An Account of Traveling To and Doing
Research in Cuba During the Mysterious
Demise of Commandante Fidel
By T.J. English
[The following was written to be included in the promotional material for HAVANA NOCTURNE when it was first published in June 2008, during the Bush years. Since that time, there have been changes in U.S.-Cuba policy. Fidel officially retired. Barack Obama was elected president. The Obama administration has changed laws, making it easier for Cubans in the U.S. to visit relatives back home. Both governments have voiced a desire to move diplomatic relations into the 21st Century. We shall see.]
Researching the book Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba… And Then Lost It to the Revolution involved numerous trips to Cuba. Although I was granted what is called a “specific license” to travel to Cuba by the U.S. Treasury Department, this did little to alleviate the strangeness of visiting a country that has for forty-plus years claimed to be the sworn enemy of the United States government. As anyone who has traveled to Cuba knows, the journey is fraught with bureaucratic obfuscation, dread, and many occasions for the kind of misunderstandings that lead to hostile interrogation, diarrhea, imprisonment, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Problems begin with the application process. The rules for receiving a special license to travel to Cuba are deliberately vague. The branch of the Treasury Department that processes these applications is called the Office of Foreign Assets Control. They do not respond directly to phone calls or e-mails. You receive the application via mail or computer download, follow the written rules as best you can, then submit the application and wait to receive a response.
My first application was rejected. I couldn’t figure out why: I had described why I wanted to do research in Cuba, where I would be staying and who I would be interviewing. My project clearly came under the guidelines for legitimate research allowed under the Trading With the Enemy Act, which otherwise bans U.S. citizens from doing any kind of commercial business with Cuba. The only thing I could figure is that there was something wrong with the politics of my application. The subject of U.S. mobsters operating in Cuba during the reign of President Batista is a loaded one: would I be suggesting in my book that the U.S. government was somehow complicit with the Mobsters? Would I be suggesting that the moral rot caused by the Mafia in Cuba was justification for the Revolution and the rise of Fidelismo? Was I an anti-American stooge looking to make the current U.S. administration look bad?
I re-wrote the application and submitted it a second time. This time, in the section where I described the focus of my research, I wrote that I would be investigating whether the Mafiosi had been funneling guns and money NOT TO THE U.S.-BACKED BATISTA GOVERNMENT, but to Fidel and the revolutionaries. It was a small but crucial distinction: suggesting the Mob was in cahoots with the rebel insurgency and not the capitalists was apparently sweet music to someone at the Office of Foreign Assets Control. It was the only difference between my first application and the second: this one came back stamped APPROVED.
I was nervous entering Havana. It was August 2006, and Castro only weeks earlier had disappeared from public view with some kind of grave mystery illness. Rumors were swirling: Fidel was dying. Fidel was already dead and it was being covered up by the country’s communist regime. Fidel’s demise would lead to mass confusion, revolution or maybe an armed invasion by the Bush Administration. A certain amount of paranoia, fantasy and misinformation has always characterized Cuba-U.S. relations, but this was a level of hysteria not seen since the days of the Cuban Missile crisis.
Cuba was in lock-down mode. Some foreign journalists were being expelled from the country, others denied entry. The Cuban government was trying to control the flow of information from the island. Friends of mine – even journalists who had themselves traveled to Cuba before – told me to forget it. There was no way Cuban authorities would let me into the country, they said. One friend suggested that I line my baggage with small bottles of perfume and claim that I was visiting a lover in Havana (the thinking being that Cubans are suckers for matters of the heart). Others suggested I’d be better off traveling there as many Americans do – via a third country like Mexico or Canada, bypassing official channels.
It was too late for that – I’d applied for the authorization and been approved and was determined to research the book in a manner acceptable to both countries. I decided on a novel strategy: to tell the absolute truth to Cuban customs, that I was an author researching a book on the era of U.S. mobsters in Cuba.
I happened to be traveling to Havana at a time of year when most Cuban Americans return to the island to visit family (they are allowed to do so by the U.S. government once every three years). The chartered plane from Miami was packed with Cubans loaded with duffle bags, baggage bursting at the seams and boxes filled with gifts and supplies for relatives back home. Entering customs in Havana, I stood out as a gringo traveling solo and was immediately pulled aside by a member of the military police who doubled as a customs official.
The guy was respectful, but the grilling was thorough and lasted the better part of an hour. My suitcase was spread open before me and I was asked to explain virtually every item inside, including the tape recorder, notepads, and copious books about Cuban history and different aspects of Cuban culture. I explained insistently that I was not a journalist. I was not in Cuba to investigate or write about Castro’s current condition. I was there to research a long-ago time in the country’s history when, as I carefully phrased it, “the mafia was chased out of Cuba by the Revolution.”
