Thinking of gambling in Cuba and casinos, the thoughts of many people go to American Mafia movies and books. The second part of the The Godfather trilogy will then be shown. In one scene, the successful criminal Meyer Lansky (called Hyman Roth in the film) celebrates his birthday in Cuba, on the roof of a casino hotel. The most famous American mafia bosses of that time, played by actors of course, are gathered there.
The film is romanticized for the silver screen, but remains close to the historical details. In reality, however, everything was much bigger, more overwhelming and criminal. For many Westerners, partly due to The Godfather, the Cuban gambling history seems to begin with the arrival of the American Mafia to the island.
Gambling in Cuba
But Cuba's gambling history starts much earlier, namely in the colonial period. In 1492 the Italian Christopher Columbus discovered the island, which was named after a god of the indigenous population. Twenty years later, his Spanish colleague Diego Velasquez de Cuéllar begins to conquer the island. Soon Cuba is a Spanish colony and it will stay that way until around 1900.
With the arrival of the Spaniards, gambling games are also coming to the island. They serve as entertainment for the soldiers. But soon the Spanish ruler uses the games to suppress the population. Almost all Indians have already died from violence, but especially from diseases that the settlers brought.
For a long time the population consisted mainly of the remaining natives and imported slaves from Africa. Later, residents from European countries and China also emigrate to Cuba.
The Cuban population does not like the Spanish government much. Education and culture are prohibited for them. Allowing the oppressed population to gamble abundantly makes them numb and easier to control. Many layers of the population become addicted to gambling. Gradually Cuba and the Cubans get a bad reputation.
Not just abroad. In Cuba there are several intellectuals who denounce gambling, corruption and oppression. The most famous voice of that silent resistance is that of statesman, historian and writer José Antonio Saco.
Gambling houses and games
José Antonio Saco writes in 1832: "Gambling in Cuba has spread like an all-consuming cancer everywhere in every town and corner of the island. Gambling houses are the hiding place of our lazy men, the school of corruption, the grave of family ownership and the sad origin of most crimes that infect our lives and society. "
During the colonial period, more and more games of chance gradually came to the island. They are the well-known Western games such as roulette and card games such as blackjack and poker. The Cubans play them everywhere in the country in clubs, cafes, on the street and at home. Even innocent board games and, for example, billiards are used for gambling, according to the books from Saco. In the countryside at the end of the 18th century, cockfights were especially popular.
In 1812 the Spanish government started a national lottery to pay for the many European wars. She also brings this lottery to Cuba. It soon becomes a favorite activity for the many gambling addict Cubans.
Thanks to Chinese immigrants, the popularity of lotteries in general is growing. They start with Chinese games and lottery variants. A store owner in Havana introduced the Chinese game Chee Fah in 1876. It is a game with 36 numbers. The retailer always draws a number that must be guessed by his customers. The game gradually spreads to other retailers on the island.
However, more and more people suspect that the game is being manipulated. Organizers of the national lottery see this as an opportunity. They increase the number of numbers to 100 and call the game Bolita, after the little balls with which it is played.
Bolita becomes the official lottery of Cuba. In addition to the game with the balls from the government, all kinds of illegal variants arise. They are mainly played in neighborhood communities. Some are also played with balls. However, there are also variants without balls that look like bets. In addition, the participants must, for example, guess how many letters a certain sentence consists of a main article in the next day's newspaper.
Prediction and fortune telling
In the mix of cultures and religions, a system of lottery prediction is gradually emerging. In addition, there is a connection between numbers, dreams and animals or events. It looks like the Italian Smorfia.
In Cuba, in addition to this form of prediction that is strongly linked to the national Bolita, there are also many other forms of fortune telling. The form often betrays the origin of a Cuban, many of whom have ancestors who came from Africa as slaves.
In (daily) believing Cubans everywhere see signs of the future. Many Cubans also see predictions of winning numbers in the national or an illegal lottery.
At the beginning of the 20th century, some companies were allowed to develop tourist attractions on the west coast of Havana. They start mining the land and building buildings. Soon the idea arises to build casinos, such as those that arise in European coastal towns.
To make this possible, the Cuban government signed the Tourism Act on 8 August 1919. Article 7 thereof states that a company can purchase a license for one and a half million to operate a legal gambling house. Gambling in Cuba seems to have a good future. But the license amount is too high for almost every Cuban company.
