Looking Back At 1950s Havana With T.J. English
Thomas Joseph ‘T.J.’ English is one of the most renowned writers in the United States on the subjects of organized crime and the criminal underworld. As a journalist and author, he has written on everything from ethnic gangs in the U.S. to the narco war in Mexico and corruption in law enforcement. In 2018, T.J. will be joining Aegean Odyssey as a guest lecturer and we wanted to find out what he is most looking forward to with Voyages to Antiquity and get a taste of Havana’s history in the 1950s.
1. What was Havana like in the 1950s? Who were the major historical figures? What roles did they play in driving the outcome?
The decade of the 1950s was a notorious and exciting time in the history of Havana. The presence of American mobsters in the city fueled what became a legendary night life and entertainment scene. The casinos, in particular, which were owned and operated by a consortium of American gangsters led by Meyer Lansky, generated a huge infusion of cash. Much of it was skimmed by the gangsters, and some was used to pay off corrupt political officials, most notably the president of the country, Fulgencio Batista. Some of the gambling proceeds were reinvested back into the city. New hotel/casinos were constructed, a tunnel was built connecting the main part of the city with the beaches in the east, and a general construction boom took place that was unlike anything the city had experienced before.
The illusion of prosperity was just that — an illusion. Outside of Havana, social issues such as poverty, underdevelopment and lack of education were festering problems. Throughout the decade, political dissent was mounting. The dictator Batista had taken over the presidency in a military coup d’etat. Thus, many citizens would never accept him as a legitimate president. The political insurgency against Batista existed on many levels. Outward political dissent was met with violent repression by Batista’s notorious secret police and the military.
By the middle of the decade, while the gangsters, corrupt politicians and international tourists partied in Havana, around the island a revolution was taking shape. Led by a young lawyer named Fidel Castro and his number two man, the Argentine-born doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a movement began first among the peasantry on the eastern part of the island. Eventually, the insurgents acquired guns, formed a ragtag army and began moving across the island, taking over towns and villages.
The gangsters and Batista were in denial about what was happening. Since the Batista government controlled what was printed in newspaper and on the radio and television, they had a skewed version of what was taking place. Most of them never believed that Castro and his band of bearded rebels could ever defeat Batista and the Cuban military. On January 1, 1959, when the rebels stormed into Havana to take over the government, the gangsters never saw it coming. Batista fled the island. On New Year’s Day, the rebel army seized the hotels and casinos. The gangsters lost everything to the Revolution.
2. What has changed the most in Havana since 1959? What survives from those tumultuous times? What is Havana like today?
What has changed in Havana is almost everything. An entirely different form of government took over the country. Capitalism became the enemy, and economic growth was stifled. There are no casinos in Havana, and economic investment by foreign entities has only recently been allowed. For many decades, Cuba was on lock down. The paranoia, partly, has been justified. The U.S. government, in the guise of the C.I.A., combined with many of the same gangsters who were chased off the island to assassinate Castro and take back Cuba. These efforts continued for decades.
In Havana, despite the internal political changes, the irony is that the city looks remarkably the same as it did in the 1950s. The casinos are gone, but most of the hotels that housed the casinos (the Nacional, the Riviera, the Capri, etc) are still there and look the same. The Tropicana nightclub is intact and still in operation, with the same style of fabulous floor shows that became popular in the 1950s. There has been so little development in Havana that, visually, the city seems as though its frozen in time. The old U.S. cars, the streets, the buildings — they may be crumbling and aged, but they make a visit to Havana feel like a journey back in time.
3. You have a new book coming out next spring. Can you give us a brief preview about what to expect?
The new book is entitled The Corporation: An Epic Story of the Cuban American Underworld. It picks up where my previous book Havana Nocturne left off. What happened after the mobsters and anti-Castro Cuban exiles were chased off the island? How did they react? The answer is that they formed a criminal underworld in the U.S., based primarily in Miami, New York and the Cuban enclave of Union City, NJ. This organization became known as La Corporacíon (the Corporation) and its primary criminal racket was the illegal lottery, known to law enforcement as the numbers racket. Betting on a daily number — before it was legalized by state and federal lotteries — used to be illegal and was controlled by organized crime. For the Corporation (known to some as the Cuban Mafia), the numbers racket was incredibly lucrative. Much of the billions made illegally through organized crime was funneled back into the anti-Castro movement, the efforts to destabilize the Cuban government and kill Fidel Castro.
4. You are going to be a participant in a VTA cruise programme, as well as an on board lecturer? What are you looking forward to seeing and experiencing during the trip?
I love Havana, but for me the exciting thing about the trip is seeing parts of the island I’ve never seen before. Particularly the city of Santiago, on the eastern part of the island, far from Havana. Santiago is the heart and soul of Afro-Cuban culture. It’s where the music and many of Cuba’s dance styles originate. I’m told that the city has its own unique flavor, its own style of cuisine, dress, and an atmosphere far removed from Havana. And it is, coincidentally, the region of the island where the seeds of the Cuban Revolution were first planted. Many people say that you can’t really understand the island of Cuba until you have made a visit to Santiago, so I can hardly wait.
T.J. English will be joining Aegean Odyssey in February 2018 on her ‘The Cuba Experience I’ sailing and her ‘Cuba and Jamaica I’ itinerary which includes a land stay on the wonderful island of Jamaica. Our entire Cuba, Caribbean and Mexico cruise season can be found on our website.