As in my dealings with the U.S. Treasury Department, my argument here required a fine-tuned understanding of the necessary buzz words, political emphasis and outright propaganda acceptable to The Powers That Be. I knew that the Cuban government would be pre-disposed to approve of the subject of my research, if it was properly presented. The Cuban revolutionary government is proud of having “chased the mafia out of Cuba.” Just in case, I had packed in my suitcase on top of my clothes a copy of the collected writings of Jose Martí.
A 19th Century poet, revolutionary and architect of Cuban independence, Martí is a revered figure within the universe of the Revolution. Fidel has cited Martí repeatedly as an inspiration and declared him a national hero. Placing that book so prominently in my luggage was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done in my life (if I do say so myself). When the customs agent saw it, his eyes lit up and his entire demeanor changed. It was as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders – and mine, too. He told me to put my stuff back in my suitcase and wait in a specified area. He left the area and was out of view for twenty minutes. I figured that, under the circumstances, there was a fifty-fifty chance I’d be allowed into Cuba. I tried not to sweat too much. The custom’s official returned, stuck out his hand and said, “Bienvenidos a Cuba. Puedes entrar.” We shook hands. I wanted to jump up and click my heels. I was in.
I stayed in Havana for two weeks on that first trip. I checked into the Hotel Riviera, the same place mobster Meyer Lansky had constructed in 1957 when the Mob in Cuba was at the height of its power. I later moved to the Hotel Nacional, where Lucky Luciano had stayed and where a famous mobster conference had taken place that would inaugurate the era of the Mob in Cuba. Later I moved to a private residence in the neighborhood of Vedado, which is the center of the action for habaneros or visitors in-the-know.
Recapturing the spirit of the era when the Mob reigned in Havana was not difficult. Havana today seems as though it is frozen in time. The buildings and streets are the same, though many are now crumbling and decrepit. American-model cars from the 1940s and 50s cruise the streets. Many of the hotels and nightclubs from the era are still in existence, their neon signs harkening back to a time long ago. Clothing styles in Havana haven’t changed much in forty years. It is easy to imagine that you are walking the streets in the waning weeks of 1958, only days before President Batista suddenly fled Cuba and the island fell to the Castro Revolution.
I interviewed many people in Havana: historians, workers at the various hotels where the U.S. mobsters stayed, writers, musicians, taxi drivers, former and current members of the Revolution. I did research at the national library in Havana (I still have my Cuban library card) and had access to the National Archives. I visited the sights and locations where prominent events in the story of the Mafia in Cuba unfolded long ago. I did not bother trying to interview Fidel Castro, who was indisposed at the time (Sick? Dead? Dying?). I did request an interview with Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother, who had dramatically taken over control of the Cuban government due to Fidel’s mystery illness. I was politely informed that Raúl was presently occupied handling matters of state, i.e. the transfer of power from one Castro to the other.
I was not monitored or restricted in Havana in any way. Official representatives of the government and everyday Cubans spoke freely with me about the subject of my research and also about U.S.-Cuba relations. The U.S. embargo against trade with Cuba has contributed to a life of unrelenting economic hardship for the average Cuban citizen, but they do not blame the American people. I did hear anti-U.S. government sentiment and expressions of enmity towards the Bush Administration, but even that was secondary to the more pressing reality of daily survival in a city where the average person makes $22 per month.
There was, of course, much discussion about the situation with Fidel. No one knew for sure if Castro was going to live or what the future held for Cuba. Some Cubans wanted things to stay as they were, others wanted either dramatic or incremental change. It was a fascinating time to be in the country, adding a layer of intrigue and debate to my investigations of those years long ago when the Castro brothers first took over the government.
I made two more trips to Havana over the next fifteen months, each journey more fruitful and less fraught with paranoia than the last. I walked the streets, smoked wonderful cigars, drank rum, danced to incredible music, and got to know the people. Over time, I came to feel as though the subject I was investigating was central to understanding U.S.-Cuba relations. The U.S. mobsters in Cuba had wanted to exploit the island for their own economic gain, to turn Havana into a Devil’s Playground. But they also became intoxicated by the island and fell in love with the place.
After numerous research trips to the city, I could see why.
With its U.S. mobster history, present-day hardships, and uncertain future, there is no place on earth quite like the city of Havana. It is unique.
(copyright: T.J. English)