In March 1952, at the age of fifty-one, Fulgencio Batista made himself president of Cuba for the second time. He had held the position once previously, from 1940 to 1944, when he took Cuba into the war on the side of America. After a year or so of exile in Daytona Beach, Florida, he had returned to Havana, swearing allegiance to the democratic process. But now, in the small hours of March 10, 1952, Fulgencio Batista repeated the tactics that first brought him to prominence as a sergeant-stenographer nearly twenty years earlier. He rounded up a group of ambitious young supporters in Camp Columbia, the army headquarters outside Havana, and organized a coup d'état.
No one seriously resisted. Cuban government was corrupt and autocratic, whether its leaders were selected though the ballot box or not, and people looked back with nostalgia to Batista's prewar regime, when sugar was up, when the tourists had flocked in from America, and when the whole island had enjoyed one of the bursts of prosperity in its fabled playground tradition-the Dance of the Millions.
Cuba was not doing that badly, in fact, when Batista seized power in the spring of 1952. Havana had a claim to being the world's premier play city - the Paris of the New World, swaying to the rhythms of its rumbas and sambas and mambos, which it exported to Europe and America via a dozen white-tuxedoed orchestras, the hottest dance bands anywhere on earth. Internationally, only Beirut could compare with Havana for sophistication and civilized seaminess. Cuba had the most accommodating girls, the finest cigars, the strongest daiquiris, Errol Flynn most winters, and Ernest Hemingway all year round.
The one problem was the gambling. The incident that brought matters to a head occurred within a few weeks of Batista's seizing power. One evening in April 1952, Dana C. Smith, a California attorney who was a friend of California's junio senator, Richard M. Nixon, was gambling in the Sans Souci, on of the lavish, open-air, under-the-stars nightclubs in the garden suburbs of Havana. Smith was playing cubolo, an eight-dice casino version of Cubilete, a local game.
"You can't lose if you keep doubling: was the come-on line, so Dana C. Smith kept on doubling - and lost $4,200. Smith wrote out a check for his loss. But later he decided that he had been lured into the game, which he had never played before, and that it had been rigged. He canceled his check. The contract for running the gaming that season at the Sans Souci, which was owned by Cubans, was held by Norman Rothman, the operator of a Miami Beach nightclub, and Rothman decided to sue Smith for his $4,200 - more than $26,000 in 1990's terms.
Smith was not just any friend to Richard Nixon. He was a political adviser and fund-raiser - the organizer, in fact, of Nixon's controversial senatorial expense fund, which was to lead to the famous "Checkers" speech - and by the time Smiths troubles at the Sans Souci got into lawyer's hands, Richard Nixon was well on his way to becoming Dwight Eisenhower's vice president. So when Nixon's office wrote to the State Department at the end of August 1952 requesting its assistance, Dana C. Smith was given rather more help than the average visitor who welshed on his gambling debts.
On September 19 1952, the U.S. embassy in Havana informed the State Department the there could well be some merit to the case of Senator Nixon's friend. "During the past winter season," reported an operations memorandum to Washington, "the Embassy received several complaints from American tourists with regard to the conduct of this particular game at the Sans Souci nightclub.
Writing under cover of Senator Nixon's letter, Dana C. Smith had asked the State Department several questions about the legality of cubolo under Cuban law, and the embassy commissioned answers from a local attorney.
Armed with this material, Smith went into court in Los Angeles in January 1953 to fight the suit brought against him by Norman Rothman, via a California collection agency, for his $4,200 - and won. The newspaper coverage of the case provoked a miniature epidemic of American tourists complaining of cheating in Cuba's clubs and casinos, and the U.S. embassy in Havana confirmed its opinions that the visitors were justified in their complaits.
Havana's gaming was a free-for-all - no more regulated than a fairground whose operator subcontracted the individual sideshows and stalls. The Cuban owners of the city's nightclubs were leasing out their gaming rooms - and sometimes even individual games and tables - to just about anyone who claimed to have a bankroll to risk. Some were serious, professional operators. But others had less experience - and less bankroll.
The come-on games like cubolo were the result of this. They offered quick returns on minimal investments. Stories proliferated of gullible American tourists being cheated by smiling and plausible dealers - some Cuban, but many American - who brought the cards and dice to their table, and who took their money off them as they ate. One young honeymoon couple, it was reported, had lost their apartment-furnishing savings in this fashion A mother of four had lost her husband's salary for a month.
To start with, Fulgencio Batista had left the problem in the hands of his tourist commission. But following the Smith case, the matter was discussed at cabinet level.
"The President of the Republic," announced the Havana Herald on February 10, 1953, "has given definitive instructions to the various police forces to intensify measures of protection for foreign tourists."
It was "unprecedented," said the newspaper, for the president to express himself personally on this subject, and he had dispatched the minister of the interior on a tour of Havana's gaming rooms to look out for fraudulent multidice games like cubolo and razzle-dazzle, a variant on the theme. The Cuban Tourist Commission even had a form printed which authorized visitors who believed that they had been cheated to stop payment on their checks.
These measures had scarcely had a chance to work, however, when, at the end of March 1953, the Saturday Evening Post ran an exposé headlined on its cover, "Suckers in Paradise: How Americans Lose Their Shirts in Caribbean Gambling Joints."
This copyrighted excerpt from "Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life" is reproduced here by kind permission of the author, Robert Lacey, and his publishers, Little, Brown, a division of Time Warner Inc.
An excerpt from Chapter 6 - The Carpet Joints
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