PLEASURE ISLAND: Tourism and Temptation in Cuba
by Rosalie Schwartz
University of Nebraska Press 1997
No Peace, No Pleasure, No Tourists
Tourism did not unseat Batista but rather acted as a catalyst in the political conflict, an accelerant to the action. Tourist industry requirements—positive image, favorable publicity, and personal safety—afforded anti-Batista elements opportunities to embarrass and discredit the regime. Media exposure increased the government's vulnerability, and the insurrectionists used high-visibility tourist events as opportunities to inflict economic and political wounds. Moreover, they used Batista's involvement with organized crime figures as evidence of government corruption. Once victorious, however, the new leadership found tourism a capricious benefactor. First of all, its complex underlying financial structure and job production compelled the rebels to reconsider their condemnations. Then, just when they decided to embrace the industry for its economic value, it slipped away.
A GIFT FROM THE MAFIA
In the surprising and ironic twists of the 1958 media battles, New York's crime families inadvertently handed Batista's enemies a propaganda weapon. A decade-long history of Mafia squabbles led to the death of the mobster Albert Anastasia late in 1957. Although it had virtually nothing to do with Cuba, the mob killing cast a sinister, and highly newsworthy, shadow over Havana's casino business.
When the U.S. government had arranged Lucky Luciano's deportation from Havana to Italy, it had instigated a leadership vacuum that sucked in a number of highly ambitious young men. Heads of various crime families quarreled over both the leadership hierarchy and mob policy. For one thing, they disagreed on the advisability of involvement in the lucrative narcotics trade and, for another, on association with Meyer Lansky and other Jewish mobsters. Frank Costello, the influential heir to Luciano's power in New York, opposed trafficking in narcotics and any split with Jewish organized crime figures. Albert Anastasia, nicknamed "The Executioner," belonged to an anti-Costello, anti-Lansky faction. In May 1957 a hired gunman failed in an attempt on Costello's life. Anastasia feared retribution for his involvement in the assassination attempt and initiated a bloodbath, murdering whomever he suspected might get to him first. Personal enemies within the various families arranged Anastasia's assassination. Police found his bullet-riddled body in New York's Park Sheraton Hotel barbershop on 25 October. Several people had witnessed the shooting, but their fear of an equally swift and bloody death protected the killers.'
Denied an easy resolution to the murder, detectives hunted for evidence to tie someone to the crime. Only a speculative trail pointed toward Havana, but tenacious sleuths and media bloodhounds pursued the scent of slaughter and scandal. Among the various items found in the victim's pockets, an unmarked hotel key led to the room in the Warwick Hotel that Anastasia had kept as his base of operations. A check of the hotel register for the days preceding the murder turned up several interesting names, among them Roberto Mendoza, a well-known and highly respected member of the socially prominent Havana family and a friend of Fulgencia Batista. At the time of Anastasia's death, Mendoza's construction company was completing work on the Havana Hilton Hotel. Also registered was Santo Trafficante Jr., who listed his address as the Sans Souci nightclub in Havana. Detectives determined that Anastasia had met with Mendoza but remained uncertain about Trafficante.
Rain plagued Cuba in January 1958, a gloomy harbinger of tourist woes to come, as the harsh light of the media focused on the underside of Cuban tourism. Attention swung from swimming pools, rumba bands, celebrities, and roulette to Batista's decades-long Mafia connections. With little else to go on, police theorized that Anastasia had tried to muscle in on Havana's casino action and that Meyer Lansky had arranged the assassination. They pursued known gamblers with connections to both Cuba and the New York Mafia and found Lansky and Trafficante in Havana. New York authorities issued a forty-eight-state alarm for information regarding Santo Trafficante and Joseph Silesi (a.k.a. Joe Rivers), wanted for questioning in connection with the Anastasia murder, specifically to clarify reports that the victim died while trying to break into Cuban gambling circles. Newspapers across the U.S. and in Havana carried the provocative stories?
While New York Times headlines proclaimed, "Gambling in Cuba Tied to U.S. Gangs," New York District Attorney Frank S. Hogan questioned Hilton personnel about Anastasia's connections to their Havana casino. Anxious executives, set to open the new hotel in two months, repeatedly denied having had any contact with Anastasia or any tics to underworld figures. Although thirteen groups had applied to lease the new casino, only one had passed the rigid screening conducted by .a former Chicago FBI agent. The favored Hilton casino lessees included Roberto and Mario Mendoza; Clifford Jones, a former lieutenant governor of Nevada; Kenneth F. Johnson, a Nevada state senator; and Sidney Orseck, a New York lawyer.'
Although the inquiry failed to tie Anastasia or any other mob figure, to the Hilton's casino operators, some skepticism remained; the tin would not die. Santo Trafficante Jr. and Joseph Silesi were well k in Havana's gambling world. Trafficante, a legal resident in t .n1 complained to anyone who would listen that the publicity hurt his legitimate interests in the Sans Souci nightclub and the Capri and modoro hotel casinos. Silesi, Trafficante's less visible right-hand had shuttled between Cuban and U.S. gambling operations for Na's years or more.4
Both Trafficante and Silesi indeed had been in New York at the time of Anastasia's death and were there on business that involved the Hilton casino. The Mendoza family owned Havana's leading baseball team; according to Silesi's story, he had suggested that Roberto Mendoza might hire the baseball hero Joe DiMaggio as a greeter in the Hilton casino, a position similar to that held by George Raft at the Capri. A meeting between Mendoza and DiMaggio took place at the Hotel Warwick in October 1957, shortly before Anastasia's murder. DiMaggio declined the offer, Silesi maintained, after which he and Mendoza discussed baseball with the Yankee center fielder for a while. Silesi acknowledged that he also had arranged a meeting between Mendoza and Albert Anastasia. Anastasia had indeed wanted to participate in the hotel casino and argued in his own behalf that his brother Tony's position as head of Longshoremen's Local 1814 should pull some weight in the union-owned Havana Hilton.'
