An Empire of Vice

An Empire of Vice


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.


Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba…andThen Lost It to the Revolution

by T.J. English

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

Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause
by Tom Gjelten

That Infernal Little Cuban Republic: The United States and the Cuban Revolution
by Lars Schoultz

The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, the United States, and the Next Revolution
by Daniel P. Erikson


Photo by Wim Wenders

  1. Maurice Politis said:

    Excellent piece but no reading list on Castro’s Cuba is complete without the magnus opus of Montalban “and God stopped in L’Havana”, written after the Papal visit is Cuba and nicely introduced in this MonDiplo article by the author From the article there is the following quote of Castro that gives the jest of his “benevolent dictator” mentalite:
    Human thought is conditioned absolutely by the circumstances of the age, on which the blossoming of political genius is entirely dependent. If Lenin had lived in the time of Catherine the Great, he would have been at best an ardent defender of the Russian bourgeoisie. Had José Martí known Havana under British occupation, he would have fought alongside his father in defence of the Spanish flag. And what would Napoleon, Mirabeau, Danton or Robespierre have been in the time of Charlemagne, if not humble tillers of the soil or anonymous inhabitants of some medieval castle? Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon could never have happened in the early years of the Republic, before the development of class struggle shook Roman society to the core and a great plebeian party emerged that made Caesar’s accession to power necessary and possible.

    • MadNihilist said:

      Good piece indeed!

      Sorry for snubbing the political blabber but this…

      They included such gastronomic delights as baked potatoes, mashed potatoes with onions or garlic, garnished with pork fat and orange juice, and desserts concocted from potatoes, sugar and orange peel…

      …awakens such a irresistible a culinary Wanderlust. =))

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