How the Mafia and a Cuban Dictator Built Havana’s Casinos


An off-topic post, but a very interesting story. Enjoy!

By Matthew Reiss 

From The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 01

It was December 31, 1958. Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista raised a New Year’s Eve toast to his cabinet members and senior military officers and wished them hasta la vista. After seven years of building Havana’s tourism industry by inviting gangsters such as Meyer Lansky to construct casinos, helping to fund their enterprises and taking a large chunk of the proceeds for himself, Batista knew his presidency was over. His plundering had weakened Cuba’s treasury and demoralized the army. He filled three cargo planes with all he could carry and was on his way to the Dominican Republic before the sun came up on 1959.

Nine days later, Fidel Castro’s guerrillas took the capital and installed what would become the longest-lasting communist government in the Western Hemisphere. But while Castro could close the casinos, arrest the gangsters and deport or imprison Batista’s henchmen, he could not bury the skyscrapers that had drained the wealth of the island. Castro inherited from Batista a Havana of overt poverty and ostentatious wealth, where the haves of the world’s richest nations had come to exploit the have-nots; where statues of Lenin and Marx would be dwarfed by glass and stone monuments to the Mob; where the nation’s architectural landmarks would be a constant reminder of the days when criminals were in charge and the Mafia roamed free.

But until that last day of 1958, the only revolution that mattered to Mafia financier Lansky involved a roulette wheel. During the Batista years, Cuba was a place where a crooked man could make an honest living. After a half century on the wrong side of the law in the United States, the celebrated gangster was legit. America’s high rollers and celebrities were living large in the casino of Lansky’s luxury hotel, the Riviera, and the drinks were on the house.

As a kid in Manhattan’s Lower East Side ghetto in the early part of the century, Meyer Lansky learned how to cheat, bribe and split fees with other cheats. He ran into Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, as legend has it, in a street fight, and Lansky’s tenacity convinced the Sicilian Luciano that this Jewish kid had possibilities. Together with another local Italian, Frank Costello, and a young tough named Benny “Bugsy” Siegel, they created a powerful network of numbers runners and bookies throughout the city. With Luciano at the helm and Lansky at the register, the combination soon expanded nationwide……


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