Three days before Christmas in 1946, Havana’s Hotel Nacional was closed for a private meeting. Armed guards blocked entry to its lovely grounds atop a seaside bluff in the plush El Vedado district. Inside the stately cream-colored Art Deco hotel, a group of distinguished foreign visitors tucked into a feast of local delicacies. There were crab and queen conch enchiladas from the southern archipelago; swordfish and oysters from the nearby village of Cojímar; roast breast of flamingo and tortoise stew; grilled manatee, washed down with añejo rum. It is unknown whether the attendees–whose number included about twenty of North America’s most notorious gangsters–ended their meal with a cake like the one served at their feast’s fictional rendering in The Godfather Part II. But as in the film, the purpose of the gathering was clear: to divvy up shares in the empire of vice they were busy establishing in Havana.
During the next decade, the mafia built a seaside gambling resort, which soon rivaled in profits and glamour its sister project in dusty Las Vegas. Under the canny direction of Meyer Lansky, the Jewish don who’d risen from the streets of New York’s Lower East Side, members of the Havana Mob became fabulously wealthy. So too did Cuba’s US-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista, whose stake in the mob’s affairs exceeded the sacks of cash delivered weekly to the presidential palace. With Lansky and fellow mobsters like Santo Trafficante employed as “tourism experts” in his government, Batista eliminated taxes on the tourism industry, guaranteed public financing for hotel construction and–as T.J. English shows in Havana Nocturne, an exacting and lively account of the era–even granted responsibility for Cuba’s infrastructure development to a new mob-controlled bank, BANDES. In December 1957 the opening of the Riviera, a $14 million mafia show palace just down the seawall from the Nacional, was celebrated by a special episode of The Steve Allen Show on US television and a gala in Havana featuring Ginger Rogers. Three months later, the twenty-five-story Havana Hilton–mortgage holder: BANDES–became Cuba’s biggest hotel yet.
The party ended on New Year’s 1959, when Batista fled the island as Fidel Castro’s barbudos advanced on its capital. Castro and his bearded rebels established their headquarters in the Havana Hilton and loosed a truckload of pigs on the sleek lobby of the Riviera. Castro announced the “socialist nature” of his revolution. Nikita Khrushchev sent Soviet missiles. President John F. Kennedy–who, during a visit to Havana the previous year as a senator, had spent an afternoon with three mob-supplied prostitutes under the gaze, from behind a two-way hotel-room mirror, of Santo Trafficante–instituted the embargo that defines US-Cuba relations to this day.
Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos
by Louis A. Perez Jr
Pichon: Race and Revolution in Castro’s Cuba, a Memoir
by Carlos Moore
The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, the United States, and the Next Revolution
by Daniel P. Erikson
Photo by Wim Wenders