Thursday, November 13, 2014

Cuba and the American Mafia

From The 1950s Till Today
Sunday, November 16th, 2014
      She may look more like a reticent Miss Congeniality than a fierce lioness but Josefina Vidal, Cuba's Minister of North American Affairs, is a key reason the island of Cuba is surviving as a sovereign nation, against implacable odds, this deep into the 21st Century. At the conclusion of a news conference in Havana, almost as an aside, she was asked by a candid French journalist, "Really, Ms. Vidal, how much longer can the revolution last? I mean, Fidel is now 88-years-old. When he's gone..." She cut off the Frenchman in mid-sentence, curtly replying, "When he's gone we'll have his legacy. In his life-time he beat the thieving Batistianos who were backed by the strongest nation in the world, the United States, and by the strongest criminal organization in the world, the Mafia. And in his legacy we will still have him as a ballast. Tell your readers in Paris that this is not a normal revolution. Keeping the Mafia off the island will keep inspiring us. If we have surprised you for over sixty years, you will be equally surprised in the next six or ten decades."
      Josefina Vidal, whose expertise now constitutes Cuba's main defensive mechanism, has always defined the Cuban Revolution and Revolutionary Cuba as the good guy against the bad guy and to her the bad guy is also known as "the Mafia." To comprehend how Ms. Vidal stays abreast of vital topics, she, for one thing, knows how to Google for information. And for another thing, she has an eclectic taste when it comes to newspapers and books. On her desk recently a journalist noted several American and British newspapers and one book. The book, interestingly enough, was "Daughter of the King" by Sandra Lansky.  
  This is one of the most fascinating books published in 2014 and, I believe, it is a must-read for anyone fascinated with the Cuban Revolution, Revolutionay Cuba and/or U.S.-Cuban relations since the 1950s. Sandra Lansky is the only daughter of Mafia kingpin Meyer Lansky. She is quite frank about gangland upbringing, which included her close relationships with other Mafia figures; the famed murder of Bugsy Siegal in Las Vegas, for example, was reportedly ordered by Meyer Lansky from his headquarters in Cuba, and Sandra called Bugsy "Uncle Bugsy." As an awesomely beautiful gangland daughter, Sandra also had close, even intimate, relationships with such notable entertainers as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. She massively loved Dean Martin and in the book she graphically described how the virile Mr. Martin made love to her six times one eventful night. My fascination with her book is purely based on my fascination with the Cuban Revolution, which I think says a lot more about the United States than it says about Cuba. Sandra Lansky's book about her father reinforces that belief. If Meyer Lansky had not risen to the top echelon of the Mafia in the United States, there probably would never have been a Cuban Revolution because there likely would never have been a second Batista dictatorship in Cuba beginning in 1952. As the fame "Godfather" movie and even some very brave historians have pointed out, Meyer Lansky and Fulgencio Batista were living opulent lives in South Florida when Lansky mentioned to Batista that he had always wanted the Mob to own its own country. Lansky, the Jewish Mafia kingpin, and his buddy Lucky Luciano, the Italian Mafia kingpin, had already stashed away plenty of money, as had Batista from his first Cuban dictatorship in the 1940s. Batista knew he still had enough money and enough friends in Miami, Washington, and Havana to easily pull off a second dictatorship in Cuba. So, as a favor to his friend Meyer Lansky, that is what happened in 1952. The book by Sandra Lansky is copious with hints about how and why Batista, Lansky, and Luciano teamed to fulfill Lansky's dream of the Mafia owning its own country -- Cuba! That dream was fulfilled, sternly but briefly, in the 1950s, but Cuba's reaction still reverberates strongly today.
