Friday, February 27, 2009

Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Lost It to the Revolution

PHUTATORIUS
Assassins turn their guns on Albert Anastasio, the notorious capo of a national contract-murder syndicate, in his New York City barber shop. Mobbed-up casino owners arrange a sex party for then-Senator John F. Kennedy in Havana (and later kick themselves for failing to film it). A young Fidel Castro abandons ship nine miles off the Cuban coast to escape a rival with homicidal intentions. I gotta say, Havana Nocturne is a fun read.

T.J. English's plot is straightforward: he lays it all out in the book's subtitle. American gangsters see opportunity in Havana's licentious nightlife — gambling! glitz! girls! — Mob cultivates a partnership with ex-President Fulgencio Batista, Batista retakes power, and Havana really starts to hop. Batista has a strong hand politically but manages to overplay it. The revelry in Havana ends — poetically — in the wee hours of New Year's Day, 1959, as Castro's revolutionaries put Batista to flight and swarm over the city. A six-year party, followed by a fifty-year (and counting) hangover.

By now we're all familiar with the broad contours of this history, and English doesn't add much from a big-picture standpoint. There's no innovative historical argument here, no challenge to the conventional wisdom. It's the richness of detail that makes this book such a good read. It's the synthesis of sources, the cobbling together of a hundred gripping, tabloid-quality anecdotes of sleaze, corruption, excess, debauchery, murder, repression, insurgency, and riot. Oh — and Sinatra, too. How could anyone not want to read this book?
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Two dynamic personalities drive the narrative here, and neither of them is Batista. The first is Meyer Lansky. Lansky, an unheralded Mob organizer and financier — and onetime protegĂ© of Arnold Rothstein, scourge of baseball fans the world over — was the visionary who, along with Lucky Luciano, founded "the Commission," a sort of national governing board for the Mafia and later led the Commission's bid to colonize Havana's tourism and entertainment industry. Hyman Roth's character in The Godfather, Part II is modeled after Lansky. The other mover and shaker is Fidel Castro, and of course we know all about him.

It should not be surprising that Lansky and Castro's stars were in opposition. As English tells it, these two were polar opposites in every way — they were matter and anti-matter (you can decide which was which). Castro, the son of a prosperous landowner family, grew up in the country; Lansky was raised in poverty on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Lansky was disciplined, deliberate, and pragmatic, as much of a "peacemaker" as any gangster can be (the Anastasio hit notwithstanding); Castro is aggressive and confrontational, the consummate risk-taker. Lansky survived and thrived by flying under the radar — of law enforcement, of his Mob colleagues, of American journalists obsessed with the Mafia. Castro promoted a cult of personality that put himself forward as the very embodiment of the People's Revolution.

English works hard to place Lansky's Havana Mob and Castro's 26th of July movement in tension, but the truth is that his book tells two parallel narratives. The only point of connection between Lansky and Castro is Batista's regime, the fixed point around which these two characters pivot. Lansky's Havana "scene" parties on, at first blissfully, then willfully ignorant of the threat posed by Castro; meanwhile, Castro soldiers on in the mountains, plotting his revolution. He is aware of the influence of American gangsters in Cuba, but his obsession is with Batista — always Batista. If anything, it is surprising that these two elements could coexist in Cuba for as long as they did. It's clear that this island wasn't big enough for the both of them, and one man's ascendance necessarily excluded the other. For all that, though, Lansky and Castro's respective crews never came into active conflict, English's book is a bit anticlimactic as a result, and you can almost feel the author chafing at that fact.

If English advances a thesis at all, it is a subconscious one. He doesn't argue the point, but you can't help but get the feeling that this ending was foreordained. Lansky's plans could never have worked, in the long term. The active ingredient in the Mob's Cuba formula was a government partner that would sell the country's guts and soul to foreign investors for a cut of the take. Without Batista — and exactly Batista — Lansky and his partners in the Syndicate would never have gained their foothold in Havana. And yet Batista's was exactly the sort of regime that can never sustain itself. In retrospect, it's hard to see the Mob's Havana holiday as anything but a time-limited proposition. What was not predictable, necessarily, is that Fidel would not allow the Mob to co-opt him into its Cuba project. Turns out you can refuse an offer from the Mafia. This might explain why, after managing somehow to survive that first refusal, Castro is still around.


UPDATE: For all you doubters about the long-term prospects of This Thing of Ours, it's worth pausing to consider Lansky and Luciano's fruitful partnership — proof positive that a Jew and an Italian can work together and succeed in this world. FO is the Internet's "Commission," and don't you forget it.