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An Empire of Vice | The Nation

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An Empire of Vice

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UNC PRESSA cartoon from Puck magazine, 1897

About the Author

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro teaches geography and literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Three days before Christmas in 1946, Havana's Hotel Nacional was closed for a private meeting. Armed guards blocked entry to its lovely grounds atop a seaside bluff in the plush El Vedado district. Inside the stately cream-colored Art Deco hotel, a group of distinguished foreign visitors tucked into a feast of local delicacies. There were crab and queen conch enchiladas from the southern archipelago; swordfish and oysters from the nearby village of Cojímar; roast breast of flamingo and tortoise stew; grilled manatee, washed down with añejo rum. It is unknown whether the attendees--whose number included about twenty of North America's most notorious gangsters--ended their meal with a cake like the one served at their feast's fictional rendering in The Godfather Part II. But as in the film, the purpose of the gathering was clear: to divvy up shares in the empire of vice they were busy establishing in Havana.

During the next decade, the mafia built a seaside gambling resort, which soon rivaled in profits and glamour its sister project in dusty Las Vegas. Under the canny direction of Meyer Lansky, the Jewish don who'd risen from the streets of New York's Lower East Side, members of the Havana Mob became fabulously wealthy. So too did Cuba's US-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista, whose stake in the mob's affairs exceeded the sacks of cash delivered weekly to the presidential palace. With Lansky and fellow mobsters like Santo Trafficante employed as "tourism experts" in his government, Batista eliminated taxes on the tourism industry, guaranteed public financing for hotel construction and--as T.J. English shows in Havana Nocturne, an exacting and lively account of the era--even granted responsibility for Cuba's infrastructure development to a new mob-controlled bank, BANDES. In December 1957 the opening of the Riviera, a $14 million mafia show palace just down the seawall from the Nacional, was celebrated by a special episode of The Steve Allen Show on US television and a gala in Havana featuring Ginger Rogers. Three months later, the twenty-five-story Havana Hilton--mortgage holder: BANDES--became Cuba's biggest hotel yet.

The party ended on New Year's 1959, when Batista fled the island as Fidel Castro's barbudos advanced on its capital. Castro and his bearded rebels established their headquarters in the Havana Hilton and loosed a truckload of pigs on the sleek lobby of the Riviera. Castro announced the "socialist nature" of his revolution. Nikita Khrushchev sent Soviet missiles. President John F. Kennedy--who, during a visit to Havana the previous year as a senator, had spent an afternoon with three mob-supplied prostitutes under the gaze, from behind a two-way hotel-room mirror, of Santo Trafficante--instituted the embargo that defines US-Cuba relations to this day.

"I couldn't get that little island off of my mind," Lansky remarked after his first visit to Cuba in the 1920s. The gangster was no less covetous of Cuba, and proved no less fixated on controlling it, than a series of US presidents reaching back to the founders. "I have ever looked on Cuba," wrote Thomas Jefferson to President James Monroe when the United States gained control of the Florida peninsula in 1821, "as the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States." Monroe's secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, was more blunt. "The annexation of Cuba to our federal republic," he wrote, "will be indispensable to the continuance and integrity of the Union itself." After the United States took possession of Texas and California by war in 1848, many in Washington advocated annexing Cuba by force as well. The impulse was quashed for a time. Nevertheless, with Spain's empire sunk in a long decline, the United States' eventual possession of Cuba was viewed as inevitable for most of the nineteenth century. In a political cartoon from 1897, one of a trove of such images Louis A. Pérez Jr. uses to illustrate his brilliant book Cuba in the American Imagination, Uncle Sam stands beneath a fruit tree with a basket of plums, each bearing the name of a foreign territory already attained--Louisiana, Florida, Texas. From an upper branch hangs a "Cuba" plum, upon which Sam gazes keenly, his look distilling the common view: if America refrained from picking Cuba with a forceful hand, the ripe prize would eventually fall to its basket simply by dint of geography and time.

When the warship USS Maine mysteriously exploded while docked at Spanish Havana in February 1898, the United States had a pretext for shaking the tree of its remaining fruit. A few months later, Cuban rebels and invading US forces expelled Spain from the island, and Cuba (along with Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines) was annexed to the United States. "We went to war for civilization and humanity," President William McKinley eulogized, "to relieve our oppressed neighbors in Cuba." Humanity's gains were hazy, but what the United States certainly gained from the war was an empire. Puerto Rico and the Philippines became de facto American colonies; and with the passage of the Platt Amendment in 1901, Washington arrogated to itself the right to intervene in Cuba's affairs whenever it wished--providing also for the seizure of Cuban territory at Guantánamo Bay to establish a US naval base purposed "to enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba" (and conveniently positioned to protect what would soon be a key sea lane to the Panama Canal).

Gaining control of Cuba fulfilled a long-sought strategic aim. But equally important for the United States was how the invasion of Cuba came to shape its foreign policy and self-image at large. The Spanish-American War--the Union's first large-scale military campaign since Reconstruction--bolstered American unity and inaugurated America's self-conception as a "universal nation" endowed with the moral mission of projecting its power abroad. Before 1898, as Pérez stresses, quoting the historian Norman Graebner, "the foreign policies of the United States were rendered solvent by ample power to cover limited, largely hemispheric, goals." Afterward, those policies became global, their stated aims--universal democracy and freedom for all humanity--abstract in nature and unobtainable in practice. As Pérez writes, the template for US foreign wars, up to the "war on terror," with its crusading aim to "rid the world of evil," was cast in America's war for Cuba.

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