Heirs to notorious gangster seek to be compensated by Cuba

Meyer Lansky, born in Poland in 1902 as Meier Suchowlanski, was a close associate of Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, and others of the worst 20th-century gangsters. He was one of organized crime’s chief experts on running gambling casinos and money laundering, and so adept at it that he was sometimes called “the Mob’s accountant.” He died unrepentant at age 80 in 1983 after serving very little jail time.

Now one of his heirs is trying to cash in on the process of normalization between the United States and socialist Cuba.

Lansky had his fingerprints on Mafia activities in New York, Chicago and Las Vegas, where he and Siegel had been two of the “leading lights” in establishing Mafia control of gambling casinos. He also developed ties to the U.S. government. During World War II, if his claims are accurate, he and Luciano helped the U.S. military to fight against Axis agents who were threatening U.S. shipping. Lansky’s working relationship with Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, was most profitable for him and his associates, and for Batista and his family as well.

In December of 1946, Lansky organized a star-studded meeting of the most notorious and violent Mafia dons from both the Italian Cosa Nostra and the Jewish “mob” in the United States, including Luciano, Santo Trafficante, Frank Costello, Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia, Carlos Marcello, Sam Giancana, Tony Accardo, Joe Bonano and others. All the major Mafia families were represented. The venue was the Hotel Nacional in Havana.

Film buffs will recall that this meeting is a key scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s film “The Godfather Part II.” In the film, Lansky is called “Hyman Roth”and is played by Lee Strasberg. Although the meeting took place when Fulgencio Batista was temporarily out of power and replaced as president by Ramón Grau San Martín, it was made possible by Batista’s continued influence in Cuba. And Grau’s administration was hardly clean either. Batista returned to power via a coup d’état in 1952, and Lansky and his colleagues continued on their merry way, making huge profits from gambling casinos, race tracks and vice in Cuba.

By all accounts this was a very “fruitful business meeting,” even if several of the attendees, including Giancano and Anastasia, were later “whacked,” as the Hollywood scriptwriters put it, by disgruntled colleagues. Besides setting the stage for massive crime syndicate infiltration of Cuba, all with the blessings of Batista and his family and cronies, the meeting straightened out working relationships among “the families.”

In 1931, another conference had ended the traditional system of the “capo di tutti capi” (boss of all bosses) and replaced it with “the Commission,” a sort of gruesome corporate board to run organized crime, in which Luciano played a key role. At the Hotel Nacional, the “capo” system was, de facto, resurrected without abolishing the Commission, with Luciano taking the job and sidelining rival Vito Genovese. There was a disciplinary decision that “Bugsy” Siegel would have to be killed for skimming money from the “Flamingo” casino in Las Vegas. Lansky “reluctantly” assented: Siegel was duly bumped off by a sniper in 1947.

But perhaps the most momentous decision at the Hotel Nacional was for organized crime to enter the international narcotics trade full blast. Luciano was already heavily involved in this, and had connections in Italy and France. With the help of Lansky’s presence and connections in Cuba, the island became a major transshipment and money laundering point for heroin shipped from Eurasia and bound for U.S. markets.

And then a revolution…

Then came the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and the fun and games ended. Angry Cubans trashed and looted some of Lansky’s operations in the first days of the new regime. The new government, headed by interim President Manuel Urrutia and led by Fidel Castro, took over and shut down all the gambling casinos, the narcotics trade and other dens of vice. There was no talk about compensation for Lansky and his ilk, although Cuba did offer to negotiate compensation terms with other U.S. businesses it had nationalized (the U.S. government, thinking it would be easy to overthrow the Cuban Revolution, did not cooperate).

Cuba arranged to compensate citizens of other nations which the Revolution nationalized, but no government anywhere would compensate the owners of a criminal enterprise.

During the first years of the Cuban Revolution, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) joined forces with several of the gangsters who participated in the 1946 Havana meeting, to get underway multiple plots to assassinate Fidel Castro. The motive of the Mafiosi was to get back at Castro for the loss of their investments and crooked profits.

Now that relations with the United States are on a new footing, and negotiations are taking place between the two countries on the issue of mutual compensation claims (the U.S. for $1.9 billion plus interest for private properties, formerly belonging to U.S. citizens and companies, which were nationalized by Cuba; Cuba for $121 billion of damage and thousands of Cuban lives lost due to the 57-year U.S. campaign of economic sabotage and terrorism against the socialist government), Meyer Lansky’s grandson, Gary Rapoport, suddenly pops up and asks for a modest $8 million in compensation for the gangster’s nationalized Habana Riviera Hotel.

What is Rapoport thinking? Cuba would certainly never agree, and it is hard to imagine the U.S. government putting any effort into getting compensation for a property whose origin was so tainted by criminality and corruption.

How would it look in the newspaper headlines? The controversy would likely open up anew the whole “can of worms” about CIA involvement with organized crime and murder plots.

So why is this important?  Only because the Lansky story illustrates how it came to pass that Cuba had become the site of so much U.S.-based criminal activity by 1959, and why not just the Revolution’s leadership but also the whole of the Cuban people were so eager to wipe the slate clean.

A close examination of the books of many former U.S. enterprises in Cuba would no doubt show a whole lot more questionable activity, including corrupt ties to prerevolutionary Cuban politicians and officials.

Photo: Meyer Lansky.  |  Wikimedia


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.