While attending the Caribbean Hotel Conference and Operations Summit (“CHICOS”), Cuba was noted as “unlike anywhere else in the Caribbean” by many panelists discussing the culture of the Country.
While there are a number of outstanding issues that currently stand between the United States and Cuba such as the billions in outstanding claims against Cuba for seized assets and the various restrictive tax and financing policies among both countries they have continued to loosen the strings on diplomatic relations. This includes the recent admittance of certain U.S. companies to establish a presence in Cuba as of September 2015. One such tourism related category noted under this change was “travel and carrier service.”
While it doesn’t exactly open the flood gates for all industries within the tourism sector, it is a start, and more importantly a sign that, for all their differences, forward progress is occurring. This is especially important for Cuba which is starved for economic growth. This could eventually lead to leisure-driven tourists and lucrative foreign investments by U.S. investors who once lit up the streets of Cuba’s main City, Havana, from the 1920s through the1960s. This was largely in the form of luxurious hotels housed with some the largest casinos of its times. The shell of many of these same buildings still stand today like heirlooms that speak to a greater time for tourism in Cuba (at least at first).
Today, international casinos have largely been written off by various industry and legal professionals as an investment that will not be re-established anytime soon, however, this does not remove the unique and rich history – both figuratively and literally – that the gaming industry had in Cuba. In fact, given its hedonistic nature at the time, it is arguable to say that it is one of the major factors that helped bring Fidel Castro into power.
In its heyday, Havana was the ‘Las Vegas of the Western Hemisphere’ and did so without having to adhere to any real regulations or scrutiny that was occurring in the U.S. in areas like Las Vegas which was still building up its notoriety. Not only was Havana considered ‘the Great Escape’ where liquor flowed as freely as the money, the City regularly attracted a number of famous celebrities from the U.S. including Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth and Ernest Hemingway.
Along with a many wealthy high-end players, everyone easily transported back and forth from the U.S. to indulge in the hedonistic pleasures that the City had to offer. An additional perk of Cuba is its beach resort towns that still exist today and its relaxed island vibe—something else nearby competitors like Vegas couldn’t compete with. Gaming hit its high in the 1950s when Former President turned Dictator, Fulgencio Batista, returned to Cuba to benefit off the industry, among other things. One of his chief decisive measures was to invite some of the U.S.’s most notorious Mobster to Cuba, such as Meyer Lanksy, who later recruited others like Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano and Joseph Siseli, to manage the casinos as well as, in some cases, the hotels themselves. It is estimated that the City featured as many as 60,000 slots machines during its peak. Even locals played, with many regularly enjoying gaming in more local spots.
With tourism at a high and money flowing in, Batista and many of his men had their pockets lined with unregulated cash. Still, his insatiable desire for money and power did not stop there, as he reportedly funded a number of hotel and casino developments with money from public reserves and private pension funds of his own citizens. As Batista’s greed grew, so did local Cubans disgust over the blatant self-indulgence and corrupt nature of his regime. This increasing tension ultimately led to a number of small revolts led by rebels which were growing stronger each day with local male and female recruits who had had enough. It is during this time that an influential young man emerged as a leader of the pack, demanding significant change and more equality for the Country’s people. This young revolutionist was named Fidel Castro.
On New Year’s Day of 1959, championed by his leadership, the group finally overthrew Batista’s dictatorship, running through the streets with chants of the Country’s national anthem and destroying most anything that they felt reflected the corruption that had permeated the Country. Of particular interest, were the casinos for which some historians had noted Castro’s great disgust for as he saw gambling as one of the main sins that drove so much of the notorious exploitations led by Batista who himself had already fled Cuba earlier that morning. It was not long after that that Castro took full rule, making Cuba a Socialist State before fully embracing Communism where corruption ensued even in the absence of casinos.
The rest of the Country’s economic history from this point is a familiar one with them creating an alliance with USSR before developing strong ties with Venezuela who recently suffered a major financial crisis. With no strong allies for the first time in over 50 years, it comes as no surprise that it was around this time that discussions with northern Juggernaut, United States, began. And even while these two countries still have a lot of work ahead of them in order to resolve various political, economic and ideological differences, there is no denying the notorious history that once linked them together and provided Cuba with a very lucrative tourism sector.
Driven largely by casinos, which are now far more established and well-regulated across various jurisdictions worldwide, it is intriguing to consider what hand Cuba could ‘play’ in that industry down the road. And while it may take several years before the gaming industry is considered a serious investment with a need for formalized regulations (which given its infamous past, really may not be such a bad thing) there is a possibility that it could once again become an attractive haven, feeding off a rich casino history that could make it “unlike anywhere else in the Caribbean”.
by Renese Johnson, Cuba Journal Contributor
Recently recognized as 1 of the Top 10 Women to Watch in Central Florida, Renese Johnson is President and CEO of Vanguard Leisure Consulting, an advisory firm focused on the Leisure, Hospitality & Entertainment/Gaming industries with a specialization in the U.S., Caribbean and Latin America. She is currently an active member Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association as well as Global Gaming Women and serves as a guest columnist for the Orlando Business Journal and Yogonet International.