    In her book, the very beautiful Sandi Lansky Lombardo mentioned that one of her father's proudest possessions was a book given to him and personally autographed by two of America's greatest military leaders in World War II. That comes as no surprise to democracy-loving Americans who are not too pleased that, from the 1950s onward, powerful Americans in the military, the CIA, the U. S. Congress, and even the Republican White Houses have facilitated unsavory characters ruling Cuba in the 1950s and unsavory characters since 1959 trying desperately to regain control of it. Meyer Lansky's autographed military book referenced by Sandra obviously was a result of the U. S. government and many historians giving too much credit to Luciano, Lansky, and the Mafia for their help in defeating the vile German, Japanese, and Italian dictatorships in World War II. A young New York prosecutor, Thomas Dewey, had Luciano safely locked up in prison on a 55-year sentence. Using Lansky as a middle-man, the U. S. government secured Luciano's release using the excuse that Luciano, even from prison, was the top Mafia boss and the Mafia controlled the vital New York waterfront that supposedly was very susceptible to German U-boats. A freed Luciano supposedly saved the New York waterfront! Then when the U. S. and England had plans to attack Italy and Sicily, Luciano supposedly paved the way by utilizing the American Mafia's vast knowledge of Italy and Sicily although the fiendish Italian dictator Mussolini, not wanting any internal competition to his Fascist regime, had wiped out the Mafia in Italy and Sicily, killing most of the Mafia leaders and imprisoning the rest. After the World War II victory, as a means of thanking Luciano and Lansky, the U. S. made sure the Mafia leaders were released and many of them quickly resumed control of huge swaths of both Italy and Sicily once again, causing decades of the bloodiest days in Italian history when even top government officials and judges were routinely murdered. After the war, the U. S. didn't return Luciano to that New York prison but did insist that he never return to the United States. But back in Mafia-infested Italy, Luciano soon dominated the world's heroin trade and other lucrative rackets. Then in 1952...Lansky, Luciano, and Batista saw an opportunity for the Mafia to take over its own country -- Cuba! 
      Beginning in 1952, this graphic aptly illustrates the three kingpins in the brutal, thieving Batista dictatorship in Cuba. Front and center is Sandra's father Meyer Lansky. That's the U. S. government's pal Lucky Luciano on the upper-left and Washington's dear friend Fulgencio Batista on the upper-right. The Mafia focus that had been in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, and Las Vegas shifted to Havana! Cuba was viewed as such a luscious tropical paradise and piggy-bank that Lansky, Luciano, and Batista permitted other U. S. Mafia kingpins -- Carlos Marcello of New Orleans, Santo Trafficante of Tampa, Sam Giancana of Chicago, etc. -- to also share in the shady loot being created in Cuba from massive drug, prostitution, and gambling endeavors. Also, to keep the U. S. government happy, rich American businessmen -- after kick-backs to the Batista thugs -- also partook in the fleecing of Cuba. Meanwhile, ships heavily loaded with drugs made regular runs from Havana to Miami, New Orleans and other major U. S. ports. And all the while the U. S. government and U. S. citizens ignored not only the theft of the nearby island's resources and dignity but also the extreme brutality of the powerful Batista dictatorship against innocent Cubans who remotely objected to what was going on. The U. S. government, in fact, provided the military hardware that made Batista's dictatorship powerful. And, yes, many U. S. citizens flocked to the island repeatedly to spend their dollars on gambling, prostitution, drugs, money-laundering, and other nefarious enterprises.
    There are two things that make the Cuban Revolution unique: #1 It was the first revolution forged by massive street marches undertaken by outraged mothers who objected rather strenuously to the senseless and heartless torture and murder of their children, as reflected by this and many other photos; and #2 it is the only revolution that overturned a U.S.-backed dictatorship. Batista, Luciano, Lansky, and other Mafia kingpins didn't stand and fight the rebels storming toward Havana on the last days of 1958 and by New Years Eve in 1959 cash-laden airplanes, ships, and boats hurriedly vacated the island for safer havens, especially nearby Miami. There had already been enough money stashed in Swiss and U. S. banks to overwhelm even U. S. cities as large as Miami in Florida and Union City in New Jersey. And at Fort Benning in Georgia the U. S. already had a secretive operation known as the Army of the Americas in which the U. S. trained and armed soldiers and police from U.S.-friendly dictatorships. So, Fort Benning was where the most passionate anti-revolution/anti-Castro Cubans ended up...including Jorge Mas Canoso who would become the richest and most powerful Cuban-exile as well as Luis Posada Carriles who would become the most infamous Cuban-exile/CIA terrorist. All of that resulted from a female-powered revolution started by Cuban mothers who objected to what Mafia thugs like Meyer Lansky was doing to their island. Since 1959 two generations of those who fled the Cuban Revolution have dictated the basic Cuban narrative in the U. S. as well as the basic Cuban policy in the U. S. -- both of which, by the way, have had as their prime priorities the overthrow of Revolutionary Cuba and, presumptuously, the return of a Batista-type rule. Politically correct or thoroughly intimidated historians and journalists, for the most part, are not sources of truth regarding the Mafia dominance of the U.S.-friendly Batista dictatorship in Cuba. Thus, Sandra Lansky's 2014 book about her Mafia kingpin father Meyer Lansky provides more insight into U.S.-Cuban relations since the 1950s than most orthodox media sources provide because she was perhaps more honest and less intimidated.
