After giving one of my mafia lectures, my friend Stephanie was very intriqued by the mob’s role in cuba and how its outcome could’ ve changed Las Vegas and the Mob. When Fulgencio Batista regained power as president of Cuba in 1952 he inherited the city of Havana, at the time, one of the worlds ultra play cities full of the best dance bands on earth playing Mambos, Sambas and Rumbas. Batista did have one problem. Gambling. He wanted to bring tourists in to gamble but the industry had issues. Cuban gaming was like the wild west, without rules or regulations. Owners of nightclubs were leasing out rooms to shady characters who were running rigged games to rip off the tourists. In 1953 the Saturday Evening post ran an article by Lester Velie, Called “Suckers in Paradise; How Americans Lose Their Shirts in Caribbean Gambling Joints”.
Needing to rectify Cuban Gamblings Issues, president Batista hired Meyer Lansky as his advisor on gambling reform, cleaning up Cubas gaming by running honest games himself and threating or removing operators that cheated tourists. Lansky took over the Montmartre clubs gambling table operation and made it the premier place for high rollers.
Lansksy’s next project was to put a casino in the Nacional hotel and since the Cuban government owned the Nacional, Batista moved the project forward to bring in new tourists and collect his own tax on casino money. It was called Wilber Clark’s Casino and Meyer made his brother Jake in charge of the casino floor. The Casino was a huge success but Batista still wanted more. In 1955 he instituted Hotel Law 2074 which stated that the cuban government would grant tax exemptions to “new hotels, motels and similar establishments providing tourists accommodations, and any hotel with a minimum investment of a million dollars or any nightclub valued at more than $200,000″ was entitled to apply for a gaming license. Batista used this law to funnel government money to Lansky and friends of the president. Other crime families also used this law to enter or become partners in investments in Cuba. Families from St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, Florida and Boston had ties in Cuban hotels, casinos and nightclubs. The number of hotel rooms doubled after this law and Lansky used this government money to start construction on his jewel casino, The Riviera.
The Riviera was to be Lansky’s obsession. Construction started in 1957 and was finished in eleven months. He hired Irving Feldman, a Miami Beach builder to contruct it. The Riviera had the best of everything from the furnishings to the entertainment. Outside of the Riviera, parts of Havana were seedy with houses of prostitution, Burlesque shows and a carnival like atmosphere to its nightlife. At the Riviera, things were different. Many men wore tuxedoes and women wore gowns with their necks draped with expensive jewelry. It had top names like Abbott and Costello and Vic Damone and catered to the high rollers with the best restaurants in Havana.
While mobsters from all over the United States enjoyed huge profits from the Cuban casino, hotel and nightclub explosion, in 1958 the Nevada gaming board banned holders of Nevada gambling licenses from operating in Cuba. Wanting to protect their Vegas interests, some mobsters pulled out of Cuba leaving Lansky and his pals from the east coast behind.
With many of cuban citizens extremely poor and unhappy with its current government, it was Fidel Castro who was set to take over Cuba. In early December 1958, knowing that he was soon to be ousted from power, President Eisenhower contacted Batista to grant him asylum in Florida. On new years eve 1958, Batista, his family and friends boarded three planes and left Cuba. Castros’ new government quickly took over and shut down the casinos and state lottery. Lansky’s dream came to and end when after only being open for about thirteen months, the new government confiscated the Riviera in 1960 leaving Meyer Lansky to flee Cuba to Israel, out millions of dollars. Castro kicked the gangsters out of Cuba. Only Santo Trafficante, Jr. decided to stay and try to work out a deal with Castro, but instead was jailed by him, later to be released and he left Cuba.
If Castro had not taken over Cuba and Batista remained in power, how would history have changed? Would the mobsters in the United States have fled to Cuba with the powerful U.S. governments war on crime focusing on them? Would Las vegas be the gambling powerhouse it is today if Cuba’s growth continued throughout the years and it remained a mob friendly country? We will never know the answers. What was different about Cuba was that the United States crime families controlled only organized crime and some politics but was always under attack from the government. In Cuba the Mob controlled the country and its leader. They were welcome friends of the Cuban government under Batista.