The film ‘I am Cuba” was released in 1964. The film, a joint Cuban-Soviet project, tells the story of the Cuban revolution in four vignettes. The first vignette of “I am Cuba” paints a damning picture of the American tourists in Cuba during the 1950s. “I am Cuba” links the American’s involvement to the need for a revolution in Cuba. Were the American tourists to blame for the social ills brought on by Cuban tourism? What influence did the policies of the Batista government in Cuba have on the revolution? What impact did the actions of the American Mafia produce in Cuba during the 1950s? What role do those two groups play in Cuba’s road to revolution? The facts will show that the elites of Cuba and the American mafia used American tourists and lower class Cubans alike to one end, higher profits.
During the 1950s, the United States Department of Commerce considered Cuba one of the most industrialized countries in Latin America. Cuba’s rail and highway system snaked throughout the entire country. The average life expectancy for South America as a whole was 56 years during the 1950s. Cubans could expect to live an average of 58.8 years during the same period. The middle class made up about a third of Cuba’s population, so it comes as no surprise that Cuban enjoyed the second highest income in Latin American during the 1950s.
But averages can be misleading.
The middle and upper class Cubans enjoyed the best of life. Cubans from all classes emulated American culture.
Cubans grew accustomed to the luxuries of American life. They drove American cars, owned TVs, watched Hollywood movies and shopped at Woolworth’s department store. The youth listened to rock and roll, learned English in school, adopted American baseball and sported American fashions.
The wealthy even sent their children to U.S. colleges, the lower classes could not afford. The working class received many benefits such as paid holidays, sick leave, maternity leave, eight-hour days, and no dismissal without proof of cause.
As the 1950s progressed work became harder and harder to find. Sugar production waned throughout the early 50s. To keep Cuban treasury full, the Cuban president, Fulgencio Batista placed a greater emphasis on tourism. “With no reliable economic replacement in sight, Cubans began to feel the squeeze. Poverty, particularly in the provinces, increased.” The poor began to flock to Havana in search of work. With nearly three-quarters of construction in Havana from 1954-1958 focused on luxury hotels and apartments, lower class workers could not find affordable homes. The poor had no other choice but to live in tin shack slums. “I am Cuba” features an example of these slums.
It is no secret that the tourist trade brought large amounts of money to Cuba. Cynical Cubans said, “the sugar trade keeps [us] alive but the tourist dollar makes life worth living” The tourist dollar made life worth living for Cuba’s leader Fulgencio Batista. Meyer Lanksy, an American mobster and the man Batista appointed to run Cuba’s casinos, said, “Fulgencio Batista saw the enhancement of revenues from foreign visitors, and from Americans in particular, as a major source of future income for Cuba – and for himself” Rather than use the income from the tourist trade for the social betterment of Cuba, Batista attempted to secure his own political future with the revenue. He gave large sums of money to his political opposition. $1.6 million went to the Catholic Church and $1.3 million went to the Cuban labor unions. This sort of behavior contributed to anti-Batista feelings throughout the lower classes.
With the help of men like Meyer Lansky, Santo Trafficante, Jr., and Lucky Luciano, Batista cultivated the tourist industry in Havana. Casino gambling and luxury hotels anchored the trade. “By the late 1950s casino gambling, plush hotels, beautiful beaches, and Hollywood stars drew most of the tourists to Cuba.” Promoters beckoned Americans to come to Havana saying, “throw off your inhibitions, and play in an Old Spanish city which never heard of the bourgeois squeamishness of American play lands. There’s something for every taste and every pocketbook!”
In the film “I am Cuba” a group of American Tourists are discuss what they shall do during their stay in Cuba. One suggested something lewd. Another replied that the suggestion was indecent. “Nothing is indecent in Cuba”, the first replied. The elites of Cuba and the Mafia gave Americans the impression that “anything goes” in Cuba. The Cuban elites and Mafia used this marketing ploy in order to entice Americans into their casinos, to sample their prostitutes, and to take their drugs.
Gambling and luxury hotels had exists in Cuba for some time. Tourists often skipped over these establishments for more honest casinos in Puerto Rico. Batista changed that when he invited the Mafia in to manage gambling. The American Mafia brought its influence into Cuba at the behest of Batista. “The U.S. mafia did not arrive in Havana to implant a new vice. Rather, it promoted a particular style of gaming – luxury casino gambling dominated by blackjack and roulette. This was an evolution, one more instance of the meeting of “interior” and “exterior” in Havana.”
