Front Door to Cuba Front Door to Cuban History

Lucky Luciano in Havana
an excerpt from:
"The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano"

By Martin A. Gosch & Richard Hammer


By early in January, word that the mysterious resident of Quinta Avenida was none other than Lucky Luciano had spread among the other Americans living in Miramar. "I was really surprised how many invitations I got to cocktail parties and dinners and things like that. It reminded me of the good old days in the late twenties and early thirties when all the society people around New York used to want me to come to their home, like I was some kinda celebrity. I guess I was a little nutty for acceptin' them invites, but I just couldn't help it. I was dying' to be with American people who was straight and legit and had nothin' to do with the rackets. Some of the guys belonged to good golf clubs and it made me feel I was back in Westchester and Connecticut, like in the days before I went to the can. The way things turned out, it all led to a lotta trouble."

An American freelance journalist named Henry Wallace, a stringer for a number of papers in the United States and gossip columnist for the English-language Havana Post, spotted a familiar face one night during his rounds. He was told the man was a recent arrival named Salvatore Lucanía. It did not take Wallace long to discover that Lucanía was, in fact, Lucky Luciano.

"This guy Wallace comes up to me in a club and says he knows who I am. He tells me he's a reporter and he's gonna write about me bein' in Havana instead of Italy where they shipped me. Then he stood and kinda waited. Well, I knew what he was after, but I played it straight. Finally he says he could protect me, not let it out who I was and so forth. The creep was just tryin' to shake me down. I got a couple of guys to throw him out of the joint and I guess they done it a little rough. That was a big mistake on my part, because I found out that Wallace was a very close friend of two important officials in Havana. One was no less than the chief of the Cuban secret police, named Benito Herrera; and the other guy was the Minister of the Interior, Alfredo Pequeño.

"Then I met this beautiful girl at one of them American parties. Her name was Beverly Paterno and she was high up in New York café society. Well, I'm only human and pretty soon we was goin' everywhere together, to the racetrack, the clubs and restaurants. But how in the hell did I know this broad was crazy for publicity? It's one thing to go around with a good-lookin' girl who's also good in the hay, but why the fuck did she have to hire a press agent to advertise every place we was goin' before we got there? It got so we could never make a move without a million flashbulbs poppin' in our puss, and our pictures was all over the papers in Havana. Thee all of a sudden, the New York papers was blazin' with headlines that Charlie Lucky Luciano, the king of vice and narcotics, was runnin' crime practically on the doorstep of the United States. I guess that guy Wallace had a hand in that."

When the story broke, Lansky immediately went to see his friend Batista at his Miami home. He was assured that while Luciano had been unwise in his social life, nothing would be done to force him out of Cuba so long as he held a legal Italian passport and Cuban visa and could prove a legitimate business reason for being in the country-his interest in the Hotel Nacional's casino.

Lansky brought that news to Luciano. "I guess Meyer thought this'd make me feel better, but it didn't cheer me up too much. I had one of them hunches of mine that trouble hadn't even started."

He was right. In February, Harry Anslinger declared that as long as Luciano remained in the western hemisphere he was a danger to the safety of the United States; he sent a formal demand to Cuba for Luciano's expulsion. Cuban authorities at first refused to do more than politely acknowledge the Narcotics Bureau chief's note. "I made a real good friend, a guy by the name of Indalicio Pertiere, who was a Cuban congressman and also the head of the Jockey Club that ran the racetrack I liked to go to. He was always broke from losin' at his own track and I used to help him out. Because he was a nice fella, he tried to help me. He arranged that some other congressmen should join him in havin' Cuba tell Washington that I wasn't breakin' no Cuban laws and so why the hell should they throw me out."

A similar response came from Police Chief Herrera and Interior Minister Pequeno. They advised the American Embassy in Havana that while they were aware of Luciano's presence, they had no evidence that he was doing anything illegal. Said Pequeno, Luciano "is a dangerous character and a perjurer, to be sure. But his papers are in perfect order."

"As much as I appreciated what them guys was tryin' to do, I knew their help wouldn't hold up in Asslinger decided to get tough. And I couldn't shake the feelin' I had about Vito blowin' the whistle on me in Washington. I called Meyer and frank Costello over to Havana and we talked about the situation. I knew that the American system where you're supposed to be innocent until they prove you guilty didn't hold up for me. Look what happened to me with Dewey. So, if somebody said that Charlie Lucky is runnin' junk out of Havana, well, them guys in Washington was sure I hadda be doin' it. Things didn't look good."