     This photo {courtesy of Sandra Lansky} shows the Lansky family. That's Meyer Lansky standing on the right. His wife Ada is sitting beside their daughter Sandra. Sandra's two older brothers are standing to the left. In her book Sandra reveals deep affection for her family, including her father, but also divulges intimate knowledge of his criminality. The book includes photos of several notable murder victims whom she had known as "uncles" and she is aware that her father has been accused of ordering or condoning some of those murders. At one point Sandra mentions that she and her father were joined in a restaurant by the sensational Italian entertainer Frank Sinatra. who was known to envy Mafiosi kingpins such as Lansky, Luciano, and Giancana. A nervous Frank spilled a drink all over Sandra and then anxiously recoiled when he noticed her father's facial reaction, a descriptive look but one which clearly scared the fawning Sinatra, amusing Sandra. That tidbit from Sandra's book coincided with the fact that millions of Americans far less famous than Sinatra also considered Mafia kingpins celebrities, not criminals. Such accolades, however, were not how those Cuban mothers who actually started the Cuban revolution viewed Lansky and the rest of the American Mafia.
          Based on her book, the love of Sandra's life was the A-list entertainer Dean Martin {Photo courtesy Sandra Lansky}. She not only was enamored with his sexual prowess, as she vividly explained, but also impressed by how often he desired to see her, including the morning after they had made love six times. He repeatedly begged her to accompany him on out-of-town singing and movie gigs. But he never asked her to marry him and she seems to believe that was only because of who her father was. Sandra had been married as a teenager but as a beautiful woman she was disappointed she did not become Martin's wife.
       But Sandra Lansky did become Mrs. Vincent Lombardo. {Photo courtesy: Sandra Lansky}. He was on the fringe of the Mafia when she fell in love with him, after reluctantly conceding she would not become Mrs. Dean Martin, but Meyer Lansky laid down a rule: If Vince was to marry his daughter, he must never again have anything to do with the Mafia. Sandra said Vince made that solemn promise to her father, and kept it.
      This photo shows Italian Lucky Luciano, on the left, with his shorter Jewish friend Meyer Lansky. This was in New York during the early stages as they were solidifying their Mafia credentials, Lucky as a street thug and Meyer as a more cerebral thief. Lucky went go on to become the most powerful figure in Mafia history, renowned as the organizer of organized crime. Meyer was #2 in the Mafia because he was Lucky's financial guru and prime strategist. After the U. S. government bailed Lansky out of his 55-year prison sentence in New York {because the U. S. allegedly needed the Mafia's help to win World War II}, Cuba suffered mightily from the fact that the world's top gangster had the opportunity to plague Cuba during the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship in the 1950s as did his prime partner Meyer Lansky, who also didn't have much trouble from the U. S. government either before or after the Batista turmoil that roiled Cuba.
      Lucky Luciano was born Salvadore Lucania in Lercara Friddi, Italy, on November 24, 1897. By then it was becoming known that the Italian Mafiosi could make much more money in the U. S. than in Italy. No Mafia figure ever had as much power as Lucky Luciano. In 1998, in fact, Time Magazine named Lucky Luciano to the Top 20 of the most influential American "builders" of the 20th Century. Al Capone, Vito Genevesse, Carlo Gambino, and a few others earned well-known Mafia fame and infamy but they all took their orders from Lucky Luciano. After World War II, Luciano actually lived only briefly in Cuba but he still called the major shots, pun intended, for the Mafia exploitation of Cuba and its other enterprises. Luciano died of a heart attack at the Naples International Airport in Italy on January 26, 1962. He had gone to the airport to meet American movie producer Martin Gosch concerning a film about his life. After massive funeral processions in Italy, Luciano's body was flown to the U. S. and he was buried at St. John's Cemetery in Queens, New York. The eulogy was spoken by Carlo Gambino, whom Mafia experts consider the only other man to approach the Mafia power held by Luciano. But Carlo was a distant #2.
        As this photo {courtesy of Sandra Lansky} shows, Meyer Lansky lived in Miami long after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and long after the death of Lucky Luciano in 1962. This photo was taken of "Daddy" -- Meyer Lansky -- in Miami in 1972 with two of his best friends. Sandra wrote in their names.