Men connected with the Mafia ran nearly all of the large luxury hotel/casinos. Lefty Clark and his assistant Pierre Canavase ran the Tropicana. The FBI had received rumors Lefty Clark had been involved in the Las Vegas drug trade. The FBI closely linked Canavase to the New York mob boss Lucky Luciano. Cavanese had an FBI record for smuggling, counterfeiting, bribery, gambling, and violation of United States Immigration laws. The owners of the SANS SOUCI, RIVIERA CASINO, and NATIONAL CASINO were known mafia associates as well. Yet, the Riviera Casino run by Meyer Lansky was said to be “one of the more honest gambling casinos operated in Havana”
With protection from Batista’s police force, the American Mafia helped transform Havana into “a center of commercialized vice of all sorts” Profits were gigantic. The Hotel Riviera cost $18 million to construct. During its first year of operation, the Riviera netted $3 million in profits. Receipts from the casinos reached $500,000 a month during 1957. Batista and his men received numerous kickbacks for their protection and support of the gambling industry. Batista’s chief of police received $25,000 daily from Havana’s casinos and brothels. The Cuban tourist industry quickly parted Americans with their money, but little of this money found its way back into working class hands.
The hotels and their casinos drew tourists to Cuba. The prostitution and drug trades in turn fed on the business they brought. The Mafia encouraged other vices, specifically drugs and prostitution, to attract more tourists. Again, both of these vices existed in Cuba before the American Mafia became involved. The Mafia simply commercialized them. And again the Cuban government sanctioned these vices. In the very least they often turned a blind eye to the business of the American Mafia in Cuba. One could purchase drugs in any casino or café. “They smoked marijuana in all the casinos in those days. There was coke, all kinds of drugs.” Some bars would even hold a tab for a customer’s drugs. As added bonus tourists seeking the complete Cuban experience, the Mafia kept drugs cheap. One could purchase five grams of coke for a dollar.
The American Mafia and Cuban government promoted prostitution and pornographic theaters to entice American tourists to come and spend money in Cuba. The issue became a source of great national shame and resentment for the Cuban people. The first vignette of “I am Cuba” follows the story of one Prostitute, Maria aka Betty. The movie shows, through Maria’s overt religiousness and reluctant demeanor, that she does not enjoy her job. To Maria, it is but a necessary evil. Toward the end of the vignette, the film shows Maria’s home, a small shack in a shantytown outside of Havana. Maria, due to her circumstances, had no choice but a life of prostitution.
Though there were stern laws against brothels in Cuba, Havana seemed overrun with them. During the 1950s, pornographic theaters, clubs, and brothels sprouted up all over Havana. Estimates place the number of brothels in Havana at 270 by the end of the 1950s. The number of prostitutes in the capital reached 11,500 by 1957. Government officials received more than just monetary kickbacks from these businesses. Most madams offered brothel services gratis to government officials. At one point, many referred to Havana as the “Latin Paris”. During the 1950s, the “Brothel of the Caribbean” quickly became its new name.
There were many classes of prostitutes available to Americans and Cubans alike. Elite Cubans, rich tourists, and the mafia frequented exclusive, elaborate brothels such as the Casa Marina. Services of these prostitutes cost what many middle class workers could hope to make in a month. An average middle class man could go to the Calle Pajarito. Each room contained a bath. Madams ran middling brothels and kept strict rules. Services in the middling brothels ran from three pesos and up. Lower class citizens frequented prostitutes in the Colon section of Havana. Here, prostitutes presented themselves in front of bars and on the corners. Factory workers and American sailors could buy prostitutes for two pesos. Lower still were the streetwalkers of Avenida del Puerto. These prostitutes usually did not even have access to beds. They provided their services to the lowest class citizens in doorways, between parked trucks, and under boxcars.
Armando Cardenas served in the revolutionary army as a young man. He recalled one of the worst barrios in Havana, Pila. “In Pila you’d walk down the street, look around, and pick the woman you liked best…The women were no good at all, but the price was right. 1.50 pesos to lie with one of them. ”
Unlike most other career paths offered to Cuban women, prostitution offered some upward mobility.