Although mobsters in Cuba most likely knew that the killing had been ordered and
who had ordered it, no credible evidence pointed to Cuban gambling interests as
directly responsible for the death. New York police officials eventually
concluded that internal gang rivalries had led to the slaying. Nonetheless, the
widely reported accusations sufficiently tainted the Cuban casino industry to be
of use against Batista.
Time magazine's January 1958 article on the Mafia connection deibed Havana's gambling industry as sordid but one of the more (liable vices in "the fleshpot city." Time referred to Batista as Lan( benefactor and alluded to favors for Lansky from Cuba's labor minister that earned the minister's brother a partnership in one of new casinos.6 Only a few years had passed since Kefauver's corn-lire had grilled Lansky, and people still connected the name with vice and political corruption. He had carried out his illegal operations Ihr t Inited States with the well-paid cooperation of local officials. tough Cuban gambling was legal, the suggestion of unsavory dealings between Batista and Lansky bore the weight of precedent.
Life magazine photographed the identified suspects for its March 1958 story — Meyer Lansky at the recently opened Riviera, brother Jake at the Hotel Nacional, Santo Trafficante and Joe Silesi at Sans Souci — and connected them to U.S. crime syndicates. Most Cubans already believed that nothing sponsored by their government could be honest, Life editorialized, so the talk of American gangsters only increased their cynicism. "Who did you expect to find running the games down here? John Foster Dulles?" quipped a Havana gambler, referring to the U.S. secretary of state.
Life told North Americans what most Cubans suspected: Batista had built a considerable personal pension from the graft involved in his new gambling enterprises. Moreover, Batista's brother-in-law, the army general and government sports director Roberto Fernandez y Miranda, controlled Havana's slot machines and took a cut from every machine in Cuba. The magazine also linked Fernandez y Miranda to Havana's hated parking meters and claimed that he shared in the reported five million to ten million dollars that they brought in every year? Thousands of automobiles, which habaneros parked for hours and sometimes days on streets that had been built for carriages and pedestrians, choked central Havana, but understandably cynical citizens regarded the meters less as a way to restrain urban congestion than as another method for corrupt officials to steal their money.
Before the glow had had a chance to fade from Steve Allen's favorable glimpse of Cuba, with its plugs for Havana's hotels and casinos, the New York Times reported that the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) had demanded life insurance policies valued at three hundred thousand dollars for television performers who traveled to Havana to appear on American programs originating there. AFTRA labeled Cuba a hazardous area and demanded additional coverage to compensate for loss of vision, limbs, and other injuries and salary replacement in case of violence-related physical incapacity. As if to prove AFTRA's point, a photo of the actress Mamie Van Doren swimming in the Havana Riviera's pool, a scene featured prominently on Allen's television show, shared space in a Havana newspaper with news of a bomb blast in Vedado.
Insistent media coverage of gangster connections and domestic violence locked Batista in a vise, squeezed from one side by pressure to maintain press freedom in advance of upcoming elections and from the other by published reports of rebel activity. The exasperated minister of the interior accused the Associated Press and United Press of greatly exaggerating the confrontations between rebels and the army, which he belittled as military patrols surprising bandits, not actual combat.'
Castro's supporters were not outlaws, of course, but they could work the association to their advantage. Cuba's legendary independence hero, the "bandit" Manuel Garcia, had dominated the Havana countryside in the 1880s. He had extorted money and had kidnapped wealthy landowners to raise needed funds for the patriots' cause. He had crowned himself "King of the Cuban Countryside" and had kept his name in front of the people with a steady barrage of letters to Havana's newspapers extolling his own exploits and taunting the Spanish governors general. Not unlike the 1958 contest, embarrassed authorities, unable to end Garcia's activities, had denied his political importance and had dismissed him as merely an outlaw. The rebels of the 1950s certainly knew about Garcia. They probably had mimicked his exploits in childhood games based on the Cuban radio serial that idealized an often-violent gunman. Courageous, patriotic, virile, and enduring, the fictional Garcia overcame forces that betrayed Cuban ideals. When the film Manuel Garcia, el rey de los cameos de Cuba opened in Havana in 1940, many of the rebel leaders had been impressionable preadolescents.9 If Batista saw banditry in their antigovernment actions, he soon would learn what "bandits" could do.
Journalists did impart an aura of romantic daring to rebel exploits. When the Castro aides Armando Hart and Felipe Javier Pazos escaped from jail while nine inmates maintained a running gunfight with prison guards and soldiers, some newspaper accounts read like an adventure novel. A sense of rebel invincibility grew with each embellished story. Three days after the well-publicized prison break, a spectacular fire erupted at the Esso petroleum refinery in the Havana suburb of Regla, and the uncertain origins of the blaze translated as rebel sabotage in the minds of many Cubans.
Stories of violence and death filled Havana papers and frightened citizen and tourist alike. Published accounts of violence could be as damaging to the regime as the events themselves. For example, soldiers killed a young mother by shooting her through the head as her car pulled away from a military check point. The government called it .m accident, but the storm of protest and angry responses kept the story alive for days and suggested that the official version had failed to convince most people. Before the furor subsided, a soldier and a civilian died in a shooting match alongside a Havana bus. Two gunmen had halted the vehicle, forced the passengers to disembark, and set fire to the bus. Later that day, arsonists burned an elementary school in suburban Marianao. Were the incidents related? Even if they were not, the headline "Fire and Terror Campaign Continued by Rebels" linked them in the public mind.'
During a period marked by mayhem, suspicion, and denial, the New York Times
blamed Castro's rebels for discouraging tourists and asserted that the "wailing
and crying" about racketeers operating Cuba's casinos did not help either. At
the same time, Look magazine pronounced Cuba's struggle a "savage civil
war" in which Fidel Castro and a thousand rebels fought "Cuba's rifle rule."