First real casino
Everywhere in the country Cubans still play all kinds of games in private and recreational clubs and in cafés. It's illegal, but the government tolerates gambling opportunities … most of the time.
At the end of the twenties some entrepreneurs built the first real, legal casino. With their company, Urbanizadora del Parque y Playa de Marianao, they are involved in the tourist activities on the west coast. After the successful first casino, they soon build a few more.
The government is gradually taking stricter action against illegal gambling. But banishing is not possible, partly because local governments are opposing. At the same time as the legal casinos on the coast, three hotels with a casino character are created in Havanese hotels: Montmartre, Sans Couci and Tropicana.
They are night clubs with cabaret. But from 1944 they also offer gambling opportunities. According to historians, that happens under the influence of Lucky Luciano. He is friends with Indalecio Pertierra, an influential entrepreneur with good contacts in the government.
Corruption and danger
The first American Mafiosi who go to Cuba have become unemployed due to the investigations of Carey Kefauver. They are not pleasant types. They come from all over America and often from rival gangs. As a result, they easily cheat each other, cheat each other and cheat on their card and dice games.
And they just as easily rob tourists who are attracted with cheap trips. They are mostly Americans. In Cuban and American magazines from that time stories about the many robberies appear. The stories paint a picture of corruption and danger.
Other countries in the Caribbean, such as Jamaica and Puerto Rico, also suffer. While those countries want to take advantage of the strict American ban on gambling.
On March 10, 1952, Fulgencio Batista executes a successful coup. He becomes President of Cuba for the second time. What he did not want before, he now sees as a favorable option. The combination of tourism and gambling can save him money.
Batista adjusts rules and lets small gambling clubs close. He nationalizes occasions that are known by problems in the past. And he bans the cheaters. Some disappear with the help of the Servicio de Inteligencia Militar, the notorious secret police of Batista. Others are sent back to their country of origin.
In addition to Luciano, there are already more Mafia bosses who regularly visit Cuba. Meyer Lansky in particular is often there and he now owns half of the shares in the Montmartre. The new president offers the gamblers opportunities. In America their income is under pressure.
In Cuba they see an interesting source of income and the opportunity to wash their black money. They build their hotels and casinos with it. The luxury casinos quickly attract a large audience. Not just Cubans. Rich Americans in particular gamble their money, including Hollywood stars, singers and politicians.
Dozens of casinos and clubs
With the money won, the Mafiosi build more hotels and casinos. And part of it is paid to President Fulgencio Batista, who maintains his corrupt political system with it.
At the end of 1958 there are dozens of casino hotels, night clubs with play facilities and sports and race tracks where gambling is possible. In addition, Cubans still play openly or privately, but illegally, in cafes, clubs and in private homes.
January 1, 1959
In the last months of 1958, there were several battles between the revolutionary movement of Fidel Castro and the army. After Batista's unexpected flight on January 1, 1959, riots broke out in the whole of Cuba. They focus on everything related to the Batista government.
Furious crowds destroy almost all companies that operated games of chance that day and the days after. In particular, the companies that, in their eyes, cheated customers under the protection of the government. Casinos are looted and the roulette tables end up at the stake or are smashed.
Only a few casinos of hotels in suburbs escape the attacks. They are closed for safety. When the situation is calmer again a few weeks later, the hotel owners come together. They ask the new government to admit the casinos. Especially because permanent closure will cause a lot of unemployment.
On 13 February 1959 the government decided that the most important casino hotels could be reopened. These are mainly the hotels with large shows, including the three clubs mentioned above.
Casinos close definitively
However, the hotels are not doing well. The relationship between Cuba and America has deteriorated. That means fewer tourists. In addition, experienced casino managers have left the country. Most fled for the new regime.
The casinos are opening more and more irregularly. Some soon go bankrupt. And finally there are the new laws. First they prescribe that the government is an important discussion partner. After that, gambling is only allowed when the government is involved.
But soon all forms of gambling are banned by Castro, throughout the country. He even uses the army to have the new law thoroughly implemented. The inventory and stocks are first described and then destroyed. The latter to prevent them from being used by smart individuals to open new game locations.
Gambling in Cuba now
A lot has changed for the Cubans under Castro. But one thing has always remained unchanged, even now that another time has come for Cuba in recent years: Cubans love gambling! It is forbidden, but it is widespread in the country.
Cubans gamble openly or secretly in arcades, cafes, on the street and at home. Lotteries, sports betting and gambling games, you can still do it all in Cuba. Ever since colonial times.
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