History

50s sophistication in Cuba

Cosa Nostra Business Ventures – The Mafia in Cuba Part 3

By Antonio Pillo, Jr. / Posted July 30, 2013

The legendary Nacional Hotel

The legendary Nacional Hotel

After “Lucky ” Luciano left Cuba in March 1947, the Cosa Nostra determinedly continued the proliferation of gambling and nocturnal shows in Havana because of the interest shown in this lucrative business by other American Mafia bosses in the United States such as Joseph Bonanno, Albert  Anastasia and Joe Profaci.

Meyer Lansky

Meyer Lansky

After 1947 only two criminal groups continued to dominate the Cuban games of chance andentertainment market. One was t h e Genovese Family, whose guide and administrator in Cuba was their associate Meyer Lansky. On the other hand was Tampa, led by Santo Trafficante whose son eventually took over leadership of that group in 1954 after the death of his father. At that time, the governments of Ramón Grau San Martin (1944-1948) and Carlos Prio Socarras (1948-1952) had established universal corruption within the high circles of power on the island. These were years of “Cuban style” gangsters, of hired killers who assassinated police and government officials, of urban terrorism and gangs of delinquents who were involved in shoot-outs on just about every street of the capital.

The Italian-American Mafia held firm to its profit-making aims in Cuba, controlling their investments and closely following the country’s political changes so as to gain the support and commitment of the government in power. As Cuban researcher Enrique Cirules reveals, in the early 1950s Havana lacked a hotel infrastructure. It was not until at least seven years later that a rudimentary tourism network began to develop. In those early days, in addition to the legendary Hotel Nacional, there were the Hotels Sevilla Biltmore, Presidente, Lincoln, Inglaterra and Royal Palm or Plaza, as well as others  located around the capital’s Parque Central, reaching a total of 29.  But accord ing t o economist Julio Alvarado, a former employee of the Cuban National Bank ’s Department of Economic Research , only two hotels, the Nacional and the Sevilla, met the requirements for modern tourism. Official statistics indicate that between 1952 and 1958 16 hotels and motels were built in Havana, The three largest facilities of this type, Hotels Habana Hilton, Habana Riviera and Capri, opened in the two year period of 1957-1958 with a combined investment of approximately $44 million dollars.

After the March 1952 coup d’état in Cuba lead by FulgencioBatistia, links between organized Italian-American crimeand coup leaders in gambling and gradually, in tourist investments experienced a significant boost after the dictator ordered the approval of Government Decree No. 1622 of August 14, 1954 The by-law authorized games of chance in clubs, luxury cabarets and hotels, The license for operating gaming houses in these locations was set at 25,000 pesos. Around 70% of casino clients were U.S. tourists and the rest included the local bourgeoisie and wealthy Latin American visitors. With the establishment of Batista’s roulettedictatorship, the vice of gambling exceeded the limits of the habitual national lottery until it fell into the frenzy of slot machines, bingo, parlay, roulette and other games of chance that became popular and widely accessible everywhere in Havana.

From 1952 on, members of the Mafia not only controlled their casinos in Cuba, but fully participated in the analysis, financing and implementation of plans for the development of the national hotel industry. According to the March 27, 1958 report of the Representative of the U.S. Treasury Department in Cuba, the distribution of these Mafia-controlled assets in the gambling business was as follows:

The Riviera

The Riviera

The Riviera Casino was operated by Meyer Lansky, Frank Erickson, Giordino Cellini, Ed Levenson and Dusty Peters. Erickson served as Frank Costello’s representative in Cuba.

The Hotel Nacional International Casino was managed by Wilbur Clark, Edward Goffredo Cellini and Merle Jacobs, the latter two associated with the Mafia. 

The Hotel Capri Casino was in the hands of Nicolas Di Constanzo and Charles Turín, gangsters who had no known criminal record and who had operated in Las Vegas and New York prior to their arrival in Cuba. For artistic functions and promotion, the Mafia had contracted famous actor George Raft, who also had interests in the casino’s stocks.

The Hotel Habana Hilton Casino had support from Clifford Jones, former senator of Las Vegas, and from Cuban industrialists Marcos and Ramón Mendoza.

The Hilton is today the Habana Libre in Vedado

The Hilton is today the Habana Libre in Vedado

The Night Club Sans Souci Casino was historically operated by the Mafia in Tampa. Traffcante Jr. was the administrator and Syd Mathews was his assistant. Traffcante was also suspected of trafficking drugs along with his mobster uncle, Joseph M. Cacciatore. From 1958 Traffcante Jr. joined well-known southern Mafioso Charlie “The Blade” Tourine, from the Genovese Family.

The Club Tropicana Casino was operated by Frank Bishop, suspected of drug trafficking activities in the U.S. and Cuba. His chief assistant in the casino was Pierre Canavese, a direct associate of Salvatore Lucania, alias “Lucky” Luciano. Canavese had been deported from the United States to Italy and it was suspected that he entered Cuba with a false passport .

The Hotel Deauville Casino as well as the associated hotel was controlled by Santo Trafficante Jr. According to later admissions he made before the Stokes Committee, which took the lead on investigating organized crime, he also had interests in Hotel Comodoro and in the Sans Souci Cabaret. He admitted that he turned over 50% of the profits obtained from the gambling business to Dictator Fulgencio Batista.

 The National Casino was managed by Jack Lansky, the brother of Meyer Lanksy who was known as the “Mob’s Accountant” and was also a known associate of “Lucky” Luciano.

The Hotel Sevilla Biltmore was run by Amletto Battisti, acriminal element who didn’t belong to the Cosa Nostra butwho maintained close ties with gang members in Chicago, with whom he shared the profits obtained from gambling. According to researchers that have carried out studies on the Mafia during 1955 to 1958, gambling casinos in splendorous Havana alone produced more profits than Las Vegas. In addition to gambling, there existed a large network for marketing different types of drugs, as well as the most varied offers of prostitution. This was the complete package and it was ready for the enjoyment of the rich elite classes and tourists during their stay on the Island.

This frenzy of gambling, drugs and prostitution encouraged by Mafioso elements in Havana was gradually causing, sector by sector, a deplorable deterioration of morals and health in Cuba. And if this was not enough, by1958 the Montecarlos project was in operation. This project launched the construction of a chain of hotels, motels, casinos and nocturnal recreation centres along the northern coast of the Cuban capital from the Barlovento jetty, where today Marina Hemingway is located, and probably to the internationally famous holiday resort area of Varadero, in Matanzas Province.

But the Mafiosos were left with nothing more than grandiose plans when dictator Batista’s fled the country in January 1959 before the advance of the triumphant bearded guerrillas led by Fidel Castro.

 

Antonio Pillo, Jr.

Antonio Pillo, Jr. is a lawyer with a Masters in Criminology

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