Cuba Before the Revolution

While Americans saw only decadent gangsters, Cuban revolutionaries diagnosed deeper social ills.

Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista visits Washington DC in November 1938. Harris & Ewing / Libary of Congress

To the American popular eye, pre-revolutionary Cuba was the island of sin, a society consumed by the illnesses of gambling, the Mafia, and prostitution. Prominent American intellectuals echoed that view. Even in 1969, when Cuban reality had changed drastically, Susan Sontag, in an article in Ramparts, described Cuba as “a country known mainly for dance, music, prostitutes, cigars, abortions, resort life, and pornographic movies.”

In a 2004 article for the Nation, Arthur Miller, based on what he had learned from people who had worked in the film industry in the island, described the Batista society “as hopelessly corrupt, a Mafia playground, a bordello for Americans and other foreigners.”

Although most Cubans would have readily admitted that Sontag and Miller had touched some of Cuba’s real wounds, they would have hardly seen them as the most representative, or as the most pressing problems that affected the island. The perceptions dominant in America’s media revealed far more about the North American colonial worldview than anything about Cuba itself, a feature of the mainstream culture of the US that continues to prevail today.


To Americans, gambling in Cuba meant casino gambling.

Casinos began to develop in Cuba in the 1920s in connection with the growth of tourism. After several ups and downs in the following three decades, the casino industry took off in the mid- to late 1950s as Batista and his cronies, working together with American Mafiosi, used the resources of Cuban state development banks, and even union retirement funds, to build hotels, all of which hosted casinos, like the Riviera, the Capri, and the Havana Hilton (today’s Havana Libre). In the process both Cuban rulers and Mafiosi lined their own pockets, skimming the casinos’ proceeds, cheating investors, and trafficking drugs.

However, if the casino world of the island got ample coverage in the American media, it never became a central issue in the island’s media, and in the Cuban consciousness. Aside from the American tourists, who were the casinos’ principal customers, only a small number of Cubans — upper-middle and upper-class whites — gambled there. The casinos’ dress code and minimum betting requirements kept most Cubans out, though it is true that a relatively small but significant number of Cubans earned their living servicing the casinos and the hotels and nightclubs where they were usually located.

But the economic impact of casino gambling, and even of tourism, was greatly exaggerated in the US. In 1956, a good year for tourism, that economic sector earned $30 million, barely 10 percent of what the sugar industry made that year. This relatively modest performance was due in part to the fact that mass international tourism facilitated by widespread commercial jet travel had not yet begun. In the 1950s between 200,000 and 250,00 tourists visited Cuba annually, compared with slightly over three million in 2014, and likely more in 2015.

The casinos of Havana were looted immediately after the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista on January 1, 1959. The great majority of Cubans saw casinos — as well as the parking meters that had been installed in the capital a few months earlier — as odious expressions of the oppressive corruption of Batista and his henchmen.

But as Rosalie Schwartz, a historian of Cuban tourism, has pointed out, “disgust with government excesses preceded and outstripped outrage over casinos . . . Revolutionaries charged Batista henchmen with torture and murder — not casino operations — when they put them on trial.” Most Cubans also did not object to gambling, and many had been engaging in the practice for a long time, though in a manner that was worlds apart from the casinos populated by tourists and privileged Cubans.

Cuba had an official national state lottery that had existed since Spanish colonial times. Every Saturday afternoon, a drawing took place sponsored by the Renta de la Lotería, an agency of the Cuban government created for that purpose. The Renta had become a massive source of corruption, although some legitimate charitable organizations obtained funds from the lottery’s proceedings. Even the Cuban Communists shared in those proceeds when, in control of the trade union movement during their alliance with Batista from 1938 until 1944, they built a new union headquarters at least in part with the money that the government granted them from the national lottery.

The lottery drawings were broadcast over the radio featuring a peculiar mixture of modernity and the Middle Ages. The weekly spectacle, worthy of a Luis Buñuel film, had the orphan and abandoned children raised by the nuns of the Casa de Beneficencia announce the different prize numbers with a distinctive chant in a characteristic voice, tone, and cadence. But the fact that even the smallest fractions of the official lottery tickets were relatively expensive stimulated the growth of an informal, illegal lottery based on the results of the official lottery that accepted bets as small as five cents.

This illegal lottery, referred to as “la bolita,” became big business and had its own capitalists, or “bankers,” some of which came to be well-known. The bankers, however, could not have survived without their numerous agents (“apuntadores”) in the barrios. They were the equivalent of the “numbers runners” in the United States. The anthropologist Ulf Hannerz suggested in his book Soulside that the numbers game of the American black ghettoes may have originated in Cuba.

