Our Man on Havana

Posted by in July's Magazine

When Chuck Giancana, brother of Sam, one of America’s leading Mobsters, first arrived in Havana in 1948 his first stop was the Hotel Nacional, which became a mecca for the rich, famous…and criminal. Hosting Mafia conferences that often lasted a week.

Havana has always specialised in a mixture of romance and raunch, attracting writers, gamblers and gangsters. The Tropicana,the most famous Latin American nightclub in the world with its casino and glamorous outdoor floor show featured such stars as Nat King Cole, Carmen Miranda and Maurice Chevalier, while Eartha Kitt was the headline opener at the International Club Casino on the ground floor of the Nacional. Leggy, six-foot-tall showgirls performed nightly and the dance floors resounded to the beat of the mambo.



Back in the 1920s, when America was under Prohibition, Cuba attracted visitors who came for booze and a good time. During the Second World War, sugar prices rocketed and Cuba basked in wartime prosperity. The political background was notoriously corrupt. Lax morals, hot sun, fancy nightclubs and free-flowing liquor earned Havana the sobriquet the ‘Casablanca of the Caribbean’.

By the 1940s, even the hard-bitten Chuck Giancana was appalled by the torpid atmosphere of the city. Still, he saw in his gimlet eye the potential of this tropical isle so temptingly close to the US mainland, hoping to turn Cuba into an (even more) corrupted paradise; a state so crooked the Mob had no reason to break the law.

The Giancanas were not the only ones who had their eyes on Havana, Lucky Luciano, the Chicago Mafia boss, settled in the city after being deported from the United States and the ‘Jewish Godfather’ Myer Lansky also sought to take a bite out of the Havana cherry. What made Cuba so appealing was the government of dictator Fulgencio Batista whose state officials and ferocious secret police could be easily bribed. Local racketeers and gangster incomers could make instant cash from illegal gambling, brothels, gunrunning, trafficking drugs and laundering money.

Batista’s government matched dollar for dollar every new tourist development. During the 50s, hotels were being built all the time. In one year alone Cuba attracted 300,000 visitors. They sipped Daiquiris and Cuba Libres at Sloppy Joe’s or puffed on aromatic La Corona cigars on the terrace of the exclusive Havana Yacht Club.

Batista installed a clutch of puppet presidents and, when things got sticky in 1952, he held a bloodless coup and made himself Cuba’s head honcho. In 1955 Batista made his biggest mistake. In celebration of electing himself president he announced an amnesty for dissidents, releasing from prison the young Communist firebrand Fidel Castro. Castro became a violent opponent of the Batista regime, establishing a secret guerrilla force.

At this time Havana was at its most Americanised. Card sharks in snazzy zoot suits and Cuban heels cruised the teeming streets in Chevrolets. Ernest Hemingway visited on marlin fishing trips from his Key West base and Graham Greene, author ofOur Man in Havana,was a devotee of the Shanghai Theatre, notorious for live sex shows and blue movies. But while the rich tourists and mobsters gambled and mamboed the night away orphans slept in shop doorways. Cuba was ripe for revolution.

Disgruntled left-wing activists began to take matters into their own hands. In 1957 there was a Communist attack against the presidential palace, which was swiftly put down by the army with several rebel fatalities, but bombings and terrorist strikes became daily occurrences. The disaffected locals who saw their island life being swamped with vice and crime regarded the rebels as heroes.

When the revolution finally came, the citizenry stormed the hotels and casinos. Jukeboxes and slot machines were destroyed in the streets. The wealthy residents and tourists fled. In 1958 Batista and his family absconded for the Dominican Republic and ultimately Portugal. Some 24 hours after Batista departed, troops under the charismatic revolutionary Che Guevara took control of Havana, and by midnight the 32-year-old Castro was making his first speech as the country’s new leader.

A year later all US businesses were banished from Cuba and any foreign-owned concerns that remained were nationalised. Havana changed rapidly. The bordellos and nightspots closed. Tourists disappeared. ‘When communism starts, puritanism immediately follows’, wrote Graham Greene ruefully. The Mafia lost millions and blamed two men: Castro and President Kennedy; the latter because he was too soft on the former.

Santos Trafficante, the Florida Mafia boss, once claimed that in 1957 he provided three call girls for a visiting VIP – Senator John F Kennedy – and watched the proceedings through a two-way mirror at the Hotel Commodoro. His only regret was that he did not film or tape the show.

It has been acknowledged that the CIA, through Operation Mongoose, attempted (more than once) to assassinate Castro. Some conspiracy theorists suggest that, in turn, Kennedy was assassinated on Mafia orders in revenge for his lukewarm response to the Castro threat.

Now such plots are part of Cuba’s history. The Fidel and Raul Castro era is over and relations between the US and Cuba have relaxed. Havana is a tourist destination again. Visitors love the stunning architectural facades and street life. And the Tropicana club still has impossibly tall, scantily-clad dancing girls. Havana is a helluva town.




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