Look captivated its readers with vividly graphic documentation of guerrilla
life. They had photographed Castro plotting strategy with top lieutenants and
rebels setting fire to cane fields and skinning a snake for supper. For a lesson
in revolutionary justice, photographers recorded the execution of law breakers
by firing squad and an officer delivering the coup de grace to a blindfolded
dying man 12 Those fighters could not be dismissed as mere bandits; they were
rebels engaged in a desperate battle, using whatever weapons they had.
SPOILERS AT BATISTA'S PARTY
Pedestrians hunched their bodies against the cold and snow as a blizzard walloped the east coast of the United States in mid-February. The cold wave bludgeoned northern and central Florida with the tenth freeze of a hitter winter. As North Americans dug their way out from under the latest snow blanket, the Tropicana nightclub turned up the heat, replacing its Asian floor show with the sensuous drumming and torrid dance of choreographed Haitian voodoo rituals. Despite the political tension and the mobsters, Cuba began to seem inviting to some shivering snowbirds.
In the tourist commission's ambitious strategy for 1958, sporting events would surpass carnival season as celebrity attractions. Race car drivers began to arrive in Havana for the second annual Gran Premio. The previous year's top drivers, Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, and Jean Behrs, would return to pit their sleek and shiny cars against each other and against the Dominican playboy-racer and tabloid favorite Porfirio Rubirosa. Two days later the lightweight champion boxer Joe Brown would arrive for his match. Golfers Ben Hogan and Sam Snead would open a new course in March. The high-powered lineup would reaffirm Cuba's stature in the tourist world and recapture Batista's momentum.
All through the week preceding the race car competition, twenty-eight veteran drivers studied the course along the Malecon. Each day they tested and fine-tuned their cars. Some 150,000 eager fans (50,000 more than the previous year) began to gather for the contest, anticipating a thriller. Argentina's Fangio, once more the favorite, captured everyone's attention as he took trial runs on the coastal avenue in a Maserati 45os. He had been racing for twenty-three of his forty-six years and had won numerous championships in Europe and the United States. He also had hinted that he might enter the Indianapolis 500 in May, a race passed up by most foreign drivers.
Tension built day by day as 24 February drew closer, particularly among the small circle of drivers and mechanics around Fangio: something about the car disturbed him. He knew the Maserati line, and this car did not feel right. The night before the race Fangio stood near the reception desk in the lobby of the Hotel Lincoln with Guerino Bertocchi, chief of mechanics for the Maserati team; Nello Ugolini, team manager; and Alejandro de Tomaso. They had rested briefly after the clay's test runs, then changed clothes for the evening and were discussing the car's problems, their attention focused, as might be expected, on how to handle the next day's race.
The hotel lobby filled with people about to set out on the evening rounds of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. A number of race car drivers stood or sat in groups with colleagues and admirers; other guests chatted casually. They scarcely noticed as two young men entered the lobby. One stood by the door; the other, undistinguished in slacks and windbreaker, perhaps twenty-five years old, asked for Fangio and casually crossed the lobby toward the registration desk.
Fangio, absorbed in his conversation, scarcely noticed the young man until he stopped a few feet away, displayed a pistol, and asked, "Which one of you is Fangio?"
"I am, what do you want?" the racer responded.
"I'm from the Twenty-sixth of July Movement. I want you to come with me. Don't resist and you won't be hurt." The assailant grabbed Fanngio, pushed the pistol into his side, and moved toward the door. When they approached the exit, the kidnapper turned to the startled and speechless crowd. "Don't anyone leave the hotel until five minutes have passed. There are four men outside with machine guns pointed at the door." The rebels left the hotel with their prisoner and walked some hundred feet to the corner, where they shoved Fangio into a black sedan and took off. Within minutes telephones rang in every news agency: revolutionaries held the champion racer and refused to say what would be done with him. The next day, headlines blared the news to the world.
Havana's police had plunged into action after the rebels' telephone call. First, they assigned squads to guard the other race car drivers and Joe Brown. Then they unleashed an intensive manhunt, searching all known rebel haunts, desperate to find Fangio before the next day's race. Officials delayed the start of the race, hoping the rebels might release Fangio; they did not. The competition began, only to end in tragedy half an hour later, when a Cuban driver, Armando Garcia Cifuentes, skidded on a patch of oil leaked onto the race course from the burst oil line of another car. Garcia Cifuentes's car slammed into one of the supports of a grandstand section and spilled dozens of spectators onto the pavement. Authorities at first charged sabotage, but further investigation confirmed the original explanation: an unfortunate, accidental chain reaction. The crash killed four people and injured close to fifty."
Shortly after officials called off the race, a well-groomed and fresh-looking Fangio reappeared and related the details of his abduction to the press. To avoid the police dragnet, the rebels had transferred Fangio three times to three different houses, all well-furnished residences, They had treated him with care and concern, he reported, and had explained their reasons for his kidnapping and the aims of their organ zation. A young woman had brought his meals, and he had been welt looked after. When it was time to release him, the rebels had call( , I the Argentine Embassy, and someone there had picked him up from a house on the edge of town.
Fangio had only praise for his captors; in fact, given the tragedy in the race, he told reporters, they may have saved his life. Major media outlets in Europe and the Americas repeated his appreciative wont, Joe Brown's televised first-round knockout became a footnote to Ili, amazing and tragic Gran Premio story.
The audacious kidnapping had even more power than explosives Manuel Garcia could not have done better. Castro and his supporters already had denounced the government for wasting money on big sports events instead of aiding the unemployed. They had openly threatened to cripple Cuba's most important sports contest in order to embarrass Batista and force him to call off the race. They had circulated bulletins for three days, warning Cubans to stay off the streets and away from public spectacles. To reinforce their point, they had hurled phosphorus bombs into seats and aisles of Radio Centro Theater in the heart of Havana.
Twenty-five years later, on 24 February 1983, Fangio received a cable in his office at Mercedes Benz headquarters in Buenos Aires: "On the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of your historic encounter with the Twenty-sixth of July Movement, we remember you fondly and wish you health and well-being. That episode, more than a kidnapping and patriotic detention, together with your noble attitude and fair understanding, served the cause of our people, who feel great kindness for you and in whose name we salute you at the end of a quarter of a century. In hopes of seeing you again in Cuba, your friendly kidnappers."
