Negotiating Paradise: U.S. Tourism and Empire in Twentieth-Century Latin America

By Dennis Merrill | Go to book overview

THREE
The Safe Bet:
Batista’s Cuba

The crowded casino of the stately Hotel Nacional reeked of smoke, liquor, and perfume. The fashionably dressed clientele excitedly watched the repetitious toss of the dice. It was January, the height of the 1958 winter season. Nearly six years after coming to power through a military coup, Cuba’s dictator, Fulgencio Batista, felt reasonably secure. Constitutional rights had been suspended, the press censored, and the official story ran that a rural insurrection led by a pesky, twenty-eight-year-old rebel, Fidel Castro, represented little more than a nuisance. Jake Lansky, brother of celebrity gangster Meyer Lansky, worked as the casino’s pitman, a ‘‘technician’’ who ruled over games of chance at the craps table, surrounded by the deep carpeting of the Nacional’s game room. ‘‘We are getting bigger bets than Las Vegas,’’ a dice man bragged to a Time magazine correspondent. ‘‘All the real big Eastern crapshooters are coming down here to take a crack at us.’’1

The outlook had not always been rosy. Five years earlier, Havana’s casinos had been castigated in the press for fast dealing and fixed games, largely a consequence of an eight-die game called razzle-dazzle, so complex that most players never learned the rules before being fleeced. The swindling of Dana C. Smith, an influential Republican contributor to California senator Richard M. Nixon’s campaigns, prompted letters from Nixon to the U.S. State Department and the Cuban government in Havana. In March 1953, the Saturday Evening Post ran a widely noticed article, ‘‘Suckers in Paradise,’’ that exposed Cuba’s crooked casinos.2

A month after the article appeared, Batista’s military intelligence forces, the Servicio de Inteligencia Militar, arrested and deported a dozen North Americans, mostly lower-level mobsters, for running fixed games at some of Havana’s leading establishments: the Tropicana, the Sans Souci, and the Jockey Club.3 Facing a downturn in both gambling and tourism, the second-

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