Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Havana Nocturne, by T.J. English

This week I'm looking into something I know basically nothing about: Cuban history. Pretty much everything I know about Cuba is as it's related to the United States. Such as attempts by slaveholders to bring Cuba into the United States to expand slave territory or America's decision to intervene in the Cuban war for independence against Spain which cemented the United States as a world power. So I didn't really know anything about Cuba in the 1950's and that the mafia actually was deeply involved in the country. With a subject like that it's definitely worth taking a look. Of course, it's still Cuban history largely as it's related to the United States, but any expansion of knowledge is good.

From about 1952 to 1959 several of the major players in the organized crime syndicates in the United States, collectively referred to as the mob, owned casino hotels in the town of Havana. They also paid extensive bribes to the political leaders of Cuba which allowed them to do basically whatever they wanted, which had been the goal of the mob since the 1920's. As their operations expanded from bootlegging to prostitution, narcotics, and most important of all gambling, gangsters began looking for an offshore location to launder profits while making more money to launch further enterprises.

Cuba was in many ways a perfect match for the mobsters. It was close to the United States, but independent which put mobsters beyond the reach of federal lawmen. The country had a long history of corruption and Havana had a long history as a vice location for American tourists. Alcohol, gambling, drugs, and sex were all available for purchase and in boom years Americans spent millions of dollars in Havana. The gangsters were right at home and for several years they ran Havana as their own personal fiefdom.

A story which I've heard is Americans pondering why the Cubans banded behind Fidel Castro and revolted, eventually kicking the Americans out of Cuba and leading to the strange state of affairs which is tentatively thawing today, but that remains to be seen.  If Cubans had made so much money off of American tourism, why would they want American tourists to stop coming? Well the answer is simply that the money stayed concentrated in Havana. So while Havana, especially the political and military elites in Havana, enjoyed bribes, kickbacks, and ordinary profits from the tourism industry, the rest of the country was trapped in deep, crippling poverty dominated by American corporations like United Fruit. So when the majority of the country isn't benefitting from all the money coming into the country, it's easy to see why a revolution would take root.

I am left with some concerns about this book, namely its sources. The first problem is that I listened to this book as an audio book rather than reading it so I didn't have a collection of sources to consult. This is made more concerning with some of the assertions that English makes. For example, towards the end of the book English suggests that the mob was somehow connected with the assassination of John F. Kennedy based off of an offhand comment made by a gangster several years later. This seems rather unlikely and English doesn't pursue the subject any further. English also asserts that while the mob owned the the casinos and hotels, they were not involved in the narcotics trade or prostitution in Cuba and there's no evidence at all that they were. Honestly, I feel like this is a case of English protesting too much. Yes, the mob was trying to clean up their image and become ''respectable businessmen'', but I find it unlikely that they wouldn't dabble in areas other than gambling.

English also isn't very broad in his detailing of the mob connections in Cuba. I can understand this to an extent because, this being a criminal activity, they weren't exactly the type to keep records. But it's a very general overview rather than a detailed account. Rather than talking about conditions outside of Havana, we're basically told they're just bad. We're told about the bribery and corruption, but he doesn't get into the nitty gritty. There are plenty of details about the more titillating details such as the thriving sex show industry in Havana, but it seems more for entertainment than actual research.

Overall, while it's interesting to know, I feel like this book falls short in quite a few ways from a historical research perspective. I would like to check up on English's sources for more information, but his inclusion of a conspiracy theory is somewhat concerning on the whole work.

- Kalpar

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