       This photo was taken of Meyer Lansky in 1958 in Havana, the last year he was in Cuba before fleeing the Cuban Revolution on January 1, 1959, first for the Bahamas and then back to Miami. Lansky was caught by surprise by the startling revolutionary triumph. He had, for example, just spent $18 million dollars to build the plush 440-room Habana Riviera Hotel/Casino and that venture alone had earned him $3 million in profits the first year it was open. Meyer Lansky was born Meyer Suchowijansky in Grodno, Balarus, on July 4, 1902. He died of lung cancer on November 15, 1982 in Miami Beach at age 80. He has been depicted in many movies, including the 1980's Robert Redford film "Havana." But the most famous movie depiction of Lansky was in 1974's "The Godfather II" in which the Hyman Roth character was based on Lansky. Lee Strasberg played Hyman Roth and right after the movie aired Strasberg got a phone call from Lansky congratulating him on his performance. Roth's most famous line in the movie was Lansky's real-life exclamation, "We are bigger than U. S. Steel!" The U. S. government once estimated that Lansky was personally worth $300 million and tax evasion charges were considered but never stuck. Even his daughter Sandra admitted he put cash away in other people's names. And Lansky invested in legitimate businesses. But after he died, a grand-daughter said he had only left $36,000 behind.
          This is the scene in "Godfather II" in which Lee Strasberg {as Lanskylays that "We are bigger than U. S. Steel" line on Al Pacino. Pacino, as the "Godfather" star, had taken $2 million in a satchel to Havana to invest in the Mafia casinos. But the Pacino character changed his mind when he saw a rebel die killing a Batista enforcer on a street in Havana, showing that the rebellion had reached the capital city.
Meyer Lansky is buried in Mt. Nebo Cemetery in Miami.
      This iconic Life Magazine photo shows Meyer Lansky leaving his spanking new Habana Riviera Hotel carrying a satchel that reputedly contained $200,000. In 1959 Fidel Castro famously booted Lansky out of Cuba. In 1970 Lansky fled to Israel because he felt some heat from the IRS related to alleged unpaid taxes. But when she was informed of Lansky's criminality, Israel's Prime Minister Golda Mier famously kicked him out of Israel. But in his long career with the Mafia, Meyer Lansky was welcomed in Batista's Cuba and also welcomed in the United States, especially the Mafia havens of New York, Union City, and Miami.


      There are many excellent books about Meyer Lansky and the American-based Mafia ransacking the nearby island of Cuba back in the 1950s. "A Caribbean Mob Story: The Mafia in Havana" by Enrique Cirules that features Meyer Lansky on the cover is one of the best. 

       But Josefina Vidal also likes "Daughter of the King: Growing Up In Gangland" by Sandra Lansky, the only daughter of Meyer Lansky. Sandra indeed provides special insights into the U.S.-Mafia nexus that resulted in their combined support of the Batista dictatorship in Cuba, an adventure that spawned the even more adventurous Cuban Revolution, which in turn gave birth to such calamitous events as "The Bay of Pigs Attack," "The Cuban Missile Crisis," "The Terrorist Bombing of Cubana Flight 455," "the U. S. Embargo Against Cuba," and other mammoth depictions of the contentious U.S.-Cuban relationship since 1959. Because she lived some of the U. S.-Cuban nuances first-hand, Sandra Lansky casts some bright lights on both American and Cuban history that others, including historians and scholars, have not been afforded. Sandra, for example, had insight on such things as the Mafia assassination of her friend Ben "Bugsy" Siegel because the decision to order that notorious hit supposedly was made at a meeting in Havana of top Mafia bosses, including Meyer Lansky. Later, Meyer Lansky famously said, "If it had been left up to me, Ben Siegel would still be alive." His comment was interesting. So is his daughter's book.
Of course, if you want to be entertained as well as enlightened about Cuba and the Mafia, you should read "Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution" by T. J. English. It's a bit less sanguine and a lot more impervious than Sandra Lansky's book but equally mischievous and authentic. T. J. English crafted four enticing components -- Cuba, sex, politics, and organized crime -- into one sure-fire New York Times best-seller, reaffirming Cuba's fascinating pugnaciousness.
"How Cuba and the Mafia Ended Up In Miami"
"How Tony Montana Fled Cuba for Fame, Infamy, and Fortune in Miami" 

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