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Top Dogs in Batista's Casinos

[REF: UNTOLD STORY: FIDEL CASTRO, Vol 1 No. 2, September 1960 p28]
The Editors of this magazine have tried to present all sides of Castro, the man, the rebel, the conqueror. We were impressed with his philosophy of reform, not so impressed with his carrying-out of justice.  We have grave misgivings concerning his reputed alliances with Russia.  But we feel that each reader must get the whole picture for himself before making any personal judgment.  And here it is, for the first time, the whole UNTOLD STORY of Cuba's Fidel Castro.]


Top dogs in Batista's casinos were the Syndicate
boys from the United States–the ones who'd been
lucky enough to stay alive during Capone's era.

[To see a full size photo, right click and VIEW IMAGE]

Gambling was a multi-million dollar industry --
the play ran over a million a night with no bet limits.

[To see a full size photo, right click and VIEW IMAGE]

HAVANA went berserk on New Year's Day, 1959.  Wild-eyed young men and women erupted from their homes into the streets.  Students poured out of the campuses.  Instead of recuperating quietly from the revels of New Year's Eve, Havanans flocked outdoors in droves.

They cheered, they whistled, they danced in the streets when they heard that Batista, his family and cohorts had fled the country by plane at about two a.m.

The people surged toward downtown Havana.  They carried Cuban flags and sang the national anthem.  Car caravans bedecked with flags, the horns blowing, inched through the marchers.

In downtown Havana, the crowds reached a peak of excitement, then raced for the luxury hotels which housed the biggest gambling casinos.  The casinos were prime targets of Castro.  They were run by professional gamblers and gangsters from the United States who had paid the Batista regime huge sums for the privilege.

Batista's brother-in-law controlled all 10,000 slot machines in Cuba, which contributed million to the regime's bank account.  The slot machines, symbols of the ousted leader, were especially sought out by the mobs.

Most of the demonstrators had never been able to afford the high-priced pleasures of the multi-million-dollar hotels.  Now they didn't hesitate.  With a roar they shoved their way into the air-conditioned, deeply carpeted hotel lobbies and made for the casinos.

The demonstrators were not there to place bets, but to wipe out the citadels of the corrupt and privileged classes.  In the huge lobbies of the hotels, they finally found the doors to the casinos–and found them closed.

Rifle butts, clubs and lobby furniture pounded against the solid doors until the bars and locks gave way.  Inside they found roulette tables, dice tables and card tables, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gambling equipment in each casino.  There were fancy bars with every kind of liquor available.  On the floors were deep-pile carpets and overhead sparkled costly chandeliers.

With howls of revenge the mob set to work destroying the playthings of the rich.  The slot machines were overturned and bashed into twisted hulks of metal.  The roulette wheels and tables were broken into more parts than they had numbers.

The military and the police had wisely stayed in their barracks.  The officers knew that their men would encourage and perhaps join the mobs.  There was nothing and no one to prevent the crowds from taking the casinos apart from wall to wall.  They did.  Nothing was left usable or in one piece.

By the end of New Year's Day, there wasn't even a matched pair of dice left in the casinos of Havana.

Fidel Castro had always hated gambling.  He viewed it as a criminal waste of the nation's financial resources and, as during the heyday of Fulgencio Batista, as an invitation to governmental graft and corruption.

When Castro finally gained power in Cuba, he abolished gambling in his first batch of decrees.  Then he learned the facts of government life–it was a losing bet to attempt running the country without the gambling revenue.  Without the spinning wheel and the click of the bones, tourists would go elsewhere.

Thus, he legalized it again, just as the others before him had, but he added a new twist.  The gambling is run under strict supervision of the government, and Castro has promised that any official found dipping his hand into the till will be punished most severely.  None has been caught yet.

Two types of gambling predominated in the days before Castro.  Both held opportunities for graft.  There were the games of chances played in casinos, and the lottery run by the state.

The plush casinos and gambling houses in Cuba during the era of Batista were run by some of the Syndicate boys from the United States, the ones who had been smart or lucky enough to escape death as gangsters during the Capone years in Chicago.

The Syndicate boys were the only ones who knew enough to run the casinos at a profit.  They were the best in their business and were considered respectable businessmen in Havana.  Instead of using guns for protection, they paid government officials for the right to operate without trouble.  It cost fantastic sums to operate and pay the government officials and taxes and still come out with a profit, but the gangsters had spent a lifetime learning their trade and proved in Cuba that they had graduate with honors.

Top dog in the legitimate gambling racket in Cuba was
Meyer Lansky
, known in the United States as the man whom Senator Kefauver and committee had dubbed as one of the top ten racketeers in this country.  Lansky knew all the angles and he was very happy when Batista asked him to come out into the sunlight of respectability and set up the legalized gambling venture in Cuba.

Lansky brought to Cuba the cream of the gamblers from Las Vegas, Reno, and New York.  His right-hand man was his brother Jake, who was installed as floor manager in the Hotel Nacional's casino.  Then there was
Santo (Louis Santos) Trafficante from Florida, the Einstein of the numbers game.   Trafficante was given a full interest in the casino of the
Sans Souci Hotel, with other big slices of the gambling pies in the Comodoro and

Capri Hotels. Joseph (Joe Rivers) Silesi managed the business for Trafficante. 

Actor George Raft also bought a piece of the Capri.

There were others, too, floating around in the thick, rich gambling gravy of Cuba.  Fat the Butch from New York's Westchester County presided over the dice tables in the Capri.  Thomas Jefferson McGinty of Cleveland's underworld brought his special talents to the Nacional.