There was little if any connection between the people who owned and ran the casinos and the bankers who ran the illegal bolita — except for the peculiar case of Martin Fox, the owner of the Tropicana night club and casino, who had made his initial capital as a bolita banker but left that world behind when he became the owner of Tropicana in the early fifties. What the bolita bankers and casino owners did have in common was that they had to pay off high government functionaries and the police.

The “bolita” was primarily a gambling activity for poor people. But for many poor and even some middle-class people, la bolita also became a means to support or to supplement their income by working as apuntadores, or numbers runners.

Even my parents, immigrant small-business people whose obsessive dedication to work and saving could not have been further removed from any gambling mentality, participated in the bolita. They did so not because they expected to win anything, but because their small weekly bets — always the same number — were a way of helping a poor neighborhood woman who worked as an apuntadora to survive.

The Big Crooks

For a long time, several Mafia families entertained the idea of taking their business to Cuba both as a means to expand their enterprises and to escape the reach of the FBI and the IRS, among other US government agencies. In December 1946, Havana’s classic Hotel Nacional hosted an important gathering of the Mafia attended by the heads of the most powerful families and organized by Lucky Luciano, who had been residing in the island since October of that year. But under heavy American pressure, the Cuban government deported Luciano in February of 1947.

Some other gangsters, such as Meyer Lansky and Tampa’s Santo Trafficante Jr, had a much longer stay on the island and were closely connected to casino gambling. Ironically, part of Lansky’s task was to eliminate the petty trickery of fast-paced games, such as the one called “razzle-dazzle” (a casino equivalent of the “two-card monte”) used to trick gullible tourists. Even Richard Nixon had complained to the US Embassy in Havana about the victimization of one of his rich and influential friends.

According to historian Rosalie Schwartz, in response to the threat that these games posed to the Havana casinos, Lansky opened a school to train and screen casino employees. Only trained and trustworthy individuals were to gain access to the world of blackjack dealers, croupiers, and roulette stickmen. Eliminating the petty chiselers from his casinos, Lansky ran an efficient operation that attracted big-time professional players to his crap tables, and gamblers who could trust the fairness of the games.

At Lansky’s Montmartre nightclub, businesslike table crews conducted the game; dealers dealt blackjack from a box, not from the hand, and floormen watched the action for any sign of impropriety. The big crooks were not going to let the small crooks discredit and ruin their business.

There were undoubtedly strong links between the Mafia and the Batista regime, but some observers have greatly magnified and distorted the nature of those links. Journalist T. J. English, for example — the author of an earlier book on the Westies, Manhattan’s Hells Kitchen’s gang — claims in his 2007 book, Havana Nocturne: How the Mob owned Cuba and then Lost it to the Revolution, that the mob “had infiltrated a sovereign nation and taken control of financial institutions and the levers of power from top to bottom.” According to English, Batista had embraced the dictates of the American mobsters and had become the muscle behind the Havana mob.

English may have taken his cue from Cuban writer Enrique Cirules‘s book El Imperio de la Habana. Cirules, who later accused English of plagiarism, argued that the power of the Mafia, in a permanent alliance with the US intelligence services, had taken over every level of power in Cuba. Batista’s 1952 military coup, which brought the retired general back to power, was not the cause of the power that the Mafia had amassed, but the coronation of its power, and led to a power triangle formed by the dominant financial groups, the Mafia, and US intelligence.

Cirules also makes the fantastic claim that the gains from the Mafia’s cocaine trade were even bigger than those of the sugar industry. However, the Mafia in Cuba was only one, albeit highly corrupt, interest group. The Mafia had no interest whatsoever in running Cuba; it just wanted a place to pursue their interests, primarily in gambling, and also in the drug trade, unmolested by the US or the Cuban government. Rather than trying to control the government and the political and economic life of the island, these mobsters focused their efforts on preventing other criminals from invading their turf.

That’s how, for example, internal mob disputes about gambling interests in Cuba led to the murder of gangster Albert Anastasia in a New York hotel barbershop in October 1957. The Mafia’s association with Batista fit the needs and requirements of the mob, but it is wrong to claim that its power in the island was greater than that of Batista and his military forces — just as the power of the mob in the United States of the twenties was not greater than that of the largest corporations, the Pentagon, and the Democratic and Republican parties.

Sex Work

Sex work was relatively common in the pre-revolutionary Cuba of the fifties, but North American opinion gave it a lot more importance than people did in Cuba, including the most radical critics of the island’s social and economic status quo.