Faustino Perez Hernandez, the Cuban official who signed the cable, had headed the successful 1958 kidnapping operation. He had accompanied Castro on the Granma, the boat that had carried the rebels from Mexico to Cuba in December 1956. They had hidden together for days, almost afraid to breathe for fear of discovery by the soldiers who hunted them. They had made their way to the Sierra Maestra, and when Castro stayed to build the guerrilla movement in mountains, Perez had returned to Havana as a member of the twenty-sixth of July Movement's national directorate.
Two days after Fangio's release, Fidel Castro announced that victory was not far away. Guerrilla leaders considered the morale-building, high-profile caper a turning point in their battle. They had challenged authority, displayed fearless commitment to their cause, fostered a perception of rebel invincibility, and reaffirmed humanitarian principles. And Batista's tourist ambitions had made it all possible. Stepping into media spotlight, Castro condemned the president as an ineffectual leader, unable to protect his people against a handful of rebels, a man whom the Twenty-sixth of July Movement intended to overthrow very soon in order to return Cuba to constitutional authority. He scorned Batista as a lackey of Washington, an obedient man who followed orders, and a corrupt tyrant in league with mobsters. What soldier would fight, he asked rhetorically, knowing that his chiefs lived comfortably in Havana and enriched themselves at the cost of his blood and sacrifice?"
The media pendulum continued to shift in the rebels' direction. During "Unhappy Cuba's Cockeyed Week," Life magazine commented, behind Batista's smiling face (referring to a photo of the president), loomed an abduction, violence, and tragedy. A "beefy and bellowing guard" had to clear the way for Batista when the "dictator" arrived for the Joe Brown fight. In the same article, Life repeated Fangio's favorable comments about the rebels and paired the popular Fangio with Castro, shown instructing a recruit in the use of a rifle and claiming he could enlist ten thousand more, given enough weapons!6
When the rebels held up a branch of the Banco Nacional and burned a pile of checks instead of taking cash, they demonstrated both their capacity to disrupt daily life and their disinterest in personal gain. Meanwhile, Oriente insurgents burned a sugar warehouse, wrecked a railway station, grenaded an army patrol car, raided a passenger train, and bombed an aqueduct. The New York Times reported that many Cubans believed Castro could succeed with the help of a paralyzing general strike and the sabotage of utilities by urban underground forces!'
The rebels stepped up their verbal and military pressure on the government. While spectators cheered Ben Hogan and Sam Snead at the new golf course east of Havana, a bomb exploded in a vacant lot in Cardenas and injured two nine-year-olds; another exploded in Santa Clara; a railroad coach burned in Los Pinos; a young man was burned with live phosphorus in a Cienfuegos theater; and twenty-two persons faced charges of terrorism in a Havana court. Raul Castro, Fidel's brother and fellow guerrilla, opened another front in the Sierra. When an exhilarated Faustino Perez Hernandez, buoyed by February's events, conveyed a positive assessment of Havana support levels to the eastern headquarters, confident rebel leaders set 9 April 1958 for the long-threatened general strike.
At the height of the tourist season, a defiant manifesto from the Sierra Maestra called for all-out war against Batista, starting with the April general strike and then unrelenting armed struggle until victory. The scene in Havana tended toward the surreal as Batista proclaimed a holiday to celebrate his six years in power. Residents and tourists alike hesitated to ride public transportation for fear that rebel terrorists would board the buses and set them on fire. They avoided busy shopping districts and motion picture theaters because of bomb threats. Only the nightclubs adjacent to casinos in the large hotels operated safely. Many Cubans gave up and just stayed away; so did the tourists. As the rebels escalated the propaganda and violence, tourist revenue declined. Batista once more suspended constitutional guarantees and reestablished press censorship.'8
Meanwhile, at the corner of Twenty-third and L Streets an understandably jittery Hilton Hotel team agonized through the final days of preparations for its inaugural gala, capping two years of planning and construction. Casino, restaurant, and cabaret managers consulted with officers of the culinary workers union; executives conferred with bankers. HH I had worked for months on publicity and arrangements. Hotel officials had withstood January's negative association with Albert Anastasia's murder in New York and February's high-visibility kidnapping. Now, nervous and exasperated, they all watched and listened as sinister escalations of violence and threats of strikes and armed confrontation bubbled all around them. The call to arms and timing of the general strike could not have been worse for H HI and Cuba's tourist image.
With rumors flying across the city, Hilton employees prepared to welcome an exceptional assemblage of guests to the hotel's domed lobby, to show off the glass-bubbled ceiling that threw sunbeams of light on the marble floors, and to escort a host of celebrities up the staircase that seemed to float from the lobby to the casino and bar above. Chartered planes carried large contingents of guests, including union officials (because the Gastron6mico owned the hotel), bankers and businessmen, big names from Hollywood, Washington, and Broadway, and of course, several dozen members of the press.
Circumstances forced the Hilton management to hire a hundred or so plainclothes security officers to circulate among the guests, while uniformed policemen with billy clubs and guns stood conspicuously inside the lobby. Squad cars stood at each corner of the hotel. The I wavy police presence certainly altered the intended mood of a lighthearted, carefree celebration. Conrad Hilton brought his own bodyguard, as did Virginia Warren, daughter of the U.S. chief justice. A trio of uniformed guards accompanied the Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper when she insisted on wearing a huge diamond to he formal ba11.19 What a headline her abduction would have made!
Did Batista realize that his painstakingly built tourist industry was in crisis? He did not attend the Hilton's opening ceremony even though he had been instrumental in putting the hotel deal together and had taken great pride in adding Havana to the chain of Hilton hotels. He sent his wife instead.
