1st January 1959 was a turning point for Cuba in a number of ways but especially because the hated Cuban President Fulgencio Batista resigned and fled the country during the night; an act which, at a stroke, removed the protective shield that had enabled the mafia to control Cuba's lucrative hotel and gambling concessions for the previous seven years.
The events of New Year's Eve 1958/59 in Havana are portrayed in the film Godfather II which is an interesting blend of fact and fiction with some characters more-or-less directly lifted from history, some semi-, some entirely fictional. In the film, Batista arrives at a New Year's party being attended by his henchmen and mafia partners and announces his resignation.
This prompts a chaotic exodus from Havana by Batista and the assembled mafiosi, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) planting the 'kiss of death' on his brother Fredo (John Cazale) and thereby doing a poor job of persuading him that he bears no grudge for his betrayal him and that it's perfectly safe for Fredo to travel back to the US with him.
Batista's regime did indeed fall on December 31st 1958/1st January 1959 in dramatic circumstances. Batista had underestimated the strength of the Castro rebels who had been holed up in the Sierra Maestra Mountains for almost two years but who were now marching triumphantly towards Havana and carrying the Cuban population with them. By 3rd January parts of the rebel army under Castro's generals Che Guevara and Camilo Cinefuegos had reached Havana; Castro and his troops, with a great sense of theatre and amid scenes of wild jubilation, arrived in Havana on 8th January.
On the night in question news of Batista's flight started to spread round the hotels of central Havana at 1.00 am. Batista had already fled by then and did not announce his resignation at the Hilton Casino where most of his associates and ministers were indeed partying, instead sneaking away and leaving the nation and his former supporters to their fate. Batista flew out of the country from Camp Columbia - his passage guaranteed by the US Government if he went quietly. Batista ended up in Spain where he died in 1973 at the age of 72, apparently only 2 days before a Cuban hit squad was due to assassinate him.
As the news spread round Havana, anarchy took hold - the people's seething resentment erupting onto the streets and into the casinos, several of which were ransacked with slot machines and gambling tables being dragged out onto the streets and set ablaze.
Most of the leading mobsters in Havana, including Meyer Lanksy (played as Hyman Roth in Godfather II by Lee Strasbourg) did not flee immediately but instead drove round the Havana Casinos colelcting as much of their money as they could, the night's takings that they were able to rescue amounting to several million dollars.
Meanwhile the angry revolutionary crowd continued to ransac the hotels and casinos, even letting a herd of pigs run amock in the most glamorous of the hotels, The Riviera, once the jewel in Meyer Lansky's Havana crown.
The outpouring of anger against the casinos surprised some - but the people of Cuba had long been aware of the collusion between their government and the American gangsters. Batista's regime was rotten to the core - the man himself had become obsessed with the trappings of power, especially money - he had used the presence of Castro's rebels in the mountains as a pretext for increasingly violent and repressive measures against anyone who threatened his position. Batista collected anything between 10% and 30% of casino profits and by the time of his capitulation had ammassed a vast personal fortune, largely at the expense of his countryfolk.
By the end of 1958 he was a hated figure in Cuba - he still had the support of the elite around him including the army but, crucially, he finally lost the support of the US Government who, under Eisenhower, lost patience with his regime. The US felt it had little to fear from Fidel Castro asssuming that if he took power, Cuba would descend into anarchy as it had many times before and open the door for an American intervention or at least for an expanded US role in Cuba.
Batista had been in league with the Mafia and with Meyer Lansky in particular since 1952, Batista relaxing gambling laws and allowing anyone who invested either $200k in a nightclub or $1m in a hotel to obtain a gaming license without the need for any troublesome background checks and matching those investments dollar for dollar with Government funds. It was the Mafia and Batista's dream to create a gambling haven and tourist resort in the Caribbean that would rival the success and glamour of Vegas and Monte Carlo.
Lansky's early associates in Cuba included 'Lucky' Luciano (Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, is probably an amalgam of real-life mobsters Lucky Luciano and Vito Genovese) and Bugsy Seigel (played as Moe Green by Alex Rocco in The Godfather) were heavily involved with Lanksy in Havana and also in Vegas.
Luciano had been deported from the US to Sicily after the war. In the US he had been in jail but had helped the US war effort working for Naval Intelligence and using his influence in the New York Docks and and in Italy to snuff out the traffic in information about ship movements. He snuck back to Havana from Sicily in 1946 and attempted to re-assert his position as 'Capo di tutti capi' working from Cuba. The US government had other ideas and forced the Cuban Government to deport him again in 1947. Luciano died in Naples in 1962.
Bugsy Siegel's story is more colourful. The mafia dons had entrusted him with their millions to construct and manage a showcase hotel in Las Vegas, which at that time was a hick watering hole in the middle of the Nevada desert. The hotel became the Flamingo but Siegel lost the plot during its construction, the power and excitement of it all going to his head and leading to massive cost and schedule overruns with the added twist that he was skimming millions off the top of his investors funds before applying them to the job in hand.