It is estimated that by the end of the fifties Havana had 270 brothels and 11,500 women earned their living as sex workers. Compared with New York City in 1977, where 40,000 female sex workers were reportedly working, the ratio of sex workers in 1950s Havana, with a population of 1 million people, was approximately double the amount of the one in New York City, with 8 million people.

Considering the much greater poverty, unemployment, and the sexual double standard geared to preserve the virginity of “decent” girls — not men — until they were married, the difference at the time between the two cities is not as stark as one might expect.

Sex work in Havana attracted more attention than the one in New York not because there were more sex workers, but because of its greater concentration in certain urban areas (the neighborhoods of Colón, San Isidro, and Pajarito street, for example). The salient role that sex work played in the tourist industry, as well as the flamboyance of some of its venues, contributed in a major way to its visibility and notoriety.

Despite the high number of Cuban women engaged, and exploited, in the industry, there were many more Cuban women in other highly exploited sectors. Poor and unemployed young rural women, a major recruitment zone for the Havana bordellos, were far more likely to end up working as maids in a middle- or upper-class urban household than as prostitutes. The moral economy of the Cuban peasant and agricultural proletariat, which included notions of dignity, strong parental authority, and folk religion, were powerful forces against sex work.

According to the 1953 Cuban national census — the last census held before the revolutionary victory in 1959 — 87,522 women were working as domestic servants, 77,500 women were working for a relative without pay, and 21,000 women were totally without employment and looking for work. Moreover, an estimated 83 percent of all employed women worked less than ten weeks a year, and only 14 percent worked year-round.

These were the far more shocking realities of the uneven economic development induced by the US empire and Cuban capital on the island. But the work and the problems of being a maid, or a seamstress, may not have been as risqué and exciting to North American observers, whether left- or right-wing, interested in Cuban exoticism and difference.

The Revolutionaries Respond

If many Americans, including sections of the American liberal and radical left, saw casino gambling, the Mafia, and prostitution as defining characteristics of what was wrong with the Cuba of the 1950s, the Cuban opposition on the island had bigger fish to fry — dictatorship, widespread corruption of public officials, the evils of the one-crop economy and extreme rural poverty, high unemployment (particularly among young people, in both urban and rural Cuba), and in the case of the Communist opposition to Batista, US imperialism. (Fidel Castro made no public mention of imperialism until after the revolutionary victory.)

At his 1953 trial for the failed attack he led on the Moncada military barracks in eastern Cuba, Castro delivered a radical speech entitled “History Will Absolve Me.” In the speech Castro mentioned the need for an agrarian reform law that would have granted small allotments to landless peasants with compensation to the landlords, and demanded the participation of the workers in the profits (30 percent) of all large industrial, mercantile, or mining concerns, including sugar mills. He promised also that his revolutionary government would nationalize the electricity and telephone monopolies and confiscate the wealth of those who had misappropriated public funds.

Subsequent pronouncements made by Castro during the last two years of the struggle against the dictatorship were socially more moderate, as he successfully rallied a broad social and political coalition in support of the guerrilla and urban struggles of the 26th of July Movement. But even when the casinos and the Mafia became more important in the late 1950s, neither Castro, nor any other opposition leader, mentioned the Mafia, gambling, or prostitution in their political pronouncements.

That does not mean that Castro and other Cuban reformers and revolutionaries did not regard those phenomena as social ills or that they were indifferent to their effects. But they saw them as secondary problems, in a sense derivative from more fundamental issues that in their eyes characterized 1950s Cuba.

It is true that in those times there still floated the old pre-independence notion, based on the Enlightenment politics propagated by, among others, the Masonic lodges to which must Cuban leaders of the wars of independence against Spanish domination belonged, that Cuba suffered from three vices that a future Cuban Republic should eliminate: bullfighting, cockfighting, and the lottery.

Bullfighting was indeed outlawed, but cockfighting, seen as a more Cuban than Spanish “hobby,” persisted, although more in rural than urban areas, and had nowhere near the massive cultural impact as that of the official lottery and its derivatives. But that notion had been fading away for some time.

The Cuban pre-revolutionary state also occasionally undertook actions against sex work. For example, in January 1951, under the constitutional government of the Auténtico Party’s Carlos Prio Socarrás, the minister of interior, Lomberto Díaz, launched a campaign to “clean” the Colón neighborhood, the area most associated with prostitution in the capital.

The campaign was welcomed by many Cubans, especially by the middle classes, and was widely reported and discussed in the media. But since there was no attempt to provide alternative employment to sex workers, the sector returned in full force to the Colón neighborhood soon after.

