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SIN - With a Rhumba Beat
Prostitution, Politics, Casinos Cuba 1950

[REFERENCE:  STAG, Vol. 1 No. 5, Nov. 1950 pp22-23, 58]


PHOTO [caption]  Symbolic of the frivolous debauchery that runs rampant in Cuba, the famous dancing nymphs cavort with abandon before the town's biggest gambling house.]
[NOTE:  Another view of fountain]

By: Robert Fortune

Page 22
Cubans, in expansive moods, like to call their capital city "the Paris of the Western Hemisphere."  If Paris means broad boulevards, classic architecture and elegant living, their boast runs a little thin.

But if Paris stands for a city where the barriers are down, where anything goes in plain and fancy sinning, Havana wins hands down in this half of the world.

Havana is a town where panders join the tourist guides to greet you at the airport.  Where they keep cocaine handy in the Frigidaire for over-the-counter sales.  Where embarrassed office-holders sometimes ride out a political storm in the haven of a bordello.

It's a town which boasts the only female gambling boss in the world, a town where the overlord of the narcotics trade has a private line into the highest office in the land.

Gambling theoretically is proscribed in most of Havana.  Yet, if you sit long enough in the plush gaming rooms of Montmartre and Tropicana, you will meet practically every important public servant in Cuba.  And on a humbler level Cuban mothers tend to gaze anxiously at offspring who have passed their seventh birthdays without yet risking a peso in the illegal numbers game.

Stern laws forbid the operation of houses of prostitution.  Havana, however, is full of them.  One enterprising Spanish madam developed the lushest bordello in town on the policy of offering the facilities of the house gratis to deserving government officials.

In short, the law books would seem to tag Havana as a "closed town."  The fact is that anyone can run the gamut, from "French movies" to girlie shows to reefer parties, in this Caribbean playground.

Cynical Cubans declare that the sugar trade keeps them alive but the tourist dollar makes life worth living.  Havana is indeed geared to the tourist trade as are few other capital cities in the world.  It's a huckstering holiday town with one main pitch: Come on, you thousands of Americans, throw off your inhibitions and play in an old Spanish city which never heard of the bourgeois squeamishness of American play lands!  There's something for every taste and every pocketbook!

If you brush past the airport and dockside pimps on entering the picturesque old city, you merely dodge the first sinful invitation of the community.  Desk clerks in a good half of the town's hostelries are likely to ask if you would like to meet a young lady tonight.  Or would tomorrow be soon enough?

If you tour the night-life circuit, you mingle with the upper crust of the Cuban underworld.  Lounging at bars are slick-haired Cuban gentlemen ready to give an American secretary one of those weekends.  You can catch every version of the bump-and-roll routine that humankind has devised, ground out against a background of frenetic Cuban rhythms.

PHOTO [caption]  But, to most tourists, Havana is the home of the "hot" rhumba.  In almost every cellar dive, there is a native dance team that will perform authentic, lewd routines, such as "shoeing the mare," shown above.

[NOTE: See this dance team in another photo from a 1947 Life magazine article -- {PHOTO .. In Las Fritas Nightclub, dancers Clara and Alberto Render [dance the] traditional Cuban folk dance called "Shoeing The Mare".}  Pictures are often archived and used for multiple purposes with different captions added]

In the Kursaal, where brilliant multi-colored walls seem to throb with the beat of the maracas, a dance team does the rhumba the way its creators made it – an African mating dance.  If you take a table alone, you are swarmed under by elaborately sexy women before you can order a drink.  If your wife or girl is along, the Cuban B-girls move in anyway.

PHOTO [caption]  Romance is always for sale in Havana's thousand cafes.  B-girls operate with no fear of police.
PHOTO [caption]  In addition to the B-girls, any number of shady ladies are no more than a telephone away.
PHOTO [caption]  Cuba has a new switch on the old penny arcade: "peep shows" that plainly peddle pornography.

Havana's peddlers of passion work indoors and out.  Headquarters for a venerable group of pimps and hucksters is the broad, tree-lined Prado – main street of old Havana.

A sly, grinning old Negro, lounging on the northeast corner of Parque Central, has repeated the same question perhaps a million times in the last 20 years: "You want to see some feelthy pictures?

Under a favorite tree or posted near one of the Prado's many sidewalk cafes are peddlers of "French movies" (usually featuring parts of sexual athletes), lottery and numbers vendors and floating agents for the nearby Colon red-light district.

"Big-breasted mulatto girls stroll endlessly and aimlessly down the Prado, occasionally pausing to suck a paper cone of tinted ice-shavings -- the poor man's ice cream in Cuba.

