If you ask most Americans what their vision of pre-Castro Cuba is, it's probably from nothing real. Maybe an Elmore Leonard novel or Hemingway's Old Man. The most enduring pop-culture image of the time comes from The Godfather, Part II. Michael Corleone, Hyman Roth and other U.S. Mafia heads carve up a cake shaped like the island. "Michael," says Roth, "we're bigger than U.S. Steel."
The problem is, these images are sort of true and sort of not. In Havana Nocturne, crime author T.J. English tries to separate the Mafia legends from real events in Cuba in the years preceding the revolution. While the book is a very entertaining read, there's still quite a bit of legend mixed in there.
The star of the story is Jewish-American gangster Meyer Lansky, who came to power with Lucky Luciano and was the genius behind the creation of America's nationwide "syndicate" of families and the elimination of the old Sicilian structure of a head boss (capo di tutti capi). Lansky, sick of the compromises and prison terms that come with running an illegitimate business under a legitimate government, falls in love with Cuba and the idea of a morally questionable regime run in concert with organized crime. In 1940, Lansky brokered an agreement with Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, during Batista's first term, according to which the American mob would control gambling in Havana in exchange for ample kickbacks.
Then the Second World War intervened, delaying the plan. It wasn't until 1946 that Lansky was able to invite his fellow Mafia big cheeses to the Hotel Nacional in Havana to divide the privileges, responsibilities and spoils of operating in Cuba. (This meeting pre-dates the meeting in Godfather II by about 13 years.) The only problem: Batista was out of power, and he'd already been paid before he could provide a return on the investment in him. Now the mob had to wait until he'd served a term elsewhere in the government and could run for president again. Thus it wasn't until Batista's (partially) mob-funded 1952 coup that Lansky and friends could get things up and running.
These are the rich parts of the book. English obviously enjoys colorful mobsters and the highs of exotic Cuban culture in a night out on the town for those with money. If you're a fan of Mafia stories and history, some of these people and stories will be familiar. The same goes for students of Cuban culture and history. But if you only know a smattering of both, English's history of Lansky and Luciano's rise, his brief profiles of the heavy hitters they dealt with, and his lush depictions of Havana casino floor shows and the nightlife culture of the city should be delightfully new.
There are a few problems with English's approach, though, ones that most lay readers will probably never notice but should be of concern to those looking for serious Cuban history. Just as he tries to dispel some of the legends about the mob in Havana, he doesn't dispel very many in terms of the politics of the era. This is troublesome because his thesis is that one can't discuss the mob "rule" of Havana without talking about the politics of the opposition (read: Castro); nor can one understand the subsequent delight Castro has found in invoking the words "American gangster" for the last fifty years without appreciating their impact at the time.
Despite getting his mob profiles right, English looks through a narrow lens. Batista, a strong man controlling the military, comes off more like a sybaritic absentee landlord. He's given kickbacks, but English doesn't give him any agency. That just doesn't scan with the kind of authoritarian regime he ran. At the same time, the Castro sections of the book uncomfortably repeat images of Castro's honorable struggle. While the book concludes with the new Castro regime cynically murdering people via firing squads and turning a blind eye to theft and brutality in the streets, the negativity is well overdue. By the time English points out Castro's lies to favorable American media that contradict what he's telling his own people, we've already been through his defending himself in a kangaroo court and living off the land. If you know any Cuban-Americans, you can understand how this treatment might be considered very upsetting.
Lastly, the Mafia focus crowds out other critical elements in Cuban culture. What we see is an island cleaved in two between mobs, nighclubbers, gamblers, exotic dancers and musicians on one side and, on the other, one group of revolutionaries. Lip service is paid to agrarian reform, other anti-Batista parties and Batista himself, but they come off more like ciphers. You can envision this approach as sort of a tug of war over Batista—with Lansky trying to hold on to him, and Castro trying to yank him out of the island. The perspective is enjoyable but not complete. That shouldn't be surprising, though. Havana Nocturne isn't a "completist" book. It's a unique slice-of-life story. If you enjoy the story, plenty of more serious books on Cuba await.
Havana Nocturne is a fun book, and that's how we should think of it. It takes two of the biggest stories of the 20th century and combines them. We have a notorious dictator being supplanted by someone who would go on to become one himself. We have a classic revolutionary story just off the coast of America, a story that is still very immediate and very real for a lot of Americans. At the same time, we have an object of American fascination for almost 100 years: gangsters.
English excels at this last element. He puts faces to famous names remembered dimly from an A&E "Biography" or "American Justice" special. He puts Lansky, often overshadowed by sexier or more murderous names, front and center in one of the most ambitious criminal schemes in history. While he may propagate a few Cuban legends with his binary approach to the island's life, with the mob, he takes the famous Godfather II fiction and strips away the myth. Here are the real players, warts and all. The warts are more interesting.