Saturday, June 8, 2024



Continuing a look at the events and people in Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.

Each two lines represent a year.

Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Kerouac
Sputnik, Chou En-Lai, "Bridge on the River Kwai"
Lebanon, Charles de Gaulle, California baseball
Starkweather homicide, children of thalidomide
Buddy Holly, "Ben Hur", space monkey, Mafia
Hula hoops, Castro, Edsel is a no-go
U-2, Syngman Rhee, payola and Kennedy
Chubby Checker, "Psycho", Belgians in the Congo


What is it?

A secretive and organised criminal network that operates primarily through illegal activities such as extortion, drug trafficking, money laundering, and organized violence. The term "mafia" was originally applied to the Sicilian Mafia. The term has since expanded to encompass other organizations of similar methods and purpose, e.g., "the Russian Mafia" or "the Japanese Mafia".

Background and history:

Cuba’s reputation as an exotic and permissive playground came to light in the 1920s, when the country became a favourite destination for robber barons and bohemians. Hotels, restaurants, night clubs, golf clubs and casinos sprung up in Havana catering to the rich jet-setters seeking luxury. Socialites, debutantes, celebrities like Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, and American mobsters came to play in the Cuban paradise.

“Havana was then what Las Vegas has become,” says Louis Perez, a Cuba historian. It attracted some of the same mafia kingpins, too, such as Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante, who were evading a national investigation into organised crime. In Cuba, they continued their trade of gambling, drugs and prostitution, paying off government officials.

Tourists didn’t see the underclass, people of poverty like the macheteros — sugarcane cutters — who worked only during the four month season, and the rest of the year were unemployed and angry. The sugar boom that had fuelled much of Cuba’s economic life, however, was waning By the mid 1950s Cubans began to feel the squeeze. Poverty, particularly in the provinces, increased.

By the late 1950s, U.S. financial interests included 90 percent of Cuban mines, 80 percent of its public utilities, 50 percent of its railways, 40 percent of its sugar production, and 25 percent of its bank deposits—some $1 billion in total. American influence extended into the cultural realm, as well. Cubans grew accustomed to the luxuries of American life.

They drove American cars, owned TVs, watched Hollywood movies, and shopped at Woolworth’s department store. The youth listened to rock and roll, learned English in school, adopted American baseball, and sported American fashions.

Casino players, Havana, 1958

Havana casino, 1958

In return, Cuba got hedonistic tourists, organised crime, and General Fulgencio Batista. In military power since the early 1930s, Batista appointed himself president by way of a military coup in 1952, dashing Cubans’ long-held hope for democracy.

Not only was the economy weakening as a result of U.S. influence, but Cubans were also offended by what their country was becoming: a haven for prostitution, brothels and gambling.

Slum (bohio) dwellings in Havana, Cuba in 1954, just outside Havana baseball stadium. In the background is advertising for a nearby casino.

All classes of Cubans, including the very rich, looked to the young and charismatic Fidel Castro as their hope for democracy and change. Castro, a young lawyer trained at the University of Havana, belonged to a wealthy landowning family, but espoused a deep nationalism and railed against corruption and gambling.

After participating in rebellions against right-wing governments in the Dominican Republic and Colombia, Castro planned the overthrow of Cuban president Fulgencio Batista, launching a failed attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953. After a year's imprisonment, Castro travelled to Mexico where he formed a revolutionary group, the 26th of July Movement, with his brother Raúl Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Returning to Cuba, Castro took a key role in the Cuban Revolution by leading the Movement in a guerrilla war against Batista's forces from the Sierra Maestra. After Batista's overthrow in 1959, Castro assumed military and political power as Cuba's prime minister.

On 1 January 1959 Castro entered Havana, Batista had already fled in the middle of the night, taking more than $40 million of government funds.

Batista in March 1957, standing next to a map of the Sierra Maestra mountains where Fidel Castro's rebels were based

Fidel Castro, 1959

In protest of the government's corruption, Cubans immediately ransacked the casinos and destroyed the parking meters that Batista had installed. Castro also eliminated gambling and prostitution, a healthy move for the national identity, but not so much for the tourism industry.

Castro declared himself the Prime Minister of Cuba and began implementing a series of radical reforms, including the nationalisation of industries and the redistribution of land. These policies were met with both praise and criticism.

One of the most significant impacts of the Cuban Revolution was the establishment of a socialist government in Cuba. Under Castro's leadership, Cuba became a communist state, aligning itself with the Soviet Union and adopting socialist policies.

While Castro’s policies were intended to benefit the Cuban people, they also had unintended consequences. The nationalisation of industries and the collectivization of agriculture led to a decline in productivity and efficiency. The Cuban economy became heavily dependent on Soviet aid, and the country struggled to meet its own food and basic needs.

The United States, fearing the spread of communism in its backyard, imposed a trade embargo on Cuba and attempted to isolate the country diplomatically. This embargo, which remains in place to this day, has had a profound impact on the Cuban economy and the Cuban people.

Relevance to the Mafia and 1959:

One of the largest Mafia gatherings took place in Cuba in 1946. 

This the conference depicted in The Godfather, although set later in the movie.

The Havana Conference was organised by Charles “Lucky” Luciano, and brought together more than twenty mobsters representing crime families from New York to New Orleans and from Buffalo to Tampa.

Lucky Luciano

Expansion of Mob operations in Cuba was front and centre. There was also discussion of the Mob’s heroin and cocaine trade. Contrary to popular perception, the Mob was heavily involved in the narcotics trade, especially in the early to middle part of the 20th century. Cuba was one of the main transfer points to various U.S. port cities controlled by the Mob.

After the 1946 Conference, the Mob’s role in Cuba exploded. Gangsters from all over the country descended on the tiny island to run casinos and nightclubs, and expand their criminal empires. Luciano was deported from Cuba in 1947 after pressure from the U.S. government but mob boss Meyer Lansky remained a force, as did Tampa boss Santo Trafficante Jr.

Meyer Lansky, 1958

Meyer Lansky

Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante Jr. were hit the hardest, as they had made the largest investments in Cuba. Lansky actually was on Batista’s payroll as the dictator’s casino gambling adviser. Lansky also had just spent millions of dollars on his masterpiece gambling resort – the Hotel Riviera.

The Mafia’s role in Cuba ended on January 1, 1959, with the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista and the rise of Fidel Castro.

Thereafter Mafia leader Meyer Lansky set his sights on the Bahamas and trans-Atlantic gambling possibilities.

By the way:

The word mafia originated in Sicily. The Sicilian noun mafiusu (in Italian: mafioso) roughly translates to mean "swagger", but can also be translated as "boldness, bravado".

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.