The Mafia and Cuba: 75 Years of History

Sugar Mill

Cuba has long endured foreign influences ranging from conquest and military interventions to investment and tourism. During the past centuries, Cuba’s prolific sugar fields brought huge sums of overseas investment, as Americans were Cuba’s main sugar trade clients based on our ravenous appetite for sugar in the daily diet. Sugar was freely bartered by the thousands of tons to U.S. customers in exchange for every U.S. product that ordinary Cubans might want or need, from toothbrushes and shoes to the essential staples of rice, beans, milk and meats.

Following Cuba’s Fidel Castro-led revolution in 1959, Russia primarily supported Cuba, utilizing the island’s strategic proximity for international diplomacy and an implied military threat during the Cold War. However, for one sensational decade prior, in the late-1940’s and 50’s, another menacing group found its profitable home on the island. Mobsters, primarily New York criminals, realized Havana was the ideal “fantasy” destination from which they could operate and realize huge untaxed returns unfettered by laws on the U.S. mainland.

Mafia influence in Cuba had been initially focused on smuggling drugs and alcohol into the United States. During Prohibition mobsters would “rum-run”, while cocaine and heroin addictions rose simultaneously. Mob bosses at first refrained from the illicit drug trade, but for some Dons, the lure of big-time profits was too great to resist. Illegal drugs entered Cuba from South America, Asia and North Africa, as Cuba was often the transshipment point before the final journey to American cities. Establishing in Cuba enabled the Mob to store drugs before the “coast cleared” for final transshipments to the U.S.

Cuban border and customs officers were easy to bribe. Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, a “U.S. puppet President”, became well-acquainted with big-time mobsters from the U.S., offering support for Mob operations in the form of country-wide police protection in exchange for a healthy cut of profits. Following his self-imposed exile from Cuba during the 1940’s, the notorious New York gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano returned to Cuba when Batista resumed power at the end of that decade, to be joined by mobster financier Meyer Lansky. Luciano and Lansky would soon gain control of Cuba’s gambling industry and build its casinos, setting the stage for the island’s gambling boom of the 1950’s.