Despite the attention paid to the Hilton inaugural, the rebels maintained a publicity advantage. A host of respected, top-level newspaper and radio-Tv correspondents, assigned to cover the announced general strike, roamed Havana's streets in search of good stories while they waited. Paris Match had sent an experienced reporter-camera team. The New York Times' reporter had covered civil conflicts and revolutions. The Chicago Tribune and Sun Times were represented, and United Press sent a crew of first-line reporters. Time, Newsweek, and Life fielded teams. Hearst-Movietone photographers covered events for the newsreels.
Violence made good copy, and journalists filled the papers, airwaves, and movie screens with evidence of the danger in Cuba: gun battles in the streets, power failures that paralyzed restaurant and nightlife along the Prado, attacks on city buses. The story out of Cuba focused on Castro and revolution, not casinos and romance. Some correspondents had to send their stories out of the country with returning tourists when the government increased its vigilance over outgoing dispatches and long-distance telephone calls, which added to the sense of tension. Rebel actions made exciting news copy and photos but terrible postcards 2°
To Batista's satisfaction and the rebels' chagrin, their widely pro. claimed general strike failed. Most workers stayed on the job. Pon' planning and lack of coordination, as well as Batista's advance prep.) rations, doomed it. Faustino Perez Hernandez had overestimated the habaneros' commitment.
After the April disappointment, the center of revolutionary activity shifted back to the Sierra. By then, the winter tourist season had ended anyway. As with the failed 1957 assassination attempt, the strike had damaged tourism even though it did not bring clown the government. Tourism backers and businessmen worried about the big "if" what if organizations canceled the conventions that brought tl sands of free-spending visitors to Havana, people who contributed substantially to the local economy. If cautious arrangements commit altered their plans, and then suddenly the political situation brightened, it would be be too late —a lucrative opportunity would have been lost.
Tourist revenues for 1958 not only fell far behind expectations of growth but even lagged behind 1957 levels. The major culprit was rebel activity and the accompanying publicity. Prospects were downright bleak. New hotels, encumbered by multimillion-dollar mortgages, baited the casino hook with inexpensive dinner prices that included the floor show and dancing. The lowered cost reeled in more Cubans but did not appreciably increase the number of foreign tourists. The Hilton found a market for its banquet and meeting rooms among the local population, but that clientele did not patronize the gaming rooms sufficiently to produce profits.
Desperate to counteract newspaper and magazine accounts of political unrest, civic leaders formed a "New Cuba" committee. They prepared an advertising campaign that flooded major U.S. cities with their slogan, "NEW, all NEW." Havana officials even sent peace offerings to Miami after a winter of competitive mudslinging. The Cubans claimed that Miamians had gone out of their way to play up horrors that might befall tourists in revolution-riddled Cuba. On the other hand, Floridians charged that Havana's newspapers exaggerated a Miami polio outbreak to keep Cubans at home. Cuba needed an end to the sniping, and Batista personally bestowed warm words of encouragement on a group of Miami businessmen who flew to Havana. They shook hands and called the goodwill visit a great success. In fact, the downward slide continued. Promotional campaigns, new committees, truce4 mending, and intensive public relations campaigns all failed. The Fangio kidnapping, talk of strike, and fear of civil war had halted the tourist momentum.21
Meanwhile, the conflict intensified. The military high command interpreted the general strike's failure as a measure of Batista's strength. Even though the army had not eliminated the guerrillas in more than a year of fighting, Castro's call for total war required a showdown, and the officer corps urged the president to take the initiative and destroy the Insurrection. Batista agreed. The army prepared through May and launched its big offensive in June. Rebel forces, clearly outnumbered, let Batista's troops move forward, then hit the advance platoons and units and fell back again. For guerrillas, the ability to outlast a numerically superior force counts as a victory; thus they ambushed and retreated and protected their limited resources. The struggle continued through the summer, and Batista failed to achieve his objective. A censored press downplayed the government's peril, but Castro broadcast the details of his successes on Radio Rebelde, heard by Cubans all over the island.
In the face of a prolonged, bitter, bloody, and well-publicized armed struggle, the 1958-59 winter tourist season hadn't a prayer. The guerrillas went on the offensive and moved west, as Cuban patriots had done in 1895-96. The army pulled back, and new volunteers joined rebel veterans. Late in the year insurrectionists in the Escambray Mountains battled for control of the city of Santa Clara. Castro set out to take Santiago. More new supporters fought alongside the guerrillas as Batista's soldiers deserted. By early December U.S. authorities tried to obtain Batista's resignation in favor of a military junta.
glum Christmas season was made more so by airline strikes in the United States
that kept even the most stalwart visitors away. The rebel advance continued.
Castro's forces could claim control of 8o percent of central Cuba's Las Villas
province by 20 December. Insurgent columns advanced on Santiago de Cuba, and
Radio Rebelde announced control of the Central Highway in Oriente. Travelers
reported that a beach near Santiago was in rebel hands and that they saw a red-andblack
rebel flag flying from an army radio station just outside Santiago. The nearby
town of Palma Soriano had fallen after a five-day Beige. Still, government press
releases trumpeted army victories.
THE REBELS' NEW YEAR GREETING
Several thousand tourists did come to Cuba during the holiday season, and the rebel victory took those daring—or foolish—revelers by surprise. Batista had maintained the public charade right up to the time of his departure, just after midnight, 1 January 1959. Before he left, the fleeing president placed the reins of power in the hands of one of his generals; but both the government and the army collapsed as rebels swept into Havana. Banner headlines and radio announcements proclaimed the victory, and Cubans poured into the streets. Carloads of people raced through Havana with horns blaring, cheered on by fellow citizens who jammed windows and balconies. By 9 A.M. the mood turned destructive; vandals and looters attacked shops, restaurants, hotels, casinos, and the odious parking meters. They set bonfires and piled stolen goods on the fires. Roving bands smashed the windows at El Encanto department store. Mobs swarmed into Vedado and Miramar and looted the homes of Batista's relatives and friends. By nightfall most of the city fell quiet as residents shuttered themselves in their homes.23
For the chastened North Americans, New Year's Day was a nightmare of uncertainty. Early risers flooded U. S. Embassy phone lines and were told to board the regular Thursday morning (1 January) sailing of the Key West ferry. Some thirty anxious refugees rushed to the docks. A state of general alarm set in as the destruction and looting began. Embassy personnel moved to round up U.S. travelers, assembled them at centrally located hotels, and transported them to the ferry pier and airport to begin evacuation. The embassy had anticipated Batista's fall and, although unsure of the date, had prepared for the eventuality.
