Gangsterismo: The United States, Cuba, and the Mafia 1933 to 1966

By Willis, Benjamin | The International Journal of Cuban Studies, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Gangsterismo: The United States, Cuba, and the Mafia 1933 to 1966


Willis, Benjamin, The International Journal of Cuban Studies


Jack Colhoun, Gangsterismo: The United States, Cuba, and the Mafia 1933 to 1966 (new York: or books, 2013) pb 361pp. ISbn: 978-1935928898

Reviewed by Benjamin Willis

Jack Colhoun's Gangsterismo is the most complete chronicle of the role that organised crime played in Cuba's economy and politics over four decades. The island's political dynamics from the early 1930s up until the revolution in 1959 were inextricably linked to the myriad connections and commitments between major American Mafia bosses and their partners within Cuba's political elite. The 'mutually beneficial agreement' between legendary Mafia boss Meyer Lansky and Fulgencio Batista reached in 1933 ushered in decades of graft, pistolerismo, assassinations, trafficking, and impunity. After the Cuban revolution, the Mafia tried to regain its power by continuing to collaborate with the same corrupt politicians, army officers and policemen as they became members of the militant historic Cuban exile community.

The book details how Lansky sold his vision of making Cuba into an exotic gambling paradise where corrupt local politicians and businessmen could share the wealth with the 'Cosa Nostra'. Lansky pioneered and perfected the practice of 'skimming' off profits from the casinos and distributing it to allies and American Mafia families. He was also a key innovator in recognising that high-quality entertainment was an essential element to attract tourists and high rollers. The Tropicana show style and the appearance of major American musicians and performing artists are attributed to Lansky's sense of style.

Havana's proximity to the US also made it a natural port of entry for the burgeoning heroin trafficking market. In 1947, under the guise of attending a Frank Sinatra concert, the Mafia convened a special meeting to address several issues (one of which was the 'hit' put on Mafia kingpin Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel), including making Havana the hub of operations for heroin smuggling. In 1945, there were approximately 20,000 heroin addicts in the US, and by 1965, that had grown to 150,000. Cuba would be an excellent way station for narcotics as it was moved easily into the American market by clandestine shipments into Florida and other close destinations in the US. The protection offered by Cuban authorities allowed the traffickers to grow their business, and the casinos acted as a legitimate front to launder the drug money.

The scourge of violence and corruption that pervaded during this time was also monitored, instigated, and exacerbated by the real gangsters of the era - the US federal government and all of its branches of the security-military apparatus. The CIA, FBI, Bureau of Narcotics, and almost every branch of the Armed Forces were continually monitoring American interests and assets on the island. After the triumph of the revolution, these organisations were active in planning and executing covert and overt operations. …

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