The prologue of Jack Colhoun’s book Gangsterismo: The United States, Cuba and the Mafia, 1933 to 1966.
August 1960, Miami: a telltale bargain was struck between exiled Cuban politician Manuel Antonio Varona and organized crime leader Meyer Lansky. Lansky, the impresario of the Mafia gambling colony in Cuba since the 1930s, had owned Havana’s Hotel Riviera and the Montmartre nightclub and their fabulous casinos.
In Cuba, Lansky was known as the “Little Man” for his five-foot-four-inch stature, but his cold, hard eyes and intense demeanor were physical expressions of a man used to wielding power and getting his way. His dream of turning Havana into a tropical paradise for North American tourists had come true. Havana had a reputation for the best gambling and wildest nightlife in the Western Hemisphere in the 1950s. And since Lansky shared the Mafia’s profits with General Fulgencio Batista and senior Cuban army and police officers, that gambling paradise became the cornerstone of a full-fledged Cuban gangster state.
But when Fidel Castro’s bearded revolutionaries drove Batista from power on New Year’s Day 1959, Castro condemned the Mafia’s gambling colony for corrupting Cuban values, and shut it down. The Cuban revolution brought down the curtain on the era of gangsterismo in Cuba.
In the meeting in Miami, Lansky offered Varona several million dollars to form a Cuban government-in-exile to replace Castro’s revolutionary regime. Lansky also promised to arrange a public relations campaign in the United States to polish Varona’s political image. In return, Varona, a stout man with heavy dark-framed eyeglasses, endorsed the Mafia’s single-minded objective: to reopen its casinos, hotels, and nightclubs in a post-Castro Cuba.
Several months before the Miami meeting, Varona, a leading member of the reformist Partido Revolucionario Cubano-Auténtico (Cuban Revolutionary Party-Authentic), had publicly broken with Castro. Ever since, he had been shuttling between cities in the Americas to confer with other anti-Castro Cubans in a bid for leadership of the Cuban counterrevolution.
Varona had been both prime minister and Senate president under Auténtico President Carlos Prío Socarrás. For their part, Prío and his brother Paco were closely connected to Lansky and Charles “Lucky” Luciano. In March 1952, Batista seized power in a coup d’etat (strike against the state), and Prío fled, leaving Varona to assume leadership of the Auténtico Party.
But the Auténticos’ reputation as a reform party had been badly tarnished by the ties of its leaders to the Mafia gamblers. Varona himself had been connected with smuggling and kidnapping, and he kept pistoleros (political gunmen) on his payroll. A CIA memorandum reported, “[H]e maintained action groups at his service to force political decisions both in his [Camaguey] province and in Las Villas province where he was once provincial leader of the Auténtico Party.” Varona had good reason to accept Lansky’s offer. And so, in a remarkable act of political surrealism, the American Mafia, notorious for gangland murders and corruption of politicians, cleaned up the image of its Cuban partners in crime.
They hired the public relations firm of Edward K. Moss in Washington, D.C. Moss was a good