Eduardo Rovner. The Cuban Connection: Drug Trafficking, Smuggling, and Gambling in Cuba from the 1920s to the Revolution. Translated by Russ Davidson. Latin America in Translation/en Traducción/em Tradução Series. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008. 288 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-3175-5.
Reviewed by Megan Feeney (St. Olaf College)
Published on H-Diplo (January, 2010)
Commissioned by Christopher L. Ball (DePaul University)
Drugs via Cuba: A Transnational History
This translation of Eduardo Sáenz Rovner’s The Cuban Connection is a welcome addition to English-language scholarship on an understudied period of Cuban history, the Republican era from 1901 to 1958. Impressively compiled from primary sources from Cuba and the United States, it is the first book-length study devoted to Cuba’s substantial role in twentieth-century drug trafficking, notwithstanding recent scholarship published in Cuba and discredited by Sáenz Rovner. For these reasons alone this is an important study. After all, during World War II, Cuba became the primary site for the transshipment of drugs from ports around the world to the United States. Sáenz Rovner explores the economic, political, and social factors, as well as the institutions and individuals, that made this so. The Cuban Connection also contains useful if ancillary chapters on U.S. mafia figures and gambling in Cuba.
Sáenz Rovner’s research reveals much about Cuba from the 1920s to the 1950s. But the work is not nation-bound; rather, it is as transnational as the flow of drugs he traces. Not surprisingly, there is much focus on U.S.-Cuban relations, particularly how drug trafficking was shaped by and helped to shape diplomacy, trade agreements, migration, and tourism between the two countries. Here the transport of drugs forms another knot in the “ties of singular intimacy,” as President William McKinley stated in his 1899 State of the Union address, between the United States and Cuba. Still, Sáenz Rovner does not fall into the trap of fixating on this relationship at the expense of the global forces that affect it. Instead, his study follows its diverse cast of transnational actors: from Havana and Camagüey to New York, Miami, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America. In so doing, he rejects the Yankee blaming that he believes undermines much historical scholarship published in Cuba today. Consistently, he argues against the well-entrenched notion that Cuba was a victim, corrupted by its neighbors to the North. Rather, native Cubans, immigrants to the island, and foreigners of every stripe sought profit in drugs. Sáenz Rovner paints a complex picture of local and global forces and multiple, multinational criminal agents coming together to make Cuba a drug trafficking hub.
Sáenz Rovner’s introduction concisely outlines his arguments. Geography alone cannot explain why Cuba became this hub. Rather, Cuba became a nexus of this illicit trade precisely because of its profound integration within international flows of goods and capital of the legitimate sort. Easy flows of peoples between nations also facilitate illicit trade. Since colonization, Cuba was a destination for immigrants, from Spain, then Africa, China, Haiti, Jamaica, and the United States. By the 1920s, this continuing influx and resultant diversity made it easier for the immigrants who predominated in the drug trade to blend in and operate out of Cuban ports. Furthermore, though Sáenz Rovner discredits the overgeneralization of pre-1959 Cuba as a “den of corruption,” international drug traffickers were able, in fact, to take advantage of Cuban political instability and widespread public malfeasance (p. 10). Traffickers did not operate with total impunity but convictions were inconsistent, and money and position could purchase a decided laxity of enforcement.
One of Sáenz Rovner’s most provocative arguments is that “the U.S. mafia was not involved in the drug business in Cuba,” despite what U.S. authorities thought then and Cuban historians claim now (p. 14). This argument strains credulity and is contradicted by Sáenz Rovner himself. Even if neither of the most famous U.S. mobsters to operate out of Havana (Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky) trafficked drugs out of Cuba, Sáenz Rovner points to drug trafficking activities therein of the Antinori crime family of Florida. He also notes that, in 1959, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) had a list of forty-one U.S. mobsters it wanted the new revolutionary government to deport. It is hard to imagine that the FBN was wrong about all of them.
Sáenz Rovner opens his body chapters with a familiar story about how Prohibition in the United States led to much smuggling of liquor from Cuba. However, seeking to avoid Yankee blaming, Sáenz Rovner clarifies that smuggling had been practiced out of Cuba since the sixteenth century. The Prohibition era was unique in that a trickle of illegal drugs piggybacked on the rum, a phenomenon tracked by the FBN. Prohibition, which coincided with new commercial air and ferry travel, also sent waves of U.S. tourists to Havana where they could imbibe alcohol and pack bootlegged booze to smuggle home. Cuban government officials encouraged this tourism, hopeful it might prove a steadier source of funds than the island’s sugar trade with the United States. Nonetheless, they were not totally permissive of criminality nor were they unresponsive to the imperative of national “dignity” in their negotiations with the U.S. State Department, Commerce Department, and Justice Department (p. 23).
In chapter 2, Sáenz Rovner describes how drug trafficking picked up after Prohibition, from 1933 to 1940, more as a result of factors in Cuba than factors in the United States. In these tumultuous years, the Revolution of 1933 remained essentially unresolved, as presidents cycled in and out of office, political violence prevailed, the economy staggered, and top officials used state funds for personal enrichment rather than public welfare. Narcotics were imported into Cuba from Europe and Turkey; marijuana arrived from Mexico. Some of these drugs were consumed in Cuba but most were reexported to the United States. The Spanish immigrants predominating in the trade blended into elite Cuban society and capitalized on an environment of lawlessness and their connections to power. Chinese immigrants, in contrast, were not so lucky. They became easy targets whenever the Cuban public demanded a crackdown on drugs. Cuba’s population of Chinese immigrants, the highest of any Latin American country, brought opium with them in the nineteenth century. And though they were not interested in getting rich reexporting opium or spreading its use, xenophobia and moral reform imperatives combined to make them targets for supposedly infesting Cuba with their vices.
