Saturday, July 19, 2008

Havana Nights

So then, in the scheme of things Fidel Castro was good?

Was he Cuba's "The Dark Knight"? (Which BTW is an outstanding movie!)

Is he (Fidel) still alive?

Book reveals extent of Mafia's Cuban empire
By Carlos Rodríguez Martorell DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER

Glitzy casinos, a rousing mambo-fueled nightlife and a lurking gue-rrilla have made 1950s Havana the stuff of legend.

“Most Americans, everything they know about this era is from the movie Godfather II,” says writer T.J. English. “Which is 15 minutes of the movie and it’s fictionalized.”

So English set out to find out what American mobsters were really up to for his recently released nonfiction book “Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution” (William Morrow, $27.95).

What he found after years of research and interviews — both in the U.S. and Cuba — make any previous fictional account pale in comparison.
“People didn’t know about the extent in which mobsters owned banks and controlled financial lending institutions in Cuba,” says English.

Cuba’s strongman Gen. Fulgencio Batista emerges in English’s fascinating account as much more than an enabler who allowed the Mafia to build casinos all over Havana’s malecón.
“I would say [Batista] was an equal partner with the mobsters,” says English, a 50-year-old New Yorker of Irish background who is the author of several books about the mob.

“The mafiosi — Meyer Lansky, Santo Trafficante — couldn’t have done what they did without their relationship with Fulgencio Batista.”

According to English, the American Mafia interest in Cuba goes all the way back to Al Capone in the ’20s, but only took shape after the fabled 22-member conference at Havana’s Hotel Nacional in December 1946.

Over the following decade, New York-based Jewish mobster Lansky presided over an unprecedented empire of casinos that took over the whole island’s economy.

“Literally every tunnel that was built, every highway — and there was a lot of construction going on in Havana at the time — was being financed by money from the mobsters,” says English.

The allure of the Tropicana and other gambling and entertaining havens provided an incessant pageant of celebrities: Marlon Brando played congas, Frank Sinatra partnered in the casino business, and Sen. John F. Kennedy took part in a three-call-girl orgy at the Comodoro Hotel courtesy of notorious Mafia kingpin Trafficante, according to the book.
All to the tune of Latin music’s golden age.

“I always say that what drew me to this subject was the rhythm of the clave,” says English, who professes to be an “amateur conguero.”

“Although organized crime and gangsterism is obviously a moral corruption, you have this positive consequence,” he adds. “It made it possible to hire huge orchestras and nightclubs that made this era of entertainment second to none in history.”

The mafiosos biggest miscalculation was, obviously, Fidel Castro, the privileged son of a landowner who provides an enthralling twist to the story.

“It was particularly interesting that someone like Batista and Lansky, who’d come from extreme poverty, wound up being the protectors of the bourgeoisie,” says English. “And yet Castro, who was from the bourgeoisie, became the leader of the downtrodden.”

When Batista fled the country on New Year’s Eve 1959, paving the way for Castro’s triumphant entry in Havana, people took to the streets and looted the casinos, which the revolutionaries had opposed.

But Castro didn’t immediately chase the American gangsters, and even reopened the casinos, following advice that without the gambling revenue the island’s economy would collapse.
But the bearded leader’s tolerance was not to last, and soon afterward the government seized control of all U.S. corporations’ holdings in Cuba, casinos included.

“The problem was the revolutionary government wanted to put rebels monitoring the counting room of the casinos,” says English.

“You can’t have that because that’s where the money is stolen.”