Wandering off the Prado into Barrio Colon, you couldn't be blamed for doing a fast double-take.  You've stumbled into what looks like a reincarnation of Reno's late, lamented Bull-Pen.  Along Trocadero, Animas and Virtudes Streets–so narrow the battered old buildings seem to touch overhead–chattering, cajoling women lean out the lower windows 24 hours a day.  (There's irony in the street names: Virtudes pays tribute to Virtue and Animas commemorates the suffering souls in Purgatory).

Plucking at your clothes, the women bluntly advertise their wares.  Their English is rudimentary but specific.  "One dollar!  Only dollar!  Emerges loud and understandable from the welter of Spanish jabbering.

Barrio Colon is the rendez-vous of Havana's less well-heeled pleasure-seekers.  Yet only two twisting blocks away stands Casa Marina, one of the most luxurious and notorious houses of ill-fame in the Western Hemisphere.

Page 23

Only in a vice-ridden metropolis like Havana, Cuba,
could a two-bit politician "on the lam" ride out the
ruckus in the back room of a high-class bordello.

Dona Marina came from Spain many years ago avid for a New World fortune.  Starting off modestly, she quickly taught herself whom to know and respect in the Cuban capital.  She learned how to make friends.  Her resources, for instance, are always at the disposal of politicos with visiting firemen to entertain.  Her ample purse opens freely for an influential friend in need.

Such diplomacy has built for her a palatial establishment in the tradition of the old French "maison de joie."  She cultivates a cosmopolitan atmosphere providing French, Chinese and American girls as well as native lasses.   The Americans, she explains, are always popular with Cuban customers.

Plush draperies and period furniture adorn her parlors.  Refreshments are served to visitors by white-coated servants who graciously decline tips or payment. Marina's crowning service is rarely offered in Cuba or anywhere.  Two trained nurses stand by from dawn to dawn in a spotlessly-clean "clinic" so guard the health of customer and employee alike.

Despite Marina's stubborn loyalty to the old city, fun-loving citizens of Havana are moving en masse to newer sections of the burgeoning city and bringing their pleasure houses with them.  On the outskirts of town near San Lazaro stand the neat white-stucco houses of Cuba's new capital of sin – Barrio de la Victoria.  (Everybody wins there!)

The district is not large by Cuban standards–a rectangle six blocks wide and eight long almost solidly filled with bordellos and houses of assignation.

Many are casitas de Layuno, named for the enterprising Spanish restaurateur who developed a new twist on the ancient trade.  "Housekeepers" stand ready at any hour to rent a well-equipped room to couples.  Usual fee is one dollar per hour or five dollars for the night.  Free-lancing prostitutes often have working arrangements with proprietors of these "little houses."  They are, of course, available to anyone in need of a discreet rendez-vous.

It was in one of the handsomer houses in Barrio de la Victoria that a prominent Cuban politician sought hospitality not long ago.  A crusading candidate for municipal office had raised embarrassing questions about the disposal of public funds.  The government machine, run by President Prio Socarras, considered it the better part of valor to "lose" the offending gentleman during the heat of the campaign.

Rumors flitted around town that the politico had taken it on the lam to the States.  Another inside story suggested he had been liquidated.  (Political murder is old stuff in Cuba).

Actually, the nervous politician had ducked into the safest and most comfortable haven he knew – the number one chamber in his favorite bordello.  The owner-madam received him warmly, declining payment for food, shelter or  entertainment.  She gambled that her act of charity would pay off handsomely when the electoral storm blew over.  And, of course, it did.

Though vice in Cuba walks hand in hand with politics, the Caribbean republic has little trouble with such gangs and syndicates as curse Chicago, Miami and other big American cities.  Havana's rackets are keyed to the Latins' individualistic temperament.  There is no lord of Cuban underworld, no Al Capone or Dutch Schultz, and there probably never will be.

An attempt to create a super-syndicate of crime was smashed with amazing vigor three years ago by the usually easy-going Cuban government.

Indalecio Pertierra, one of a family with large interests in Havana gaming and night clubs, moved to organize the rackets.  As efficiency expert, he chose the best man he could find – Charles "Lucky" Luciano.  The one-time vice lord of New York had just been sprung out of a New York Penitentiary and deported to his native Italy.

Luciano jumped at the chance for a piece of the $50,000,000 left in Cuba every year by fun-seeking Americans.  He quietly rushed to Havana.  But just two weeks after President Prio heard Luciano was in town, the erstwhile white-slaver was riding a fast boat back to Rome.  His host, Pertierra, was already mulling over a stern lecture on how "sportsmen" conduct themselves in Cuba.

