Havana Versus Las Vegas

How Fidel Castro played a major role in defining the Entertainment Capital of the World

During the swanky 1950s, when headliners like Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong regularly were performing shows in Las Vegas, another city in the Northern Hemisphere equally was swinging. Havana, Cuba — also heavily invested in by members of organized crime — was booming as a destination for dining and entertainment, too. In fact, many mobsters from the East Coast preferred Havana because of its proximity, island vibe, and location outside of the country, as well as for its distance from the pressures of the federal government.

When most Americans think of Cuba, recent history — Fidel Castro, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the subsequent ban of travel — comes to mind. However, before what Cubans still call Castro’s “Triumphant Revolution” in 1959, Cuba was a Caribbean vacation hot spot. And, Havana and Las Vegas were battling to become the “Monte Carlo of the Western Hemisphere.”

“What happened in the 1950s was the mob investing in both places, starting with Las Vegas in the 1940s and Havana in the 1950s,” said Geoff Schumacher, historian and senior director of content at The Mob Museum in Las Vegas. “In the late 1950s, emergence was taking place between the two cities for supremacy — attracting both gamblers and tourists.”

Las Vegas companies were investing in Cuba, and state gaming regulators and the business community were concerned and began changing gambling relations.

“There was a lot of coming and going between Las Vegas and Havana,” explained Schumacher. “Mobster Meyer Lansky was investing in both places.”

When Cuba’s president, Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar, was still in power, he was in close cahoots with the mob through Lansky, whose preference was an opportunistic Havana over Las Vegas.

“When Batista’s coups d’état took place in 1950s, Lansky was paid a salary as a casino consultant to clean up unfair gambling practices. Soon, Batista was getting rich off casinos. Castro found it reprehensible that the leader of the Cuban government was so close to the mob and supporting American businesses,” Schumacher added.

And business was booming. Investors and famed Las Vegas characters like the Desert Inn’s Wilbur Clark were building luxury hotels in Havana. When the new wing of the elegant Hotel Nacional de Cuba opened for business in 1956 with a performance by Eartha Kitt, it consisted of Clark’s famed Casino Internacional and Casino Parisién nightclub.

The casino was managed by men from Las Vegas, and a year after it opened, it was bringing in money comparable to Las Vegas casinos during that same time period, which was noted by Jay Mallin Sr. in his unpublished article “Havana Night Life” that he sent to the Cuban Information Archives.

Building and Flag Adjacent to Central Park

According to Fabulous Las Vegas Magazine, a weekly publication that was printed from 1950 until the early 1970s and is archived at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Lied Library Special Collections, performers like Dorothy Dandridge at the Hotel Last Frontier, Liberace at the Riviera and Tony Bennett at The Sands’ Copa Room headlined in Las Vegas.

All three of these entertainers also performed at Sans Souci nightclub and casino in Havana; acts went back and forth between the two cities. The difference? The Cuban musicians: Afro-Cuban stage productions had a more Caribbean feel. And while both Las Vegas and Havana had high-end shows, the Cuban capitol also had what Schumacher referred to as an “extreme entertainment offering,” including live sex acts.

Then came the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Batista fled the country, leaving mobsters completely unprotected. Casino owners and some employees had to grab all the cash they could and quickly leave the country. Liliam Lujan Hickey, a well-known Las Vegas community leader and Nevada State Board of Education member, escaped Cuba with her first husband in 1959. He ran casinos there, and five years later, they both had ended up in Las Vegas. But they weren’t alone — many trained Cuban casino workers ended up in Nevada.

Dr. Tony Alamo, chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, shares a similar story. His father Antonio Alamo Sr. came to the U.S. from Cuba at age 20 during the time of Castro’s early rule. The elder Alamo arrived in Reno, Nevada, in 1962 and started in the gaming industry there a year later. He eventually made it to Las Vegas and retired as the senior vice president of Mandalay Bay Resorts Group in 2005.

“If Castro hadn’t taken over Cuba, Las Vegas would never have blown up like it did. The gaming industry in Havana was already ahead of Las Vegas,” the doctor explained. He also remarked that, before the revolution, Cuba could have been the 51st state.

What Castro effectively did was make Las Vegas THE gambling outpost in the Western Hemisphere — and a virtual monopoly. He had a profound effect of a lot of things in the world, no less the gambling industry and Cuba’s tourism economy.

El Floridita

In a Smithsonian magazine article, reporter Natasha Geiling shared Cuba’s tourism statistics: more than 350,000 visitors came to Cuba in 1957. After Cuba’s takeover by 1961, the number of American tourists had dropped to around 4,000. In response to the communism that Castro imposed upon the country, the U.S. government placed a travel and trade embargo on Cuba in 1963. Despite President Barack Obama lifting the restrictions in 2015 and visiting the country the following year, the U.S. Department of State still prohibits tourism travel to Cuba.

If an American citizen wants to visit Cuba, his or her trip must fall into one of 12 categories, which include family visits, educational activities or humanitarian projects. U.S. airlines, such as American Airlines, Delta and Southwest fly into Havana multiple times daily. But sights of classic cars and outdated infrastructure are noticeable upon arrival. Also antiquated? A policy that American credit cards and ATM cards are not accepted — the Cuban convertible peso is at parity with the U.S. dollar, yet Americans can expect a 13 percent currency conversion fee.

After American visitors get used to carrying around large sums of cash to pay for everything — transportation, hotel, food and beverage, tours, souvenirs and artwork — visiting Havana can be a tropical step into the past. On foot in Old Havana, it is easy to imagine what this metropolitan area was like in its 1950s heyday. Stroll along the Paseo del Prado and marvel at the Italian architecture of nearby El Capitolio and Gran Teatro de La Habana while one of 60,000 classic cars painted in bright colors cruises by. Or, visit two haunts that Ernest Hemingway frequented, and enjoy a daiquiri at El Floridita historic fish restaurant-cocktail bar or order a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio trendy dining establishment. Better yet, sip fresh mojitos on a privately owned rooftop overlooking the city.

Hotel Inglaterra

Habaneros are passionate and colorful people — some have dance in their steps as loud Cuban music like that famously portrayed in the 1999 documentary film Buena Vista Social Club — is often heard through open windows in Old Havana. While many of the businesses in Cuba, (including restaurants and bars) are still state owned, new private stores, restaurants and galleries are starting to crop up. Construction cranes in Havana are a common sight, as European hoteliers are partnering with local entities to build high-end luxury hotels. However, a stay at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba or Hotel Inglaterra evokes more of the charm Havana had in the 1950s.

A well-planned journey to Havana is certainly worth the trip, especially for those interested in its storied recent history and the requisite purchase of famous Cuban cigars. For a Las Vegan, it is an interesting study in comparison; of what our fair city became when Havana’s course went in a different direction.

“Viva Havana” and “What Happens in Cuba Stays in Cuba” just don’t have the same ring as their correct Las Vegas iterations. Castro essentially played a big role in what Las Vegas is today, and for that, we can be grateful.

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