Not all of us were always fleteras, or always worked in bars, or bayus or the better houses. Many of us passed through all these classes, or some of them. Everywhere, we had to pay bribes. The madams and landladies had to pay a quota every week to the Secret Police, the Bureau of Investigation, and the local police captain, and besides that each had to pay the cop on the beat had a peso or box of American cigarettes, because they wouldn’t accept Cuban ones, and a full peso on Saturdays, or else they’d take us to jail.
No matter what level a prostitute had attained however, the government still found a way to get its slice of the profits.
The relentless promotion of prostitution and of the notion that “anything goes” in Havana left a great impression on American tourists. Americans came to Havana believing that all Cuban women were like the prostitutes they met. As a group of American sailors sings in “I am Cuba”, “Cuban women give us all and don’t say no.” Thanks to the work of the Cuban government and American Mafia, Americans began to completely objectify Cuban women. “I am Cuba” portrays this in two ways. First, a group of Americans is partying at a table in one of the Havana’s hotels. They see pretty girls at the bar. One of the men proceeds to order a girl from a waiter as though she were a drink.
The next incident occurs when the men try to dance with the women they select. One of the men chooses Maria, who goes by Betty when she is working. The men roughly handle Maria. They yank Maria between themselves as the dance. Maria tries to get away, but she becomes caught up in all the chaos of the dancing and partying. Though the filmmakers indented “I am Cuba” to be partly a propaganda piece, the behavior of the American tourists is not as greatly exaggerated as one might think.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said on a visit to Cuba: “I was enchanted by Havana – and appalled by the way that lovely city was being debased into a great casino and brothel for American businessmen over for a big weekend from Miami. My fellow countrymen reeled through the streets, picking up fourteen year-old Cuban girls and tossing coins to make men scramble in the gutter. One wondered how any Cuba – on the basis of this evidence – could regard the United States with anything but hatred.”
The seeming arrogance of American tourists, cultivated by the Cuban government and Mafia, brewed misdirected hatred in the Cuban populace.
“ For the majority of the population,” Juan Valdes remembers, “an American was a tourist. Tourism was an activity that existed in the country and was accepted…The majority of the Americans came to blow off steam and to drink rum. The one who was drinking rum was accompanied by Cubans who were happy to be around him, because the gringo paid for the bottle. Only, when those three marines climbed on the statue of Marti in the Parque Central and pissed on it, everything was different. The everybody said they were sons of bitches, and hated them.”
Fidel Castro used these hateful sentiments towards Americans, who exemplified a successful capitalist nation, as a tool in his push for a communist revolution. The prostitution, drugs, and gambling the Americans enjoyed in Havana were a source of national shame to most Cubans. Castro recognized this and exploited it. Castro realized however, that the Cuban economy benefited from tourism. Castro noted in a television interview after the revolution that tourism was important to the national economy but that the tourist “traffic must be changed from those attracted by gambling to those coming to enjoy natural beauty of the country.” Castro also reinforced the ill feelings Cubans had towards rich American tourists saying, “Yankee visitors, vicious millionaires, came here to play in gambling houses, to seek exotic entertainment, rarities, the unusual, and looked upon our people as upon a mob of inferior creatures.” Castro also knew how draining prostitution was on Cuban women saying, “A vicious, corrupt, cruel thing, that generally affects women of humble origin, who, for a number of economic and social reasons, wind up in that life.” Castro drummed up support for his cause by blaming the bogyman of capitalist America. He neglected to mention to his followers that it was the previous Cuban government that engrained in Americans that that sort of behavior was acceptable in Cuba.
In the final scene of the first vignette of “I am Cuba” shows one of the American tourists wander about the shantytown of Maria after conducting his business with her. The tourist encountered the poor denizens of the shantytown. Poor children beg him for money. He ignored them. The narrator says, “For you, I am the casino, the bar, the hotels, and brothels. But the hands of these children and old people are also me. I am Cuba.” The American tourist, like tourists to foreign countries today, would not likely have ventured far from the resorts. They would have had little knowledge of the true suffering of the Cuban people. To keep the illusion of a carefree paradise, the Cuban Government and Mafia would have wanted it that way.
The American tourists do not deserve the condemnation they receive from Castro government. They were but means to an end for the Cuban government and Mafia. In search of larger profits, the Cuban Government and American Mafia teamed up to lure American tourists, and their dollars, to Cuba by any means necessary. They touted Havana as a gambler’s heaven, flooded the Cuban streets with drugs, and promoted the complete objectivity of Cuban women. Together the Cuban Government and the American Mafia were the catalysts for the revolution. They deserve the condemnation.