July 24, 2005

Lucky Luciano Not So Lucky in Cuba

By now its common knowledge that American mobsters found a “willing partner” in Cuban governments of the 1940s and ‘50s, and that Meyer Lansky had a friendship and business relationship with Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, but did you know that famed mobster Charlie “Lucky” Luciano spent six months in Cuba after his deportation from the U.S.?

At the end of WWII Luciano was released from a U.S. jail and deported to Italy, but he didn’t stay there very long. Cuba had become a curiosity to Luciano, who had close ties to Lansky and was fully aware of the drug trafficking lanes and the strong ties to the island’s government.

On September 19 1946, Luciano was issued a Cuban passport, and that same day he left Italy. Within a week he was in Havana.

Luciano liked Havana, and he took a luxurious suite at the Hotel Nacional. There he presided over one of the largest mafia meetings ever held, (Dec. 22-26, 1946). At his side were Frank Costello, Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia and Meyer Lansky. The hotel was closed to the public for that week, and Frank Sinatra made his singing debut in Havana, in honor of Luciano.

Also attending that historic meeting were: Mike Miranda, Joseph Magliocco, Joe Adonis, Tommy Luchese, Joe Profaci, Willie Moreti, the Fischeti brothers (heirs to Al Capone), Santo Trafficante and others. Among the topics discussed was the execution of Bugsy Siegel.

Luciano moved into the exclusive neighborhood of Miramar, a few blocks away from President Grau San Martín’s mansion, and settled into a life of parties, romance and luxury.

In the U.S., Harry J. Anslinger, commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics of the U.S. Treasury Department, was aware of Luciano’s moves in Cuba, and tried to pressure Cuban President Grau San Martín to send the mobster back to Italy.

President San Martín, and the Auténtico Party leaders, took the position that, in spite of Luciano’s past life in crime, he had broken no Cuban laws and should not be deported.

Anslinger turned up the heat and got U.S. President Truman to support his request. The Cuban government did not budge. San Martín argued that if the Cuban government was a free government, it could issue visas to whomever it wanted. But this, of course, was not the case.

After a brief battle of wits, words and headlines, the U.S. government announced that Cuba would be subjected to an embargo of pharmaceutical products until Luciano was deported. (The logic being that as long as Luciano was importing illegal drugs into the U.S., Cuba would not be allowed to receive the legal drugs it needed.)

A round of discussions took place, and Lansky went to Florida to consult with Batista. It was too late. On February 23 1947, Luciano was arrested at a restaurant in Vedado. They were very polite to each other, and Luciano said goodbye to his guards and companions, and left with the police, who escorted him to his house to pick up necessary personal items.

On March 29 1947, Luciano left Cuba aboard a Turkish freighter. Popular personality Eduardo Chibás reported the departure in his popular Sunday night radio program.

Luciano was not charged with a crime in Cuba. Once he was gone, the Cuban police investigated no other U.S. gangster figures, and there were no investigations of any criminal activity by the Mafia. Lansky and Genovese rose up in power, and a few years later Havana became the Latin Las Vegas that Lansky had envisioned.


July 17, 2005

Que Sera, Sera!

“Cuba isn’t going to open up the way Eastern Europe did,” says Jamie Suchlicki, director of the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, in the AP article by Todd Lewan published in June 2005. “Cuba will probably act more like China” he predicts, speculating that it may take up to ten years after Castro’s death for true change in U.S. policy towards the island to emerge.

An essay by Suchlicki, “Castro’s Cuba: Continuity Instead of Change,” appears in the book “Cuba: The Contours of Change,” which explores the practical, political and financial issues surrounding the possible end of the embargo against Cuba.

“Even after the island’s leadership passes out of Fidel’s hands,” writes Suchlicki, “Cuba’s transition will almost certainly be slow and painful.” He adds, “The possibility of regime continuity seems stronger for Cuba than it has been for other communist states.” He asserts that “some Cubans may accept Castroism without Castro because of the threat of force; others because they fear loosing the gains in housing, health and education they have received in the past; still others because of anti-Americanism or commitment to a Marxist or nationalist ideology.”

This could mean further tightening of the embargo after Castro dies, similar to the way the embargo tightened after the fall of the Soviet Union (the opposite of what should have happened).

Of course, the moral wisdom of using a 45-year embargo against a small neighbor that is not a threat to us, is as ignored by “experts” as it is by popular media and public rhetoric.

Most arguments in support of the embargo will serve you a list of Castro’s crimes (real or not) as an excuse to justify starving of the Cuban people, which, driven by hunger, are supposed to rise up and overthrow their leader, at which time we can step in and give them our recipe for success and happiness.

Why can’t we just be good friends and neighbors?


July 12, 2005

Cuban History Rocks!

Faster than Star Wars!

More action than a Jerry Bruckheimer movie! With more unique characters than a collaboration between David Mamet and Robert Altman!

More left turns than San Francisco and more right turns than Salt Lake City.

All in a country smaller than a medium state, and a span of time longer than half a millennia.

Here are some early trailers:

1511. Cuba’s first guerilla warrior, Hatuey, is tied to a stake and burned alive. He’s given the choice of going to heaven if he accepts Christianity, but he turns it down once he discovers that he’s likely to find other Spaniards there.

1762. Havana is attacked by a large British force that takes control of the city, but doesn’t venture far beyond it, leaving the rest of the country free from Empire control for the first time in 2-1/2 centuries. (This is when Cuban-born merchants immediately realized they’d rather sell their goods on the open market, than through the “closed” system forced on them by the Spanish empire.)