Cuba's refusal to act sent Anslinger to President Truman. He told the President that in recent months the narcotics traffic from Havana to the United States had increased sharply. The reason: Luciano's presence in Havana, for, Anslinger said, Luciano was directing the business. It was vital for American security that the Cubans be forced to send him back to Italy. Anslinger was persuasive ant Truman gave him the power to take whatever steps were necessary to accomplish his end. Anslinger promptly announced publicity that until Cuba sent Luciano back to Italy, and no place but Italy, the United States would embargo all shipments of ethical drugs and other vital medical supplies to Cuba.

Cuban President Ramón Grau San Martín was outraged at the "injustice" of the American threat. Dr. Jose Andreu, the country's director of public health and a signatory to the International Convention covering the use of drugs by all nations, not only disputed Anslinger's claim that Luciano was behind an upsurge in illegal narcotics traffic but also asserted that there was "no legal force able to choke off Cuba's supply of legitimate drugs while it complies with the provisions of the agreement." The American actions, he said, were "arbitrary and unjust." But these were only words. For the Cubans, in reality, had little choice but to accede to the threats and demands; the country had no capacity to manufacture the much-needed medicines and was totally dependent on the United States for them.

"They say you can't fight City Hall, but that never bothered me, because I used to buy City Hall. But I couldn't figure how I was gonna buy the whole Treasury Department in Washington. I figured that my plans to stay in Cuba was pretty well fucked up."

As the pressure from Anslinger mounted, Batista and Lansky met again. Batista held that President Grau San Martín would not be able to resist the American pressure for long. Thus, Luciano should make the first move and voluntarily leave Cuba. Batista would arrange for him to maintain his interest in the Casino at the Hotel Nacional, and when times changed-with Dewey's election as President in 1948, which seemed a sure bet, or Batista's return to the Cuban presidency about the same time-Luciano would be able to return.

Luciano, however, was still not prepared to surrender. He felt that his position at the top of the American underworld would be jeopardized if he left Havana to return to Italy. "I had a pretty good lawyer in Havana, a guy by the name of Gonzalez, who was friendly with President Grau San Martín. So, he and some Cuban senators cooked up an idea to help me fight back. They would ask Grau San Martín to cut off the shipment of sugar to the United States if Asslinger's embargo was allowed to stick. I thought it was a terrific idea except for one thing: Gonzalez told me that in the end we would lose.

When the big United States started to put the squeeze on a little country like Cuba, what choice did they have?"

"Then, one day I'm having lunch in a restaurant; it was a Saturday afternoon. I think it was February 23, and the assistant police chief, Hernandez, come up to my table and arrested me. His boss, Benito Herrera, didn't have the heart to do this to me personally." Luciano was placed under house arrest and given a few days to settle his affairs. Then he was thrown into the Tiscoria Immigration Camp until his ultimate fate was decided. "It's the Cuban version of Ellis Island, but what a difference. It was surrounded by a big swamp, hot as a son of a bitch and so humid that your clothes just stuck to your body. I knew I couldn't take that very long. It was the same old story of what happened to me in Italy. When the big United States started to put the squeeze on a little country like Cuba, what choice did they have?"

While Luciano sweltered and waited, the Cubans tried to strike some kind of compromise that would somehow satisfy everyone. They would grant Anslinger his demand that Luciano be expelled but they proposed that instead of sending him to Italy, he should be permitted to seek sanctuary elsewhere-say in Caracas, for the Venezuelan government had agreed to grant him a residency permit. But Anslinger was adamant. IF the Cubans wanted the embargo lifted, they would send Luciano to Italy and nowhere else.

"So I told my Cuban friends to forget it, that I would agree to go back to Italy and not take the matter to court. In other words, I volunteered to go just so Asslinger couldn't put the last nail in my coffin. The only thing I asked for was that I could buy first class transportation on a boat. But Asslinger put so much pressure on the Cuban government that I hadda leave almost instantly, and the only boat going' out to Italy that week was a cargo steamer called the S.S. Bakir. When I heard that the tub was a Turkish boat, I just threw my hands up and said, well, that clinches it. Turkey and narcotics are one and the same; now, for sure, Charlie Luciano has to be tabbed as the king of junk."


This copyrighted excerpt from "The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano" is reproduced here by kind permission of the publishers, Little, Brown, a division of Time Warner Inc.

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