The evacuation was a formidable task, with tourists conveyed to departure points by car and truck convoys. Planes left for Varadero and the Isle of Pines (later renamed the Isle of Youth) to pick up other New Year's celebrants, before a general strike grounded all departing flights and hampered evacuation plans. Embassy officials had to negotiate for exit permits with rebels concerned that some of Batista's henchmen might slip out with the tourists. Meanwhile, the airport filled with people anxious to leave a city in the throes of revolution. The Key West ferry returned to Havana on Friday, loaded some five hundred American tourists and businessmen on board, departed around nine in the evening, and disembarked the tired and hungry lot at Key West the next morning, 3 January. Many in the frazzled group had been forced by events to stay in Havana longer than they had planned and had no money left.
By Saturday evacuation flights started from Rancho Boyeros airport, and almost 700 vacationers left the island. Airplanes actually exchanged returning Cuban exiles for fleeing tourists. On Sunday ;mother 55o left by plane and ferry. Guests at the Plaza and Sevilla-Biltmore hotels, where a great deal of destruction had taken place, openly displayed their fear and anger. Resentful of the inconvenience, or covering for their poor judgment, some of them turned surly. They threatened to write their senators or to call Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, or to tell the press of their travail at the hands of embassy employees.
Within days, however, the Twenty-sixth of July Movement militia controlled
Havana, and regular air service returned almost to normal. Some two hundred
remaining tourists decided to take their chances and see whether the shooting
indeed had ended. A few of the more brazen stragglers even plopped themselves
down among groups of rebel fighters encamped in the hotels while their friends
took the ultimate in souvenir photos. By Tuesday, less than a week after the
rebel victory, the city had settled down.
REVOLUTIONARIES IN THE CASINO BUSINESS
On New Year's Eve Havana counted thirteen casinos. Rebel bulletins had warned that victory would bring an end to the gambling enterprises. Any business so closely associated with Batista could not withstand the wrath of his enemies or the rebels' commitment to cleanse Cuban society of corruption. In a televised interview, Castro promised to protect legitimate U.S. business interests in Cuba, but not "those gangsters" who owned casinos. Triumphant rebels arrested the president of Casino Capri Corporation and questioned him for nearly nine hours before they set him free. They also seized the Capri's daily receipts and sealed the hotel's safety deposit boxes. Interrogation of casino officials and owners prompted some gaming room employees to inquire about jobs in Las Vegas. Casino operators desperately sought to save investments with a total estimated at twenty million dollars or more, including hotels and gaming rooms. Meyer Lansky, determined to hold on to his hotel, publicly expressed his willingness to cooperate with the new government.
The rebel leadership ordered the casinos closed, arguing that they destroyed morals, took money out of Cuban hands, and put it into the pockets of rich American racketeers. However, Cuban workers quickly joined forces with gambling interests to oppose the drastic action. Their swift and angry response confounded an inexperienced leadership with little understanding of the tourist industry. Gambling had become a key factor in the tourist boom, and thousands of Cubans faced unemployment if the casinos shut down. The biggest loss of jobs would be felt in the hotels that operated casinos. The Riviera, Hilton, Capri, and Nacional alone employed close to four thousand workers during peak tourist periods. Most of them were not casino workers, but casino revenues helped to pay their wages. Gambling paid for the entertainment at the Hotel Nacional, for example, a weekly average of $8,000 for show talent, plus another $2,500 for musicians. Because of gambling, the Tropicana nightclub could spend an estimated $12,000 for its shows, which employed seventy showgirls, singers, and dancers, plus some forty musicians in the orchestra. Between the Riviera, Nacional, and Capri hotels and the Tropicana nightclub, an estimated $50,000 weekly flowed through the cabaret talent into the Cuban economy. (The Hilton's late arrival on the scene precluded typical payrolls.) Moreover, the government collected $2,000 per month and 20 percent of the net profits from each casino, revenue that could be used by the new government in the best interests of Cuban citizens.
While some officials proclaimed a willingness to sacrifice tourism if it meant an end to gambling, Castro quickly reversed his stance and conceded that total suppression of gambling would be detrimental to the economy. The protesters had won him to their side, and he justified his retreat in utilitarian and humanitarian terms that reiterated their arguments: rich tourists and wealthy Cubans who gambled supported enterprises that employed thousands of Cuban workers. Moreover, the government could use casino revenue to establish a rehabilitation agency to create jobs that eventually would replace gambling-dependent employment and prostitution. The casinos could reopen, lic proclaimed, as long as honest men, and not card sharks "who try to trick people out of their money," operated the games.26
When the rebels gained control of the government, they not only became responsible for gambling policies but also took charge of the highly sophisticated financial apparatus that gave them a stake in many Cuban industries, including tourism. Presidents Prio and Batista had established the various lending institutions to compensate for the reluctance of domestic and foreign capitalists to invest in Cuba. Banfaic, Bandes, the Financiera, and so on, had issued bonds guaranteed by the government. Private banks, insurance companies, and pension funds had purchased the bonds, and enterprises had borrowed the proceeds, including the GastronOrnico and other hotel corporations whose casinos Castro had tried to close.
