously doubt it because there is so much more competition today," says Michael Pollock, publisher of the Gaming Industry Observer. "You're comparing an era when the only place to gamble in the United States was Las Vegas to an era where there's gambling in Florida and many other warm-weather climates. It may get gambling, but it wouldn't regain its position of a half century ago."

Indeed, few places could compare with the Cuba of the '50s, when thousands of Americans drove their cars onto ferries for the 90-mile trip to Havana. There they found a sybaritic world of extravagant floor shows, high-stakes casino games and sex of every price and permutation.

"The fabulous nightlife was used as a lure by the Cuban government to attract foreign investors, mostly from the United States," writes T.J. English in his book Havana Nocturne.

"But to those who cared to look below the surface, it was apparent that Cuba's startling economic windfall was not being used to meet the needs of the people but rather to pad the private bank accounts and pocketbooks of a powerful group of corrupt politicians and American 'investors.' This economic high command would come to be known as the Havana Mob."

Among the most corrupt politicians was Cuba's own president, Fulgencio Batista. In the early '50s, his grip on power seemed assured thanks to support from both the U.S. government, which saw him as a bulwark against communism, and American mobsters, who quickly realized he was a man they could work with.

With Batista pocketing millions in kickbacks, the mob and its brilliant financier, Meyer Lansky, began developing an unparalleled gambling infrastructure. No sooner had Batista obligingly passed a "hotel law" - providing tax exemptions and automatic casino licenses - than several lavish hotel/casino projects hit the drawing boards.

And few crime bosses were more receptive to Cuba's charms than Trafficante, whose control of Tampa's lucrative bolita racket had been threatened by congressional hearings on mob activities in the United States.

Newly acquitted of bolita-related charges in 1954, Trafficante headed to Cuba where, as English writes, "gambling was legal, mobsters were welcome and profits were virtually guaranteed by the government." Within a few years, Trafficante owned or held stakes in such prime properties as the Tropicana, the legendary nightclub whose guests included Marlon Brando and Ernest Hemingway.

Another visitor was a young U.S. senator named John F. Kennedy. On a 1957 trip for talks with the U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Kennedy spent a night at Trafficante's Comodoro Hotel, in a suite with three prostitutes and a two-way mirror. As English notes, Trafficante later kicked himself for not filming the dalliance - "it would have made terrific blackmail material."

Not everyone was captivated by Havana's sexually-charged nightlife. To many Cubans, it was evidence of their country's degradation and plundering by greedy outsiders. Fidel Castro's own disgust stoked the revolutionary fervor that led to the overthrow of Batista's government on Jan. 1, 1959.

As Batista fled to the Dominican Republic, gambling was banned and most of the casinos trashed. Among those who lost everything: Trafficante, who spent months in prison before apparently bribing his way out. He later became the CIA's point man in a plot to assassinate Castro.

Castro, of course, is now pushing 83. Trafficante died in 1987 at 72. And even if casinos eventually return to Cuba, the mob as it existed in Havana's heyday is long since gone.

As Meyer Lansky put it: "I crapped out."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at [email protected]

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