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Letztes Update: 24. Mai 2021

Where the Havana Mafia has left its mark

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Foto von Meyer Lansky, dem Top-Mafiosi von Havanna
Meyer Lansky, the top mafioso in Havana

As you probably know, the Mafia chose Cuba to do business undisturbed – it is close to the US, but far enough to escape the long arm of the FBI. Cuban President Batista became the ideal partner for the Mafia: gambling, prostitution, drugs, money laundering, everything was possible in this Caribbean paradise, which Batista controlled with a hard hand and numerous political murders.

The paying customers came in large numbers, mostly from the densely populated east coast of the USA. The business with the pleasure-seeking US tourists was controlled by the Italian Mafia and the Kosher Nostra around Meyer Lansky, a group of Jewish mafiosi. The latter, Meyer Lansky, was the key person of the Mafia in Cuba: he was the only one who was allowed to negotiate directly with General Batista.

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The Mafia Hotels in Cuba

Now the casinos have been closed for a long time, but what remains are the mafia hotels. Most of them had one, the Hotel Deauville even had 2 casinos. There are still other interesting details on the traces of the mafia in Cuba!

1. Hotel Nacional – The Mafia hotel where Frank Sinatra performed at the Mafia Congress

Let us start our tour at the most famous hotel in Cuba, the Hotel Nacional, which was opened in 1930. From its terrace, you can directly overlook the colorful hustle and bustle on the Malecón. You can also go to the small museum of the hotel, which is located in the left-wing of the hotel. On the walls, you find pictures of all the famous people who have stayed at the Hotel Nacional, the “who is who” of the last decades: Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Errol Flynn, Roman Polansky, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, Francis Ford Coppola, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Juri Gagarin, and many others. Here, you can also find a section dedicated to the leading mafia figures of the time:

Foto aus dem Hotel-Nacional-Museum mit Meyer Lansky in der Mitte
Mafiosi photos in the museum of the Hotel Nacional

They all went to the Nacional, especially to the big mafia conference on December 22, 1946, where they met in Cuba. Here they were far from the influence of the FBI to put the postwar fate of the mafia in order. The official occasion was a concert by Frank Sinatra, who had long been associated with the Mafia. At the conference, it was decided who should have which areas of influence and multiple death sentences were issued.

Meyer Lansky had long wanted to establish a casino in the Nacional with a wing for luxury suites, where residents would have direct access to the casino. Eventually, Batista finally allowed him his wish. This was against the declared will of some American ex-pats like Ernest Hemingway. Finally, in 1955, the Wilbur Clark Casino opened with a big show whose star was Eartha Kitt.

2. Meyer Lansky’s Hotel Riviera, the one with the coffin shaped pool

Foto vom Hotel Rivera, Meyer Lanskys Hotel
Hotel Riviera, Photo: Leandro Neumann

Inspired by the Riviera Casino in Las Vegas, the Riviera is the first Meyer Lansky hotel in Cuba. The name indicates that the Mafia wanted to expand the Malecón as a Cuban Riviera. For that the Malecón was extended to the Hotel Riviera and beyond.

The hotel was raised in only 6 months by Igor Boris Polevitzky, one of the representatives of Miami Modern Architecture. 8 million dollars were financed directly or indirectly by the Mafia, 6 million came as loans from the Cuban state. In the style of Miami Modern Architecture, modern houses were built since the mid-1930s, especially in Miami (clearly!), their specialty was that they were adapted to the tropical conditions.

The hotel was opened in 1957 with a big show, whose main act was Ginger Rogers. At its opening, the Riviera had the biggest Casino outside the USA – just one year later the Havana Hilton took that title. Meyer Lansky’s motivation to build in Havana and not in Las Vegas was that he wanted to stay out of reach of the US authorities.

The most interesting detail that points to the mafia in the Riviera is probably the coffin-shaped pool. It’s not apparent from ground level, but it is clearly visible from the air or from the 21st floor:

Foto des sargförmigen Pools, persönlicher Spaß von Meyer Lansky
The coffin-shaped pool of the Havana Riviera, 1973. Photo by “Bin im Garten”. The shape is clearly visible from above.

Meyer Lansky’s dream of becoming the king of Cuba’s casinos came to an end with the revolution. It was in his hotel, the Riviera, that Fidel Castro held the press conference in which he reported on the success of the revolution.

3. Al Capone: Hotel Sevilla

The extension tower of the Hotel Sevilla 1931

The oldest hotel in our series of Mafia locations was built in 1908 and extended in 1924. Here, a number of the Mafiosi we know – Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano and Co – came and went. The ambiance and Moorish-Andalusian design were known to attract many Mafiosi.

Probably the most important thing for the Sevilla is that the former generation of Mafiosi came here, namely Al Capone. He would usually rent the whole sixth floor in order not to be disturbed. For Al Capone and his generation, Cuba was the place to go to organize rum smuggling to the USA during the Prohibition period.

On the way to the next hotel, we walk on the Paseo del Prado, Havanas central boulevard. Meyer Lansky hid for some time at his girlfriend Carmen’s place, Paseo del Prado 252, while Albert Anastasia paid a visit to Cuba to increase his share of the illegal revenues. This, however, did not end well for Albert Anastasia, as he was killed while shaving in New York. Meyer Lansky could never be proven guilty of that.

4. Drugs and porn: Hotel Deauville

Santo Trafficante in the Sans Soussi, 1955

A short walk from the Hotel Sevilla leads us to the Hotel Deauville. Built in 1958, it is located right at the Malecón and is visible from afar with its more than a dozen storeys. The old splendor has long disappeared, but it still can give us a good idea of the design that prevailed in 1958. It was the headquarters of Santo Trafficante Jr., whose specialties were drugs and porn movies. Deauville had not one, but two casinos. One of them no longer exists, the other one has been transformed into a cheap buffet restaurant that serves as a disco at night.