Almost overnight, guerrilla fighters who had struggled to stay alive Tiring two years in mountain encampments had to think like seasoned thinkers. Alberto Guevara, who had attended Havana University with Castro and had joined his revolutionary forces, later recalled planning wssions held immediately diet the rebel victory. "Castro wanted us to start going to the bank, and we were there once a week. Fidel kept saying, 'We don't know what a hank is, and we must know what a bank is.' "
Batista had left an ironic legacy, for the governing rebels quickly realized that their financial involvement in tourism created a classic catch-22. Hotel profits repaid government lending institutions, funds intended to redeem bonds issued with government backing. To earn that profit, hotels needed casinos and tourists. Suppression of gambling, a crippling blow to tourism, also would preclude an estimated $no million in hotel construction predicated on casino earnings to repay negotiated loans. Lack of expertise required the rebels to retain Joaquin Martinez Saenz as head of the Banco Nacional because, among his other duties for Batista, Martinez SAenz had authorized most of Bandes's hotel loans. So they kept him and other financial experts under surveillance at their desks, without authority to make loans but with a mandate to untangle the financial situation and stabilize the economy.
Furthermore, the former guerrillas knew as much about hotel operations as they did about banking. Ideology and morality notwithstanding, the new government needed knowledgeable hotel managers and casino operators. Thus revolutionaries became reluctant partners with some of the very mobsters they had vowed to expel from the island. Within two weeks they reorganized the tourist commission and inaugurated a vigorous campaign to bring the tourists back.
The new tourist commission pledged to attract even greater numbers of visitors to a new, democratic Cuba. Less a morale builder than a pragmatist, the tourist chief weighed Cuba's precarious finances against potential revenues. Batista had left a treasury depleted by both looters and the costs of war. Cuba desperately needed foreign exchange reserves and money to circulate domestically. The contribution of American tourists, projected to reach six billion dollars a year by 1964, appeared as economic redemption to revolutionaries in need.29 Reminiscent of the cross-sector tourist board that operated in the 193os, representatives of Cuba's hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, harbor commerce, tourist agencies, alcoholic beverage distributor, tourist shops, airline transportation, transport workers, labor federation, and New Cuba Association worked together to breathe life into an expiring industry. First they tried to salvage the winter season and then moved to recapture the American Society of Travel Agents convention schcduled for October 1959. ABTA had dropped Havana from its plans because of the political crisis evident by late 1958, and the association's renewed commitment signaled a welcomed vote of approval.
Tourist interest reappeared. By mid-January some Miami–Havana flights filled with curiosity seekers. A few tourists grumbled about thorough searches on arrival, as though the revolutionaries need not take precautions against enemies. Most visitors quickly forgot their irritation, overwhelmed by their proximity to real-life rebels. They thrilled at the opportunity to survey a freshly enshrined battleground. They poked their noses into the wreckage of once-elegant casinos, looking for war souvenirs, and clicked their camera shutters at bearded revolutionaries incongruously camped in luxurious hotel lobbies.
Unfortunately, even government goodwill could not salvage the season. Frustrated casino operators lamented the month or two required to repair and reequip the gaming rooms, a delay that sacrificed critical January–March earnings. The Havana Hilton had yet to enjoy the profits of even one winter season, and the Capri's steadily increasing credit line, opened the previous summer, understandably worried the revolutionaries-turned-bankers. Even the inexperienced financiers recognized the necessity to maintain constant vigilance over their new partners to ensure that hotel managers applied profits to the amortization of bank loans and did not divert profits to stockholders through payment of excessive dividends.
Bank employees kept an especially close watch on the Havana Riviera, where reported losses rather quickly began to threaten repayment of outstanding debts. Lansky's accountants listed operating losses of $750,000 for the period December 1958 through April 1959, and the next big tourist season would not begin until November. Gross income for March 1959, after the casino reopened, totaled $600,000, barely 'Imre than one-third the March 1958 figure ($1.7 million) and a sum learly insufficient to cover expenses, much less pay debts. In July the hank expressed concern over possible skimming of the Riviera's casino revenues and assumed responsibility for counting the casino take. \ I I angry corporate treasurer, Julius Rosengard, accompanied by Jake I .alisky, went to Miami to consult with stockholders. The government intervened in the money-losing hotel operation the following month, Ithough the Riviera Hotel Corporation remained the nominal owner, h many of the original investors stall on the board of directors.
As the hotel continued to bleed money, Cuban officials charged that hotel personnel illegally shipped U.S. dollars out of the country and extended credit to questionable casino customers. They also decried the women of "doubtful morality" who hung around the casino as an attraction to gamblers. Exasperated, they fired the publicity director, stage manager, social manager, and assistant purchasing manager and put a Bandes delegate on the premises with the power to make administrative decisions. When company stockholders ordered Rosengard to abandon the position of treasurer and return to the United States, Bandes managed the hotel directly."'
Hotels continued to operate well under capacity. Nightclub ads, notable by their absence in January, had reappeared in the local press late in February. Package tours attracted hundreds, but not thousands, of visitors. The Tropicana mounted two brand-new shows and in a burst of patriotism dedicated the proceeds of its premiere (at an eight-dollar minimum charge), along with the contribution of a day's salary from all personnel, to reconstruct war-torn towns.
Did tourists object to the summary trials of Batista supporters and the subsequent execution of war criminals? If they paid attention to the revolutionary justice meted out to batistianos accused of torture and killing, they apparently offered few opinions as they made the rounds of bars and nightclubs. The skittish travel agents' association wavered again, hesitant to favor a location pilloried by the U.S. media for revolutionary excesses. Hard-pressed Cubans endured many anxious hours before ASTA reaffirmed its commitment."
By June a tourism development board announced hotel and motel construction projects in the island's interior and the embellishment of the old colonial city of Trinidad. The Ministry of Commerce made sure that tourist establishments received all the food, beverages, linens, and other supplies that they required. After all, the recommendation of a homeward-bound visitor carried more clout than any brochure. The lnstituto Nacional de Industriales Turisticas (INIT) committed $200 million to a four-year development program, with $400,000 set aside for advertising. Airport expansion to accommodate jet aircraft wouli I bring more people from farther away in shorter times. Castro opened formerly private beaches to the public for wholesome family vacations, and INIT took over responsibility for their administration, along with forty-three centers dedicated to hunting, fishing, and boating. Santiago de Cuba would anchor tourist plans for the eastern end of the island.
