Fidel Castro’s revolution swept former president Fulgencio Batista out of Cuba on December 31, 1958. Castro eventually shut down the Mob-run casinos and nightclubs in Havana. Courtesy of Library of Congress.


After arriving in Playa Las Coloradas, in southeast Cuba, Castro and his men made their way to the Sierra Maestra mountain range. The Cuban Army attacked them, and only a handful of rebels were able to make it into the safety of the mountains. To Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, it was a victory. To the Castro brothers, it was a minor setback. To the thousands of U.S. tourists staying in the Havana hotels and the mobbed-up owners of the establishments, it was not even a blip on their radar.
By the time Castro and his 26th of July Movement made significant inroads, the Mob’s hold in Havana was at an all-time high. Lavish casinos and new hotels such as Meyer Lansky’s Riviera and the Havana Hilton were hosting planeloads of American tourists. Nightlife in Cuba attracted top talent. Cabaret shows at nightclubs such as the glamorous Tropicana and burlesque shows at the much less glamorous Shanghai Theater entertained almost to the break of dawn.
When Fidel Castro, his brother Raul, Che Guevara and 79 other Cuban rebels piled into the 43-foot yacht Granma on November 25, 1956, there was no indication it would transform geopolitics in the Western Hemisphere for decades, or that it would lead to the end of the Mob’s reign in Cuba.

One of the big reasons many Mob figures did not pay much attention to the gains made by Castro and his men was that they had provided arms and support for Castro. To them it was a good business decision. They felt they could do business with whomever was in charge. They apparently didn’t recognize a significant distinction between Batista and Castro.

The end came on December 31, 1958, when the rebels defeated Batista’s army in the city of Santa Clara. Upon hearing the news of his army’s loss, Batista decided to run. He boarded a flight to the Dominican Republic, fleeing Cuba and effectively handing the country over to Fidel Castro. This episode is enshrined in Mob pop culture in the pivotal scene from The Godfather: Part II, when Batista announces to a crowd at a New Year’s Eve party that he is leaving the country – and of course, Michael utters the famous line to his brother: “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.”

On January 1, 1959, citizens took to the streets of Havana after hearing the news of Castro’s victory, though Castro himself would not arrive in Havana until January 8. Some ransacked the casinos and smashed and threw slot machines into the streets. To many in the city, the American-owned hotels symbolized a corrupting foreign influence. CONTINUE READING AT THE MOB MUSEUM

Meyer Lansky lost millions when Fidel Castro took over Cuba. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Scott M. Deitche is an author specializing in organized crime. He has written seven books and more than 50 articles on organized crime for local and national publications. He has been featured on the History Channel, A&E, Discovery Channel, AHC, C-SPAN and Oxygen Network. In addition, he has appeared on dozens of local and national news shows, as well as more than 40 radio programs. His latest book is Garden State Gangland: The Rise of the Mob in New Jersey. For more information about Scott visit his website at SCOTTDEITCHE.COM