Colonial Folklore

As far back as the nineteenth century, many US politicians and ruling-class leaders saw Cuba as a potential target of annexation, a strategy that was ideologically justified by a body of assumptions that, as historian Louis A. Pérez has pointed out, regarded Cubans as a people ill-fit to govern themselves, ruled by a country (Spain) ill-equipped to govern anyone. It was this notion that supported the US intervention in Cuba’s war of independence against Spain and that, notwithstanding the genuine sympathy and compassion that many Americans felt for the oppressed Cubans, justified its imperialist design for the island.

After Spain lost the war, Cuba became independent in 1902, although only in a very limited sense considering the Platt Amendment granted the US government the right to militarily intervene in Cuba. As Pérez has indicated, the new reality of the island became represented in the predominant American ideology as a nation of children, or schoolchildren, with the Americans as their teachers.

Although this conception was not universally shared, and was even criticized in the US, it persisted as a kernel of the American popular conception of Cuba. As the island became the pioneer of tourism in the Caribbean beginning in the 1920s, it acquired an aura of sensuality, lack of moral inhibitions, and a hint of uncensored primitiveness highlighted by the American Protestant puritanism.

In the last analysis, the American emphasis on gambling, prostitution, and the Mafia as the central elements of the ills that affected pre-revolutionary Cuban society was, besides the general American fascination with the Mafia, a form of colonial folklore and ideology that also influenced Americans who would not consciously support colonialism or imperialism.

It was an ideology that was also present in the other imperialist power of that era, the USSR, as echoed in the 1964 Soviet film Soy Cuba. As Jacqueline Loss, a scholar of Soviet cultural influence in Cuba, has argued, the Soviet film represented Cubans as hot-blooded, sexy, impoverished, and in need of civilizing.

The American view of pre-revolutionary Cuba also stems from some assumptions that underlie the concept of underdevelopment. Aimed at replacing the “Orientalist” biases of the older notion of “backwardness,” underdevelopment — and later the Global South — was often superimposed on the earlier meaning instead of replacing it with modern objectives.

The terms were often also used as a rigid dichotomy — development versus underdevelopment — instead of as a continuum, which hindered the understanding of a country like pre-revolutionary Cuba and its contradictory combination of development and underdevelopment, its high modernity mixed with powerful remnants of the past, precluding a conception of complexity and nuanced analysis and leading to a simplistic image of a “primitive” country governed by sex and crime.

When applied to countries like Cuba, the American popular perception of “culture” was also homogeneous and unchanging, resulting in a distorted, caricatured image of Cubans. The complexities of Cuban society were reduced in the American popular media to cultural clichés and subsumed into an undifferentiated whole.

Cubans living on the island in the 1950s were not just dancers and fun people with a good sense of humor, but were also, for most of the time they were awake, working very hard either at ruling over the country (all the way down from dictators, capitalists, and landlords to soldiers and policemen) or, as for the great majority, at surviving as workers, peasants, public employees, students, professionals, shopkeepers, or intellectuals.

Whatever cultural behavior these various Cuban groupings may have shared, they were also substantially different from each other, sometimes even having more in common with their occupational and class counterparts in the United States than with other Cubans. After all, oppressed people in all countries act on the basis of the same drives and aspirations, trying to defend their standard of living, meet certain nutritional requirements, and limit if not eliminate their oppression.

This view of pre-revolutionary Cuba as a culturally homogeneous society so “exotic,” so far away from any similarity to a “developed” society, and fatally afflicted with the ills of gambling and Mafia control, suggested the image of an exhausted lumpenized society devoid of any political, moral, and spiritual resources and thus — unable to engage and conduct its own struggle for self-emancipation — dependent on saviors from above.

In the very early stages of the successful revolution, before it adopted the Soviet model, the Mafiosi were unceremoniously kicked out of the country, casino gambling was abolished (after some initial difficulties addressing the problem of substantial numbers of casino employees who would be left unemployed.) In February 1959 the national lottery was converted into the INAV (National Institute of Savings and Housing) — a transitional measure channeling the proceeds remaining from pre-revolutionary gambling into a savings fund dedicated to housing.

Sex work was initially allowed, but reformed, with the extortions by pimps and police abolished. Later on the sex workers were trained and provided alternative employment, but sex work eventually reappeared with the severe economic crisis of the nineties and the exponential growth of tourism.

In the last several years, bolita gambling (based on the results of the Florida lottery) has experienced a rebirth, although it has not yet reached the volume and cultural impact of its pre-revolutionary equivalent.

Still, whether one approves or disapproves of the present Cuban government, it’s undeniable that the changes in the country, including the establishment of a one-party state, grew out of internal social and political realities in Cuba that were radically different from the American perception of Mafiosi decadence and lapsed island morals.