Whatever promoted tourism helped Cuba, Castro declared, and he personally fostered its success. Promising to make tourism Cuba's biggest business, his smiling, bearded countenance graced the pages of Cuba, 1959: Land of Opportunity, Playland of the Americas, the one hundred-page slick magazine published for the October travel agents' convention. The promotional piece overflowed with flattering articles, attractive photographs, useful information, and hundreds of advertisements for hotels, restaurants, airlines, car rental agencies—everything a vacationer might need or want.
When Fidel welcomed the two thousand ASTA delegates and family members, he openly and unapologetically acclaimed tourism as Cuba's salvation. He treated the travel agents like visiting royalty and implored them to bring back the tourists. The agents applauded wildly and, like teenagers, fought to have pictures taken with the famous revolutionary, or at least to get his autograph. ASTA's president, Max Allen, avoided political controversy. "We are not here to give praise to the government," he said. "Travel . . . provides the broadest and shortest road to understanding between nations. . . . next week Cuba will have 2,000 super salesmen dotted all over the earth." Castro, obviously pleased with that prospect, unhooked his gunbelt in a symbolic gesture of friendship, laid it on the floor, and responded, "Never mind political propaganda . . . help your friends to the happiness which travel to Cuba can give them."
The ASTA convention turned into a surprising love fest. The association made
Castro an honorary member, the first time they had ever done
so with any political figure. Delegates appeared ready to send as many tourists
to Cuba as possible. They seemed willing to disregard
the armed terrorists who tossed bombs and grenades from moving cars and the
leaflets dropped from airplanes that urged Castro to throw
the communists out of his government. Most of the ASTA delegates had been in
their rooms dressing for a lavish champagne party at the
Havana Riviera when the bombs went off, and they dismissed the leaflets as the work of Castro's enemies trying to sabotage the tourist effort. At the final banquet Castro praised the delegates and told them, "Just tell us what you want, and we will give it to you."
Disappointingly, the tourists did not return, but not because of any lack of will or enthusiasm on the part of the travel agents or the Cuban government. Castro had kept the casinos going and had spent a million dollars to entertain the ASIA delegates. The travel agents expressed great enthusiasm and willingness to recommend the island to their clients, particularly after they heard U.S. Ambassador Philip Bonsal praise Cuba as "one of the finest countries from the standpoint of the American tourist."
Despite good intentions, the ASTA convention proved a last hurrah. Even as the delegates departed, five major steamship lines cancelled their stops in Havana. Revenue in November fell to of the previous year's already declining levels. The tourist board campaigned hard to lure visitors for a combined Christmas holiday and first anniversary celebration. Thirty hotels offered fare rebates. Foreign dignitaries and celebrities, invited by the government for the occasion, stayed at the Hilton, Riviera, and Capri INIT, including the former world heavyweight Joe Louis. Cuba apparently intended to extend its hospitality to a previously ignored segment of the North American market and representatives of the African American press followed Louis closely, taking lots of pictures when Castro singled him out for star-studded luncheon.
As in prerevolutionary times, Oriental Park opened the racing season with a big media splash. The government had spent more than a half-million dollars to refurbish the Jockey Club, and a thousand new rocking chairs lined the club's terrace. INIT had joined forces with the widely known turf figure Dan Chappel, and entries and race results published in the stateside racing form tempted readers to visit Cuba. Everything stood ready, including the track's plush casino.
In spite of prodigious efforts, the tourist business succumbed to uncertainty, inconvenience, and unpleasantness. Even the Tropicana was dead by February 1960. The manager of its famous show, who also had controlled Havana's slot machines in conjunction with Batista's brother-in-law, had long since fled the country. Castro brought Cuba's farmers into Havana for the May Day celebration, and they slept on the Malecon. His anti-Yankee speech to that multitude would have frightened those tourists not already disaffected by street thugs, bullies, and gun-carrying youngsters who had joined the militia. When factionalism and sabotage threatened his reforms, Castro asked the people to inform police of antirevolutionary remarks. In the ensuing atmosphere of suspicion, political denunciations drove some Cubans from the island.
The novelty of revolution wore off quickly. The glamour and I lie excitement vanished. Lack of tourists doomed Cuba's hotels and casinos and many of its restaurants and bars. Souvenir shops closed; their proprietors faced bankruptcy. A few managed to send some goods or money out of the country. Others fell before the accusatory claims of avid fidelistas, lost their businesses to the government, and left the country. Visitors who experienced arbitrary, thorough searches and confiscation of possessions when they arrived were uncertain whether the searchers' motivation was political vigilance or material gain.
Failure to pay its bills, not moral outrage on the part of Castro's minions, caused the demise of Meyer Lansky's Havana Riviera. Overwhelmed with unpaid debts, the hotel became government property. Revolutionaries already controlled its casino operations and managed the hotel. Lansky lost an estimated four million dollars, a considerable sum for someone who had been listed on the payroll as the kitchen manager.
People stopped going to Cuba because the island no longer was pleasurable to visit. Vacationers wanted to relax, and they had their choice of sunny beaches and gambling casinos elsewhere in the Caribbean. Escalating antagonism over issues of sovereignty, property, and ideology threatened, and then ruptured, U. S.–Cuban relations. By the time Castro nationalized U.S. property in October 1960, most North Americans already had scratched Cuba off their lists of desirable travel destinations."
Tourism had brought critical hard currency, as well as gaiety, to Havana during
two boom periods. Travelers had introduced ideas, values, and cultural elements
and had forged new relationships with Cubans. If corruption and vice flourished
alongside tourist enterprises, they sprouted from seeds in well-plowed ground.
Cuba changed direction just as the tourist industry enjoyed worldwide expansion.
After 1960 its leaders sought a more suitable image than that of a pseudo–Las
Vegas. When Castro embarked on a third tourist cycle in the 1980s, diplomatic
and trade relations had been broken for more than two decades, and U.S. citizens
were forbidden by law to enjoy his pleasure island.