Post-World War II was a boon for enterprising businessmen, and there was no group more creative in the matter of wealth accumulation and distribution than organized crime known as the mob - in Cuba’s care, the Havana Mob.
Mayer Lansky’s dream came to fruition in 1950’s Cuba (1952-1959), an island paradise of casinos, nightclubs, elaborate resorts, the exotic atmosphere suffused with excess, beauty, music, gambling and the numerable criminal enterprises that bloomed in such an economy.
That they might use murder, violence and repression was part of the process in a country suffering the breakdown of resources. Hunger, poverty and illiteracy were staples of Cuban life, Havana’s ostensible high standards of living belied by the social ills that accompanied an unfair division of resources,, opportunity and profit for the connected: the U.S. entrepreneurs Lucky Luciano, Mayer Lansky, Albert Anastasia, Santo Trafficante - the great profiteers of Prohibition.
Of course, these swaggering American criminals could never have gotten a foothold in Havana without the help of El Presidente Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar, a brutal dictator who used connections in the military to stage a bloodless coup, offering access to the country’s resources, oil, sugar, public utilities to the mobsters with plans to distribute that wealth creatively, with Cuba as their power base. But then such partnerships, government (military) and crime were lucrative for those at the top, as long as they could be protected from the unhappy, downtrodden masses.
English describes this paradise as vividly as if the Havana Mob were once more enjoying its heyday: the incessant beat of music; the “official dance,” the mambo; the fast cars; beautiful women; and showy bacchanalia of cheap crooks in expensive suits.
And where there is power, criminality, excess and beauty, there is celebrity - the excited faces of American entertainers and notables Frank Sinatra, Eartha Kitt, George Raft, John F. Kennedy, Ava Gardner, the Tropicana nightclub, the Riviera, statuesque blondes adorning the arms of short, brutal mobsters.
Then, of course, came the fall, Cuba’s incipient rebellion aided by mob infighting, the usual jockeying for power that infects an organization ruled by violence. Long festering but focusing on the excesses of the Havana mob, Fidel Castro gathered the revolutionaries who would bring an end to this obscene consumerism that robbed the poor of their country’s resources, anti-Batista guerilla fighters.
But for all the films romanticizing the glory days of the mob in Cuba, English gathers the facts: the historical context of rampant capitalism, the people’s opposition, a great experiment as picturesque as the taming of the Wild West. Today’s Cuba bears the ghosts of capitalist exploitation, the rebel agenda of Fidel Castro, and years of enmity with the United States.
In prose as colorful as any novel, the author captures the essence of a Havana drenched in revelry, gambling, crime and celebration, the seeds of revolution sprouting throughout, unnoticed until the great upheaval that banishes the crime cartel and its tentacles, only to be replaced over time by another form of repression.