The end was inevitable. Siegel had powerful friends, including Meyer Lanksy, but they were not powerful enough to prevent the Mafia dons, at their renowned Havana conference of 1946, from ordering his assassination which was duly carried out in 1947. Siegel died in a hail of bullets in the Beverly Hill's home of his mistress, Virginia Hill. One bullet dislodged his eyeball which was found, intact, 12ft from his body. He wasn't actually shot in the eye (as was Moe Green in the Godfather film) but nevertheless the 'bullet-in-the-eye' entered into mafia folklore after Siegel's killing.
One other Havana-related, mob hit that achieved mythical status was that of Albert 'Mad Hatter' Anastasia - one of the more ruthless mob killers and enforcers of the post-war period and head of the band of mob killers known as 'Murder Inc'.
Like many of the US based mob bosses Anastasia was an investor in Cuba, most mob investements being made through Meyer Lansky's investment vehicle 'BANDES'. In September 1957 Anastasia decided to visit Cuba to check up on his investments much to the consternation of the Havana Mob Bosses. He spent 5 days touring the casinos and then declared that he was unhappy with the division of spoils from the Hilton in which, he learned, he was an investor along with 15 others including the Hotel Worker's Union and a Junior Senator.
Anastasia demanded that the arrangements be changed - he was threatening to upset the lucrative equilibrium that Lanksy had created in Havana and to try and muscle in on a bigger piece of the Havana action and his end too was inevitable- though somewhat more shocking given the fear that he created wherever he went.
He died in another hail of bullets in the barber's chair in October 1957. As part of his weekly routine he had gone for a haircut at the Park Sheraton barbershop in New York and, with a hot towell wrapped around his face, was shot six times from behind, one bullet smashing through the back of his skull and lodging in his brain.
There were two other key mafia figures in Cuba in the fifties. Santos Trafficante was from Tampa Florida where is father had amassed a fortune mainly controlling the local street gambling obsession called 'bolita'. Trafficante probably had plans of his own to dominate the gambling scene in Cuba but always had to play second fiddle to Lansky who he deeply resented.
Lansky had established his leading role in Cuba with the help of the all powerful Luciano. Lansky and Luciano were the leading lights in the National Crime Syndicate - the body that brought together the major crime families of the US and divided the spoils of organised crime between them. He held onto his leading position there because he was the one with Batista and the government in his pocket and because was the brains behind the Cuban operation who always made money for his partners.
Trafficante was the owner-operator of the Sans Souci nihgtclub in Havana and probably tolerated the 'upstart' Lansky's position (as he would see it) because it was good for business. He tried in 1957 to outflank Lanksy by doing a deal to invest in Cuba behind Lansky's back with Albert Anastasia which will have further encouraged Lanksy and the other key figure in the Havana Mob, Joe Stassi, to take Anastasia out of the equation which they did two months later.
Trafficante died in Houston, Texas where he had gone for heart surgery in 1987. He was almost certainly involved with the assassination of JFK which, according to his lawyer, he practically confessed to. JFK and his brother Bobby were waging a war on organised crime and JFK himself had also made enemies of many anti-Castro Cubans living in the US after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Joe Stassi was the day-to-day manager of the Mob in Havana. He was seen as being a neutral figure, friendly to all parties in Cuba. The weekly Havana Mob meetings were held at his house which was seen as neutral ground. By the late 50's he was, at Lanksy's urging, very much on the business side of organised crime but he had, in his youth, been a feared assassin and enforcer once shooting his best friend at point blank range after being ordered to by his bosses.
In reality Stassi was a trusted associate of Lansky's. It was to Stassi's house that Lanksy sent all the winnings that he could save as chaos overran Havana on the night of Dec31/Jan1 1959. It was Stassi who travelled to New York in 1957 to organise the assassination of Anastasia.
Lansky, Trafficante and Stassi all stayed on in Cuba after Castro's victory, hoping that once the dust had settled they would be able to re-open their hotels and casinos and that everything would return to normal. They were wrong. Castro shut down or nationalised all the hotels and casinos. Trafficante and Stassi were arrested numerous times throughout 1959 by Castro's rebels who were, by the summer, summarily prosecuting and executing known allies of the Batista regime.
By October 1959 all of them had fled Cuba, losing everything. 'I crapped out' said Lanksy of his Cuban adventure, probably not before amassing a vast fortune, which was never found after he died in 1983 in Florida at the age of 80. Stassi, flat broke after he fled Cuba resorted to drug trafficking and soon ended up in jail where he spent the remainder of his days living to the ripe old age of 95.
Guardian, 3 Jan 1959
The Havana Mob: How the Mob Owned Cuba ... and Then Lost it to the Revolution - T.J. English
Cuba: A New History (Yale Nota Bene) - Richard Gott
Havana: The Revolutionary Moment - Burt Glinn