Gangsterismo: The United States, Cuba and the Mafia: 1933 to 1966

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By Jack Colhoun, OR Books, New York, 2013, 361 pages, £17.

Paperback ISBN 978-1-935928-89-8. Ebook ISBN 978-1-935928-90-4

www.orbooks.com/catalog/Gangsterismo

Jack Colhoun is a journalist and archive researcher with a distinguished record of investigating US foreign policy in Vietnam, Cambodia and the Middle East and publicising the impact of special interest lobbies on domestic politics like the Obama Healthcare legislation. He was the leader of the draft and military resistance registers exiled in Canada during the Vietnam War.

The author laboured for nineteen years over source material, primarily the US intelligence documents on Cuba from the John F. Kennedy Assassination Collection (JFKAC) at National Archives II in Maryland. This archive collection was created by the President Kennedy Act of 1992, which mandated the declassification of documents with possible relevance to Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. The declassified documents offer new insights into US policy making: from Eisenhower’s decision to seek the overthrow of the Cuban revolution in November 1959; to the CIA’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961; to Kennedy’s provocative Operation Mongoose in 1962; to the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962; to Kennedy’s covert funding of ‘autonomous’ Cuban exile commando operations in 1963; to back-channel discussions between the Kennedy Administration and Castro in the weeks before President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963; and President Lyndon Johnson’s de-escalation of US policy in Cuba.

The great achievement of this book is to frame the information from more than five million pages of documentation into a cohesive account of the military offensives launched against Cuba in the first years after the Revolution. Fidel Castro was later to sum up this period of economic and political warfare in his interview with Ignacio Ramonet: ‘From November 1961, after Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) to January 1963, that is in fourteen months, there were a total of 5,780 terrorist actions against Cuba, and of those 717 were serious attacks against our industrial facilities. As a result of this activity more than 234 people in Cuba died’ (My Life, Allen Lane, 2006, p252). Gangsterismo provides a detailed account of the forces that were acting against the young revolution.

In 1929 a conference in Atlanta City established the ‘National Syndicate’ of the North American Mafia dividing up the ‘Godfathers’’ spheres of influence from New York to Philadelphia, New Jersey, Chicago and Miami. This arrangement was designed to end years of murderous feuding between rival ‘Cosa Nostra’ families. Meyer Lansky was the key figure in this settlement as chief accountant and banker of the Syndicate. He was regarded as the brains of the Mafia because he always looked out for new territory and ways and means to expand business.

A big opportunity opened up when President Roosevelt repealed the Volstead Act in 1933. Better known as the Prohibition Act it had outlawed the general production and consumption of ‘intoxicating liquors ‘since 1920. Battling for control of the illegal alcohol drinks market had been the main Mafia business for over ten years making gangsters like Al Capone extremely rich. Lansky moved fast to corner the new legal trade and that year he met Fulgencia Batista, the Cuban Army Sergeant who seized power and ruled over Cuba between 1933 and 1944, and again after a military coup from 1952-1959. Together the two men came to an agreement that the Syndicate would take control of the Cuban molasses industry, this sugar product being an essential ingredient for the production of rum, which was Cuba’s only manufactured export at that time.

This was the deal that brought ‘gansterismo’ into the heart of Cuban social and economic life. From that time contracts between North American Mafia and Cuban elites dominated the island’s economy until the Revolution of January 1959. Fidel Castro’s government closed down brothels, casinos, drug trading, smuggling, prostitution rings and other gangster activities to the great joy of the people. The Syndicate was prepared to use any and every means to regain its influence in the Cuban military and police force and run its protection rackets and businesses on the island.

Other commentators have attempted to unlock the interlinking stories of the Mafia, the CIA, the FBI, the Kennedy Administration and the Cuban counter-revolutionaries based in Miami. The Channel Four documentary 638 Ways to Kill Fidel Castro (2006) and Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK both inculcate the Mafia in Cuban affairs. But it is this book Gangsterismo that conclusively documents the central role of the Mafia both as the tool of capitalist interests in general and for their own specific interests in efforts to overthrow the Cuban revolution.

Gangsterismo carries a strong message for those who think that it is possible to criticise the Cuban Revolution from a ‘left’ or ‘democratic’ view point. The historical record shows that there was no way that the Cuban people could have sustained national sovereignty without the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party. Each and every exile movement that challenged the Castro leadership, the Junta Revolucionario Cubano (JURE) the Consejo Revolucionario Cuban (CRC) the Directorio Revolucionario Estudentil (DRE) the Frente Revolucionario Democratio (FRD) the Junta de Gobierno de Cuba en el Exilo, the Movimiento de Recuperacion Revolucionario (MRR) the Segundo Frente National del Escambray (SDECE) was in the pay of the CIA and/or Mafia. Furthermore the documentation proves clearly that the leaders of these radical sounding groups agreed and were bound, without exception, to reinstate the interests of the Mafiosi should they seize power in Cuba. Additionally the records also show that regular attempts to generate an internal opposition to the Revolution failed because the overwhelming majority of the Cuban people supported their government. Heavily armed invaders and rearguard guerilla groups in the Escambray Mountains repeatedly found themselves isolated then arrested and detained by local campesinos despite counter-revolutionary bribery, kidnapping and threats. The records show that anti-Castro figures like Rolando Cubela, Manuel Ray and Carlos Prio Socarras were viewed with contempt by their CIA partners as degenerate, corrupt and disliked by warring sections of the Cuban exile community.

Agents, double agents, assassination plots and millions of dollars in US and Swiss bank accounts are all closely monitored in this book. Despite the mass of documentation mined for information by Jack Colhoun, mysteries do remain. One is the role of Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged killer of President Kennedy who was Chair of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, but who was rumoured to be an extreme right-winger. The other is Jack Ruby (Rubenstein) the Dallas strip club owner and arms dealer who, watched by millions on live television, shot Oswald dead on November 24 1963.  Ruby was associated with Donald Edward Browder, a weapons dealer linked to the Mafia who sold guns to all sides in Cuba in the 1950s and 1960s. Ruby was an informant for the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) during the period of his Cuba-related activities. FBI Special Agent Charles Flynn met with Ruby eight times between March and October 1959. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said that Ruby ‘had knowledge of the criminal elements in Dallas.’

The politics of subversion, regime change, misinformation and the arms trade are all present today, from Afghanistan to Syria. Finally banished from Cuba, the Mafia intensified activities in the US expanding the heroin trade, gambling and prostitution radiating out from Miami. The best-connected Mafiosi in Florida, Santo Trafficante, expanded business with his pals Sam Giancana, Johnny Rosselli and hired Cuban gangster associates Evarista Garcia Vidal, and Raul Gonzalez Jerez to spread death and destruction throughout North America.

This is a highly recommend read, the result of many years of committed research, which has made an invaluable contribution to the history and understanding of Cuba. The lesson to be drawn from Jack Colhoun’s study of the forces waging war against the Cuban Revolution must be these: Cuba was attacked because it was on the road to socialism, but Cuba survived because it was marching down that road.

Susan Davidson