During World War II, Cuba became central to the transshipment of drugs to the United States. The war slowed European and Asian supplies, and Latin American countries stepped in to fill the vacuum. (This wartime shift to Latin American production is explored at greater length in chapter 8; and postwar heroin trafficking between Marseilles in France, Cuba, and the United States is the subject of chapter 9.) Increased legitimate trade between Latin America and the United States--the result of U.S. imperatives of hemispheric defense--also facilitated this shift. Further, drug traffickers continued to find Cuba’s climate of corruption useful during Fulgencio Batista’s presidency, from 1940 to 1944, and the Aútentico presidencies from 1944 to 1952. Narcotics traffickers continued to bribe high- and low-level officials alike while a new centralized office for drug control prosecuted users and dealers of marijuana and opium, disproportionately affecting poor Afro-Cubans or Chinese Cubans. By the early 1950s, the charge that leaders were cozy with drug traffickers was one among many launched by the emerging revolutionary movement. Sáenz Rovner gives credence to long-circulating rumors that President Carlos Prío Socarrás himself was “a habitual cocaine user” (p. 73).
Chapter 5 is devoted to Lucky Luciano’s short stint in Havana. Deported from the United States, Luciano skipped out of Italy and arrived in Cuba in 1946. From there he intended to manage his empire, including new casinos in Cuba. He was temporarily protected by connections with Cuban senators and intimates of President Ramon Grau San Martin, but the director of the FBN, Harry J. Anslinger, was able to exert enough pressure, through a medical drug embargo, to have him deported by March of 1947. Though Sáenz Rovner argues that the overzealous director was wrong about Luciano’s drug trafficking activities, he leaves enough of Anslinger’s convictions intact that the reader remains dubious that Luciano was only tinkering with slot machines and roulette tables in Cuba.
Chapter 7 focuses entirely on gambling in Cuba from the 1920s through the 1950s. Sáenz Rovner argues that the culture of gambling on the island was not the fault of U.S. influences but rather “the fruit of a historical process internal to the country’s society and economy” (p. 93). He traces its historical roots, from early Spanish immigrants’ bolita and Chinese immigrants’ games of chance, from the institution of the national lottery in 1812 to the construction of the first casino in 1910, which garnered strong opposition from U.S. politicians. U.S. mafia figures’ involvement did not begin until the 1930s, and expanded greatly in the 1950s under Batista’s dictatorship. It was then that Batista called in the mob to ensure that casino workers were not cheating U.S. tourists and thus creating a public relations dilemma. Thereafter, U.S. mob figures benefited from tax benefits and Cuban loans for the construction of hotels and attached casinos. These proved highly lucrative legal businesses, and not fronts for more profitable illegal dealings, like drug trafficking, as Cuban historians have argued. As Saénz Rovner goes on to argue in chapter 11, this misinterpretation develops out of that historiographic trend of postrevolutionary Cuba, in which a Christlike Fidel Castro appears in 1959 to sweep away the many sins of pre-1959 Cuba, especially of the Batista era. But the reversal was not so immediate (nor so total), and the revolution’s moral repugnance toward the casinos developed only after U.S. tourists began to stay away. In truth, Castro kept the casinos open as long as they proved a source of revenue and employment.
As dictator in the 1950s, Batista is guilty of many things, but he was not complicit with international drug trafficking, argues Sáenz Rovner. In fact, his last administration had a strong record of enforcement that might have been even stronger if he had not had to devote so many resources to fighting the rebels and if not for the resultant civil unrest on which traffickers capitalized. Batista complied with UN antidrug initiatives, cooperated with the FBN, joined Interpol, used his military police to pursue cocaine traffickers and imposed strong sentencing guidelines for trafficking.
Of course, it did take the Cuban Revolution of 1959 to remove Cuba from international drug trafficking. And, at first, at least on this front, the new revolutionary government’s puritanical impulse coincided well with U.S. objectives. The revolutionary government pledged full cooperation to the FBN, and did deport many top U.S. mafia figures on its aforementioned list. But this accordance was short-lived, a casualty of the rapid deterioration of U.S.-Cuban relations in the early 1960s. Inter-American meetings on drug control became yet another venue for the two states to vilify one another. U.S. authorities and press launched baseless accusations that Cuba, led by the cocaine-addicted Castro, was aiding and abetting drug trafficking into the United States as part of a global Communist conspiracy to weaken Americans’ wills. Meanwhile, as the trade embargo was imposed, opportunities for illegal trade were closed.
The Cuban Connection is best when it remains focused on international drug trafficking via Cuba. The chapters on gambling, though impressively researched and important in their own right, are insufficiently integrated and thus act as a distraction. And there are too many other smaller distractions along the way: Sáenz Rovner dwells overly long on the sociopolitical details of U.S. Prohibition and Estes Kefauver’s political fortunes within the U.S. Democratic Party, as just two examples. These have the effect of making the United States more central than his argument intends. Likewise, there are overly long sections on Cuban political developments filled with irrelevant details that have been well told elsewhere. Paring these might leave space to explore the social factors that made Cuba a drug trade hub. For one thing, the occasional instances in which Sáenz Rovner glosses over drug use in Cuba merit further consideration. Despite these minor shortcomings, this exhaustively researched text will be of great use to scholars of twentieth-century Cuba, U.S.-Cuban relations, and the global drug trade.
: Drug Trafficking, Smuggling and Gambling from the 1920s to the Revolution
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