Hotel Deauville, Malecón View

5. The Montmartre Night Club

The interior of Club Montmartre

The first exception in our list of hotels is the Montmartre nightclub, which was the most luxurious nightclub in America at the time – owned by the Mafia, of course. It was mentioned in the same breath as the Tropicana. The building has burned down in the meantime, here you can see on Google Maps what is left of it, a clearing with some trees:

Google Maps

The Montmatre was the only indoor nightclub and also very conveniently located, right in Vedado. It took a 20-minute drive to get to the Tropicana. At least $4.50 had to be consumed at the tables, and there was no minimum purchase at the two bars (1956).

6. The presidential palace

The presidential palace ca. 1930

Now we walk down to Prado again to our second exception from our list of hotels, the presidential palace, now the Museum of the Revolution. For what would the Mafia have been without the help of President Batista, who held his protective hand over the Mafiosis – and got his share of the revenues. Depending on estimates, 10 to 30 percent of the gambling winnings ended up in his pockets; of course there are no exact records 😉

7. JFK at the Hotel Comodoro

The Hotel Comodoro, a bit rundown.

Now we move a little bit away from the center of Havana, towards Miramar, the villas area. And there we follow the traces of JFK, because Kennedy was also in Cuba – of course before he became president and was responsible for the Bay of Pigs invasion. In 1957 he was a guest of Mafia boss Santo Trafficante Jr. at the Hotel Comodoro in Miramar, in the so-called blackmail suite. The special thing about this suite was that there was a spy mirror through which blackmail videos were shot. Santo Trafficante didn’t have a camera at JFK’s stay, and it is said that he was still extremely annoyed about it later, because JFK had an orgy in the suite, at least that much has been handed down.

8. The Hilton Havana: Attempted Assassination of Fidel

Not a mafia hotel – although of course also planned with a casino – the Habana Libre is where the latest act of mafia history in Cuba took place. For it was there that the most promising attempt on Fidel Castro’s life is said to have taken place, reported Cuban intelligence chief Fabian Escalante. Fidel regularly drank a chocolate milkshake there and a poison pill was to be put into the drink, orchestrated by the Mafia and the CIA. Only the pill froze in the kitchen freezer and broke when tried to remove – so Fidel Castro once again escaped an assassination attempt.

Meyer Lansky and the Kosher Nostra

Meyer Lansky, the godfather of Cuba

The Mafia in Cuba was not Italian, at least not only, but it was led by Meyer Lansky and the “Kosher Nostra,” a Jewish offshoot of the Mafia.

And Meyer Lansky had it in him, he dominated Cuba at a time when gambling, prostitution and drug trafficking flourished there. In addition to his tough measures – he did not shy away from murder, it also helped that he was a smart businessman. For example, he took action against fraud in gambling, seeing that fraud would not only ruin the reputation. But honest gambling is extremely lucrative – the bank always wins anyway! So it was quite enough to control the bank, you didn’t need to cheat at all.

Hence the Hotel Riviera! If it is enough to control the bank, then all you really need is a casino that you run yourself.

That legal gambling was of course not the only source of income for the Mafia and Meyer Lanskys can then be seen again at the coffin-shaped pool… (see above)

Meyer Lansky’s memory

Meyer Lansky was never convicted. Besides his ability to hide his assets well, he had an incredible memory. So there were no written records of any mafia deals he made. He kept all the details in his head – therefore, the FBI could never prove anything about him.

Escape from Cuba

Meyer Lansky believed until shortly after the revolution that he would persuade Fidel Castro and the revolutionaries to allow gambling to continue – after all, it was mainly the purses of the Americans and not the Cubans that were at stake. In addition, the revolutionaries had been given a lot of money and their revolution was co-financed with it! You may also know this from other mafia contexts, e.g. in the USA: both sides, Democrats and Republicans, are equally supported, so that the mafia always wins, whoever makes the race.

But the revolutionaries did not get involved with Meyer Lansky, so he secretly left Cuba for the USA a few days after the revolution. There he lived – officially – in modest conditions until the end of his life.

Three things on the side

List of casino

While researching mafia locations in Cuba, I also came across a list of casinos in Havana – all closed, of course. If you click on the names of the casinos, you will see the chips that were spent there:

List of casinos in Havana

And here you can find some more pictures of Havana’s casinos:

Pinterest

La Casa de Al

La Casa de Al with suitable car in front

In Varadero there is a paladar with the beautiful name of La Casa de Al. Although Al Capone’s Varadero organization has also shipped rum to the USA, he has never been to the Casa named after him.

Games tip for New Year’s Eve: Mafia de Cuba

Nice game presentation. Photos: BOARDSKINSKIRSKY

If you spend New Year’s Eve with many friends, I recommend “Mafia de Cuba” by Lui-Même. A nice party game for 6 – 12 players. It is Mafia themed and can be played with a Havana in the corner of your mouth because the game material fits perfectly into our theme. You can find a detailed review at Boardgame Geek.

Conclusion of my Mafia tour

Havana was the mafia city of Cuba and you can still find some traces there. So if you are ever in Havana: look around a bit and imagine how it was back then. The cars still fit, so close your eyes a bit and stroll through the streets 😉

And for those of you who are now even more interested in the Mafia in Cuba, I recommend the book “The Mafia in Havana: A Caribbean Mob Story” by Enrique Cerules, who is probably the top Mafia expert in Cuba. The book is available in Spanish and English.

Have a nice time in Cuba
Dietmar

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