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Expert: Evolving relations with Cuba could return gambling to the island

San Souci Nightclub in Havana

By Launce Rake

Once upon a time, there were two favorite places for Americans to legally gamble: Nevada and Cuba. And the Mob loved them both.

Cuba was a haven for Mob investments from the beginning of the 20th century until the Cuban Revolution of 1959, which installed a government that banned casino gambling. There were deep connections between not just the Mob and Cuba, but many American citizens and the island nation. According to Scott Deitche, an expert on the Mob in Florida and Cuba, many Cubans arrived in Florida before the turn of the century and worked in the cigar industry there.

“Tampa has one of the oldest Cuban communities in the U.S.,” he said. “It predates Miami. In the late 1800s, it took off with the cigar industry and there’s always been a close familial relationship here [between immigrants to the United States and their families in Cuba].”

And even before Prohibition, there were the “bolitas”: Illegal lotteries, gambling rackets, controlled by organized crime in the United States and based on numbers selected in Cuba.

“There were Mob figures going back and forth to Cuba,” Deitche said.

With the announcement this week that the Obama administration is working to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than fifty years, people are looking back at the close relationship between Cuba – especially its capital, Havana – and the people of Florida and the United States. A big part of that history was the growth of casino resorts that rivaled or even surpassed those of Las Vegas.

Prohibition on the sale, manufacture and distribution of alcoholic beverages in the United States between 1920 and 1933 helped cement the Mob’s relationship with Cuba. Besides gambling, mobsters turned to Cuba to provide the rum that people demanded in the United States and could not get legally.

“Even back in the 1920s, already the relationships were there,” Deitche said. “[Meyer] Lanksy and the other New York guys came down to Cuba to set up the rum distribution networks.” They joined mobsters with the Trafficante crime family, which invested in rum-running and gambling operations in Cuba from their base in Florida.

Prohibition, it has often been noted, was the best thing to happen to American organized crime.

Deitche has written six books on Florida and Cuba organized crime and is working on a seventh. In August 2014, he was a speaker at The Mob Museum on “The Havana Underworld: Mafia Influence from Tamps to Cuba.”

When revolutionary leader Fidel Castro led his guerrilla army into Havana on New Year’s Day, 1959, it signaled the end of the Mob’s influence in Cuba. Castro had met with Mob leaders, but he considered the Mafia-managed resorts and their managers as allies of the corrupt and authoritarian Batista government.

Deitche noted that many Americans worked in the casinos, and few Cubans seemed to benefit from the investment. “It rarely trickled down,” he said. “They were making money for the Mob, for the Cuban government and some well-connected people, and that’s where it ended.”

Castro viewed casinos as sources of social corruption and were evidence of “American colonialism and the Batista regime,” Deitche said. “The casinos were a perfect kind of representation of all that was wrong with Cuba.”

Now Fidel Castro is aging and ill, and his brother Raul, who was also a soldier in Castro’s revolutionary forces, is leading Cuba, but at age 83 it is not clear for how long. The Castros replaced the authoritarianism of Batista with Soviet-inspired communist social and economic control. Meanwhile, casinos led by multinational corporations have moved into and throughout other islands of the Caribbean and aboard cruise ships.

Deitche and other experts on Cuba predict that an evolving Cuban economy could well allow casino gambling to return to the island, but it probably won’t be profiting organized crime figures as it did in pre-revolution Cuba.

“The casinos certainly could come back, but the landscape of the gambling world has changed dramatically,” he said, noting that there are now casinos within easy driving distance of Florida’s biggest cities. “There are gambling resorts all over the country. It wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be that one top destination. You’ll never re-create the destination that it was. Who runs the casinos now? Major international corporations, another thing that has changed dramatically.”

He noted that casinos are operating legally and successfully in, among other places, parts of communist China.

The ban on economic activity between citizens of the United States and Cuba, which remains in effect although a formal travel ban for Cuban family members was lifted in 1979, will probably be lifted, Deitche said. “You can’t tell me that we can do business with Saudi Arabia and China and Russia and not with Cuba,” he said. “It really comes across as a relic of the Cold War.”

The evolving relationship with Cuba is certain to be a major topic of discussion when The Mob Museum hosts its next Hot Havana Nights events in August 2015.

You can read more about the Mob in Florida and Cuba at Deitche’s website, www.tampamafia.com.