Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The rise and fall of the American Mob in Cuba in Havana Nocturn

From The Week of February 04, 2013
The rise and fall of the American Mob in Cuba in Havana Nocturn
For decades now, the American gangster has been a figure more of celebrity than ridicule. From Godfather to Goodfellas, pop culture has celebrated his anti-heroism, identified with his restlessness and cringed at the violence he's meted out to those who've wronged, crossed, or obstructed him. He embodies that strange disquiet that lives within all of us, that feeling that the strictures of our lives are far too confining and that a life beyond rules, beyond laws, beyond the boundaries of a conventional existence can only thrill us with its chaos and rebellion. The reality, naturally, while still glamorous, is far more grim. For the life of the gangster is much like one of their favorite businesses, one big gamble upon which a life's fortunes are bet. This much and more is captured by Mr. English's intriguing, if somewhat infatuated, history of the Mob in Cuba.

Prior to Fidel Castro's 1961 communist revolution, Cuba was nothing like the grim, socialist nation we know today. Open to trade from the United States, it, like other islands in the Caribbean, was a primary destination for American tourists coming down from the east coast. Much of Cuba's economy relied upon this inflow of American cash which naturally manifested in the creation of businesses to service the needs of the tourists. Unencumbered by the same morality laws that constricted behaviors back home, Americans, like most other tourists, were able to enjoy all the pleasures the island had to offer and then some, confident that their transgressions would never make it back to their native shores.

Though this tourism existed prior to the Mob's interest in Cuba, it skyrocketed when, after being deported from the United States, Lucky Luciano settled there in the late 1940s, intending to create, with the backing of the local dictatorial government, a gangster's paradise where sex, booze and gambling were as ubiquitous as the cigar smoke that would fill the beautiful hotels harboring all of this libidinous activity. Though Luciano was soon pressured out of this scheme by a furious US State Department, Meyer Lansky, the Jewish gangster immortalized in the second Godfather film, ran with their shared dream, inspiring the creation of a strip of hotels to rival Las Vegas over the next decade. These schemes would make many a gangster rich, for, this time, the mob had successfully sunk its fingers into a national government, incentivizing the politicians to encourage, rather than resist, this criminal trade. It was a beautiful dream that lasted for nearly 15 years, until the depravities of a president inspired a socialist revolution that would sweep not only the political old guard from Cuba's shores but the Mafia filth as well, leaving fortunes to dissipate into the white sands of a newly communist country.

Animated by charmers and celebrities, criminals and con-artists, Havana Nocturn is Mr. English's guided tour through an attempt by the American Mafia to create the closest thing to a sovereign state of their own in 1950s Cuba. In detail, the author describes the lengths to which the Mob linked their profitability with that of Cuba's general economy, creating all the incentives a dictatorial government would need to enable the Mob's elicit activities. This financial tapdance, along with an engrossing chronology of highlights of Lansky and Co's exploits on this most infamous Caribbean island, forms the backbone of a work that largely succeeds in its attempt to characterize the golden age of the American Mob, an age that, for inventors in Cuba, would come to an abrupt end with the rise of Fidel Castro.

Mr. English's account, full of murderers and sex tourists, beautiful girls and devilish dictators, would be dead on arrival without the unique contributions made by Lansky and his crew. Relying on details published in their own memoirs, the author amalgamates their colorful deeds with the austerity of Castro and his movement to create a captivating juxtaposition of political and economic forces. He's so successful in weaving together these narrative threads that, at times, Havana Nocturn feels like nothing les than a ticking timebomb as these two such disparate factions, criminality and communism, authoritarianism and revolution, thunder towards an inevitable, devastating collision. However, as much as the work entertains, its sincerity is not entirely convincing. Castro, here, feels white-washed, a sympathetic hero whose motivations are rarely probed. This may be thanks to a lack of eyewitness material on his rise to power and the years that would immediately follow. Nonetheless, we're left with a figure somewhat discordant with the man we know today.

This is more a work of entertainment than education. There's no question that it shines a light on a time now lost to the gloss of Hollywood history, but it lives too much in the heads of its criminals and revolutions to be completely trusted. (3/5 Stars)

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