My friend Jack Colhoun wrote the book on Cuba. It’s called Gangsterismo: The United States, Cuba and The Mafia, 1933 to 1966. In his Op-ed, recently published on the History News Network, he writes, “The heirs of Meyer Lansky, the impresario of the North American Mafia gambling colony in Cuba (1933-1958) are betting on a big payback from the negotiations between the United States and Cuba to normalize relations between the two countries.” And concludes, “To portray Lansky as an aggrieved victim of Cuba is to stand history on its head. There should be no compensation for the heirs of the former Mafia gamblers in Cuba.”
The heirs of Meyer Lansky, the impresario of the North American Mafia gambling colony in Cuba (1933-1958) are betting on a big payback from the negotiations between the United States and Cuba to normalize relations between the two countries. Compensation claims by U.S. citizens or businesses for properties nationalized by the Cuban revolution are among the issues under discussion.
Lansky’s daughter Sandi, her son Gary Rapoport, and her brother Paul have filed a compensation claim against Cuba for the Riviera Hotel and Casino with the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission. The Cuban revolution confiscated the Riviera and other Mafia-owned properties after it toppled the gangster-linked regime of General Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
“It was through my grandfather’s hard work that the hotel was built,” Rapoport told the U. K. Daily Mail Online on December 23, 2015. “We are his natural relations . . . . By right, it should be our property.” He says the Riviera is valued at $70 million. The Tampa Bay Tribune, Reuters, and Haaretz have also covered the story.
The Riviera, which overlooks the Straits of Florida, was the crown jewel of Lansky’s casinos, hotels, and nightclubs in Havana. When the Riviera opened in December 1957, it was the largest Mafia-owned hotel-casino outside Las Vegas. The hotel’s 440 double rooms were booked solid for the winter season of 1957-1958.
However, the narrative that the success of the Riviera was the product of Meyer Lansky’s “hard work” is undercut by Lansky’s own assessment of his arrangement with Batista. Lansky talked candidly about his years in Cuba with Israeli national security writers Dennis Eisenberg, Uri Dan, and Eli Landau for their admiring biography Meyer Lansky: Mogul of the Mob (Paddington Press, 1979). (Lansky lived in Israel in 1970-1971 to avoid tax evasion charges in the United States.)
Gangsterismo is an extraordinary accomplishment, the most comprehensive history yet of the clash of epic forces over several decades in Cuba. It is a chronicle that touches upon deep and ongoing themes in the history of the Americas, and more specifically of the United States government, Cuba before and after the revolution, and the criminal networks known as the Mafia.
The result of 18 years’ research at national archives and presidential libraries in Kansas, Maryland, Texas, and Massachusetts, here is the story of the making and unmaking of a gangster state in Cuba. In the early 1930s, mobster Meyer Lansky sowed the seeds of gangsterismo when he won Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista’s support for a mutually beneficial arrangement: the North American Mafia were to share the profits from a future colony of casinos, hotels, and nightclubs with Batista, his inner circle, and senior Cuban Army and police officers. In return, Cuban authorities allowed the Mafia to operate its establishments without interference. Over the next twenty-five years, a gangster state took root in Cuba as Batista, other corrupt Cuban politicians, and senior Cuban army and police officers got rich. All was going swimmingly until a handful of revolutionaries upended the neat arrangement: and the CIA, Cuban counterrevolutionaries, and the Mafia joined forces to attempt the overthrow of Castro.
Gangsterismo is unique in the literature on Cuba, and establishes for the first time the integral, extensive role of mobsters in the Cuban exile movement. The narrative unfolds against a broader historical backdrop of which it was a part: the confrontation between the United States and the Cuban revolution, which turned Cuba into one of the most perilous battlegrounds of the Cold War.
Jack Colhoun is an independent historian of the Cold War (University of Wisconsin, Madison, BA, 1968; York University , PhD, 1976), an investigative reporter and professional archival researcher. Colhoun has written widely on U.S. foreign policy and covert intelligence operations. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Toronto Star, The Nation, The Progressive, National Catholic Reporter, and Covert Action Quarterly. Colhoun was a longtime Washington bureau chief of the storied radical newsweekly The Guardian until it closed in 1992. During the Vietnam War, Colhoun, an anti-war Army lieutenant, was a leader of draft and military resisters exiled in Canada and an editor of the American exile magazine AMEX-Canada.