1868. A rich white landowner (Carlos Manuel de Céspedes) frees his slaves and declares war on Spain. The war lasts ten years and ends in a stalemate, but Cubans learn that they can fight for their freedom, and the ideology of a race less nation takes root.

Early 1895. The Cuban rebels reorganize under the visionary umbrella of José Martí’s Cuban Revolutionary Party. The 2nd War of Independence begins, reasserting the influence and commitment of Ten-Year War heroes Maximo Gómez, Calixto Garcia, the Maceo brothers and many others. This time, the rebels will not settle for a stalemate.

Late 1895. Maximo Gómez (the fox) and Antonio Maceo (the lion) begin the now historic invasion of Cuba’s Western provinces. With a combined column of 2,500 men, the fox and the lion are able to play hit and run with the vastly larger and better-equipped Spanish army. At each encounter they outfox and out roar the empire, including the famous “false retreat” in Las Villas (late December) in which the Liberating Army heads towards Havana and the pursuing Spanish Army “follows” them in the wrong direction, so that on the first day of 1896, as the Spanish papers show headlines claiming that “Maceo Turns Back,” the Mambises march into Havana, leaving a trail of fire and destruction behind them. The Western Invasion is still considered one of the military highlights of the 19th century.

Stay tuned for Act 2: The 20th Century!

July 07, 2005

Andy Garcia

You can barely recognize him in “Confidence.” He looks faded and corrupt as Gunther Butan. But slowly his familiar face starts to peer through the salt-pepper facial hair and character lines and you recognize him from memory. This is one of my favorite Garcia performances, even though it’s a supporting role with little screen time. Check out an early scene in which Butan confronts 2 crooked cops. The film also features a tasty change of pace for Dustin Hoffman.

In “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” he nails the quintessential Andy Garcia character. Jimmy “The Saint” Tosnia is slick, resourceful and determined… a bit of Cary Grant via David Niven. A surprise if you’ve never seen it, and a very underrated movie.

According to the Internet Movie Database, Andy Garcia was born in Havana (the quality shows, doesn’t it?) in 1958. Aside from the fact that he’s given the world a wonderful assortment of memorable movie characters, one of the things I find interesting about Garcia is that he’s capable of playing diverse backgrounds and ethnicities.

When I saw him in “Hero,” it gave me the idea to write a film in which he would play José Martí. What a movie that would be! (Garcia & I are already older than Martí was at his untimely death in battle at Dos Rios in 1895).

In “Night Falls on Manhattan,” Garcia plays a young assistant DA facing the toughest case of his life, which brings him into direct confrontation with his father, a retired cop. The film serves up a rare complexity in character and story, making it another great find in today’s video store movie glut.

In “Ocean’s Eleven,” Garcia’s Terry Benedict is calculating and exacting, a quality that he projects with his eyes and the art of understatement.

Other notable Andy Garcia films: “Dead Again,” “The Untouchables,” “Black Rain,” “Godfather III,” “Internal Affairs,” “When A Man Loves A Woman,” “The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca,” “The Man from Elysian Fields,” the documentary “Cachao,” and others.

Check out a complete list of Andy Garcia films at the Internet Movie Database: http://imdb.com/name/nm0000412/.


July 02, 2005

Cuban Music

One of the most significant contributions Cuban culture has made to world culture is music. I’m often asked about Cuban music and musicians by people from all over the world; Spain, Argentina, Japan, Africa… I’m still knocked out by the fact that people are listening to Chucho Valdez in Africa… Are they listening to Ernesto Lecuona in Paris? Likely.

In San Francisco? Yes! I can verify that Cuban music is alive and well in the west coast’s most eastern city, and not just in the Mission District where the Latinos hang out, but also in the Haight and the Fillmore, in North Beach and the Tenderloin. Sometimes you hear it coming through the houses as you walk down the street, in used bookstores and coffee houses.

Black Americans have known about Cuban music for a while… since the late forties/early fifties, I’d guess. Sure, they kept it a secret, shared only with “the worthy” and “the lucky few.” But in San Francisco & LA (as it might be on east-coast cities & selected red states) the secret is out now.

As, well, it should be.

I was surprised to hear the Buena Vista Social Club in a Salt Lake City BORDERS about 4-5 years ago. And not just one song but several tracks. This is the same Borders where Oliver North might drop by for some magazines and audio books. (Remember him? He’s a working acquaintance of Posada Carrilles.)

Wherever music comes from, it belongs to the experience of life. Record companies and the legalities of commerce notwithstanding, music is a spiritual requirement of life. What food and sleep does for the body, music does for the soul. I’m glad that the embargo has not locked out Cuba’s music from our vast list of everyday choices, and I wish that the Cubans in Cuba had as much access to music as I do.

This week, aside from Cachao and Mongo Santamaria (Afro-American Latin is a masterpiece) I’ve been listening intensely to “eco” by Jorge Drexler. He’s not a Cuban, I believe that he comes from Argentina, but I had to mention him. A few months ago Carlos Santana and Antonio Banderas performed his song “Al Otro Lado del Rio” live during the Academy Awards. It was a good performance, but it can’t match what’s on this CD. I think the Academy should have allowed Drexler to perform his own song, which won the Academy award for Original Song.

More on Cachao and Mongo later.

Good Rhythms