"Honesty is the best policy" was the slogan of these hoods in Cuba.  They had learned that more money is made faster when their enterprises had good public relations.  They donned conservative, made-to-order suits, white shirts and ties, and cleaned up their grammar.  With government charters, there was no need for gangland slayings a la Capone to bump off the opposition – because there was no opposition.

The tourists and well-heeled Cuban customers in the casinos had no need to worry about loaded dice, stacked decks or a fixed roulette wheel.  The theory of mathematical probability and the laws of chance assured the house of winning.

So the racketeers kept it the point of hustling out of their fancy dens any slick operators who wanted to fleece the customers with unchartered methods.  When word of this reached the United States via Madison Avenue, the gambling boom was on in Cuba.

When the American tourist reached Havana after a five-hour flight from New York, he had a choice of about five multi-million-dollar swank hotels.  There were also numerous nightclubs in Havana which had facilities for gambling.  All were million-dollar-plus establishment – Batista had changed the gambling laws in 1955 to allow gambling rooms in any club or hotel worth a million.  His government also helped finance the buildings and put up millions to help with construction.  Import duties were waived on materials for hotel construction and Cuban contractors with the right "in" made windfalls by importing much more than was needed and selling the surplus to others for hefty profits.

These schemes were what had aroused the wrath of Castro and the citizens of Cuba.   They saw their government giving money with little return expected; what should have been returned to the government coffers with interest went to line the pockets of corrupt officials.

The government was to get $25,000 for license plus twenty percent of the profits from each casino.  What Batista and the "in group" got has never been certified.  It was rumored that to get a license a fee for $250,000 and sometimes more was required under the table.  Periodic payoffs were requested and received by the corrupt politicians.

The slot machines in Cuba, even the ones which dispensed small prizes for children at country fairs, were the province of Roberto Fernandez y Miranda, Army general, government sports director and Batista's brother-in-law, Roberto, was also given the parking meters in Havana as a little something extra.  Parking meters didn't fare too well when the rebels first came to town.

Cubans had never been trained for gambling operations on such a large scale, so pit bosses, dealers and stickmen were brought from the United States as "technicians," and in that category were allowed to stay on two-years visas.  These men, veterans of the "working class" of illicit U.S. gambling, eventually turned into "teachers" for the Cubans.  Their teaching certificates are on record in police blotters, courts and prisons throughout this country.

Now that Castro allows only Cubans to act as croupiers, the Americans stand by and tell the "students" what to do.  Someday soon, Cuba will have its own sizable working class of gamblers.

The second major type of gambling in Cuba was the national lottery which had been started sometime in the dim past and reached its finest flower under Batista.  The drawings in the lottery had been only once a week, but under Batista they were increased to a daily institution.  Every night, all Cuba stopped activity at 9:30 to listen to the radio, which punctually listed the winning numbers.  Government printing offices were kept busy printing the tickets and astrologers and swamis flourished in picking lucky numbers for their superstitious clients.

Unofficial lotteries, called bolitas, were also encouraged by Batista.  These tickets carried the same numbers as the official ones and paid off on the officially drawn numbers.

The police forces in Cuba, with moral codes which would shock the most corrupt cop in the U.S., shook down the bolita operators for as much as they could get.  It increased their incomes tremendously, which created great loyalty to Batista.

On the margin of Cuban gambling activity were the bloody afternoon cockfights, the nightly

jai-alai contests, and the
horse-racing tracks.  The tracks allowed many more betting combinations than those in the United States, including a Cuban form of numbers betting, different daily doubles and parlays.  If this confused the tourist, he could always duck into the casinos at the tracks for more familiar types of betting.

This many-tentacled gambling octopus was what confronted Fidel Castro on his assumption of power.  His strict moral sense condemned it all and, true to his pledge, he abolished it with a proclamation.  Then his troubles began.

There in the heart of Havana, towering over the shores of the Caribbean, reflecting the sun and moonlight in the clear air, stood millions upon millions of dollars of brick and glass enclosing sumptuously decorated rooms and ball-rooms – all empty.  With no gambling there were no tourists.  The reports of the turmoil in Cuba had made many exchange their plane tickets for Puerto Rico
[La Concha Hotel - San Juan 1958]

Jamaica [Arawak Hotel in Jamaica 1959] and other nearby vacation areas.  Others went to Las Vegas where the wheels still turned and the dice rolled merrily.

So Fidel Castro made an about-face, issued another proclamation, and bingo, gambling came back to Cuba.  The little ball whirled around the roulette wheel again and the cards were reshuffled.  The government hired advertising agencies to tell the glad tidings in newspapers and magazines.  They issued pamphlets and brochures to be distributed to customers by travel agencies.  The tourists returned.

When they again walked into the casino they saw many new faces, many old ones.  The big-shot gangsters had been sent packing and agents of the government ran the show.  It wasn't as good a show as previously, but the tourist could still win a little and lose a lot.

As tourist activity stepped up, so did Castro's accusations against the United States.  Communism reared its red head.  Turmoil didn't abate.  Scare headlines topped the front pages of American newspapers.  Again, the flow of tourists dried to less than a trickle.  It is estimated now that tourists are down to ten percent of their former numbers.

What turn gambling will take in Cuba under Castro is unknown now.  Cubans have always distrusted a government connected with gambling.  They have seen dictators and revolutionary strongmen come and go, and when they have gone, the money has gone also.  Even the change of the lotteries into "investment plans," in which tickets are bonds payable in five years as well as on weekly winning numbers, with the money used to build roads and public housing, has not reassured Cuban observers.

If Castro continues legalized gambling, government corruption and the old-line criminals are expected by many to creep back in.

If Castro again abolishes gambling, the government investment of millions in hotels and nightclubs and casinos will be lost as will the tourists.

For Castro, it's a losing bet either way.

End of Page

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