Just a few weeks before the next president of the United States takes the oath of office this January, Cubans will mark the 50th anniversary of the rise to power of America's great nemesis, Fidel Castro.
Though many in the United States have denounced Castro (and his brother Raúl, who recently replaced the ailing Fidel) as a ruthless dictator, those same critics may wish to consider how the US created the climate that gave rise to Cuba's communist revolution in 1959.
Though initially supportive of Cuba's bid for independence from Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the US quickly turned Cuba into a "quasi-colony." In 1910, Congress passed the Platt Amendment, which gave America almost complete control of Cuba's foreign and debt policies. It also secured the rights to the Guantánamo Bay naval base, which is now home to America's "enemy combatants" in its War on Terror. All major decisions concerning Cuba went through the US ambassador.
David Welch, a political science professor at the University of Toronto says that "the Cubans believe very strongly that the Americans imposed themselves as colonial masters and made the country their own private playground."
A recent story in Maclean's magazine pointed out that Cuba was known as "the whorehouse of the Caribbean" and that it gained a reputation as "the capital of American vice" shortly after the start of Prohibition in 1920 when Cuba was used as "a giant warehouse" for liquor smuggled into the US.
Infamous American mobsters such as Meyer Lansky, Charles "Lucky" Luciano and Giuseppe Bonanno were given free reign. The most influential mafia members would meet in Lansky's suite at Havana's Hotel Nacional and divvy up the proceeds from prostitution and casinos. Lansky was the kingpin, having arrived in Cuba about a decade before to help boost the revenues of two casinos at Havana's famous Oriental Park racetrack.
The Americans came in hordes. Few Cubans benefited, aside from the Cuban military, which controlled most of the country's gaming operations and which included Fulgencio Batista, the US-backed Cuban general who would twice take control of the country by coup. By the time of the 1959 revolution, Cuba was a perfect storm of heavy-handed US government policy and illicit business activity.
Growing up, Castro was well aware of the American presence, though he wasn't always a fierce critic. A young Castro wrote a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asking for a "ten dollar bill green American" and, as an adult, Castro spent a three-month honeymoon with his first wife in Miami and New York.
Still, the social justice-tinged education Castro received in high school from the Jesuits made him increasingly wary of the heavy American influence. After graduating with a law degree in 1950, he set up a legal practice for a mainly impoverished clientele disconnected from the American wealth surrounding them.
Castro had a "very, very strong contempt for games and casinos," and they were the first to be dismantled when Batista's regime fell, says Yvon Grenier, chair of the political science department at St. Francis Xavier University. "These money machines were seen as symbols of corruption of the Batista regime."
But had history not unfolded as it did, Cuba could have become one of the top entertainment hubs for Americans. Its gaming industry was ramping up in the 1950s, with Luciano running several casinos sanctioned by Batista.
Meanwhile, Lansky became a major investor in the city's Hotel Habana Riviera, which was poised to rival the Flamingo hotel and casino he was involved with in the Nevada desert. "Havana would be Las Vegas today if there had not been a revolution," says Welch. "It would have been a destination for gambling, prostitution and all the rest of it."
Cuba's moral arena and the freedoms that the country has given up, willfully or because of sanctions, often define outside perspectives of the country. Prostitution is a thriving industry while many luxuries, such as cell phones, were largely banned until recently. Now, under Raúl, changes are occurring quickly. Cubans can purchase computers and, if they can afford it, stay at the beach resorts created for rich westerners.
A positive future relationship could emerge between the US and Cuba, should Democrat Barack Obama succeed in winning the presidency in November and follow through with his intent to begin a dialogue with Raúl Castro. There is increasing debate in the US about lifting the trade and travel embargo.
Whatever the future of this proudly independent country might be, it seems the tiny island may never entirely shake the influence of its giant neighbor.
Photo: Coca-Cola ran this Cuba-themed ad in National Geographic in February 1958, one month before Castro issued a manifesto calling for “total war” against the Batista regime.