A government spokesman thundered that no racketeers were welcome (Continued on page 58)

Page 58
in Cuba..  Nobody believed him.  A local columnist remarked that Luciano's only sin was his well-known weakness for running the whole show.  Everybody believed that.

A contributing factor to Luciano's unceremonious retreat from Cuba perhaps lay in his long-standing interest in the narcotics trade.  The dope traffic is the one closed corporation in the Havana underworld.  Marijuana fields in the interior of the island supplement the domestic supply with cocaine from Peru and marijuana from Mexico.  Narcotics are hardly more difficult to obtain in Cuba than a shot of rum.  And only slightly more expensive.

Dozens of cafes sell drugs across the counter on a cash-and-carry basis.  In some bars steady customers can run up a tab.  Prices are startlingly low – five grams for a dollar.

The monopoly set-up in the dope trade is the exception in Havana.  The world of vice in general is open to all comers, any time, anywhere.  Anyone with a little capital and a solicitous eye for the needs of underpaid law enforcement officers can launch a house of prostitution.  He need not bother about "protection," split-ups or accidental drownings in Havana Bay.

Gambling follows the same pattern of organization – or disorganization.  There are a few big names in the field, but they merely run the handsomest pleasure domes.  Montmartre, Tropicana and the dream-like outdoor casino Sans Souci are all separately-owned and cheerfully compete among themselves and with a dozen other rivals.

Most spectacular among the gambling world's collection of adventurers, businessmen and multi-lingual croupiers is a lissome, silver blonde woman lately removed from the wide open spaces of our West.  Part owner and chief of the gambling rooms at two of Havana's smartest clubs, she claims to be the only woman gambling impresario in the world.

This demure beauty, who boasts a university degree, slipped mysteriously into Havana three years ago.   Before long she was handling the dice and chemin de fer concessions at a now-defunct government casino.

Happily, she sold out her interest just a few days before the casino went broke, then bobbed up a few days later as partner of Efren J. Pertierra of the family which describes itself collectively as "wealthy sportsmen."  The team rapidly moved on to richer territory.  They purchased and remodeled two swank (Concluded on page 60)

Page 60
nightclub-gambling hells and made them the gathering places of Cuba's sugar barons and social elite.

Together the clubs make up Cuba's biggest gambling unit, handling twice the business of the nearest rival.  They have earned the 31-year-old American woman a fortune to match her million-dollar figure.

Seven nights a week the tall, perfectly-gowned gambling queens strolls languidly among her baccarat, dice and roulette tables.  Her hallmark is a long, ivory cigarette holder and an icy politeness that befits a veteran gambler.

"I never gamble,"   murmurs her deceptively gentle voice.  She waves her cigarette expressively.  "I only invest in a sure thing."

Cuba still rides the wartime boom that tripled the price of sugar and pours into the pockets of four million Cubans nearly a half-billion dollars every year.  Prosperous Habaneros whirl through their cluttered streets in shiny Cadillacs.  Every street vendor nurses his dreams of a quick million.  The vice lords never had it so good.

But tiny clouds perch on the horizon where sky and blue Caribbean meet almost imperceptibly.  An American depression would collapse Cuban prosperity overnight, turning back the clock to the grim days of 1942 when the city lay almost paralyzed.  The Axis submarine blockade almost isolated Havana from the world then.  Thousands of streetwalkers, gamblers and cocaine hawkers bitterly turned to honest labor to keep alive.

There are signs, too, that America's 1950 -- model racketeers – with their bookkeepers' minds and triggerman's ruthlessness – are moving across the strait from Florida.

Cubans – including prostitutes, pimps and faro dealers – like to enjoy their sinning.  Money is the object, of course, but not the only object.  The particular nature of debauchery in Havana – where everything seems a lot more innocent than it is – could hardly survive under the businesslike tyranny of Chicago mobsters.

If the world of vice in Havana strolls along at a relaxed pace, this shoddy charm makes it no more palatable to the righteous churchgoer, of which Cuba has its share too.  Reformers occasionally raise a feeble outcry.  They accurately call it Cuba's shame that a 20-minute taxi ride from the white-domed Capitol will bring you face to face with every kind of physical, sexual or gaming experience that the unregenerate human race has devised.  So far, the viewers-with-alarm have earned themselves a few headlines, a few pious phrases tossed from the political forums – and indifferent shrugs from their fellow citizens.

Habaneros may have to face an accounting for their indifferent some day, in this world or the next.  If so, the lady of the evening, the man in the street and the President of the Republic will worry – but not until tomorrow.

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