With carpet joints running from Saratoga to Key West, Lansky
attracted the attention of many different government officials. Some were on his payroll, others were his sworn enemies. But the probably the most powerful government official to be drawn to Lansky
wasn’t even American. He was Cuban
dictator Fulgencio Batista
, the former army stenographer who had twice grabbed power in Cuba.
In 1952, when Batista
seized power, Cuba was known as the Paris of the New World. Europeans and Americans flocked to the sunny beach
es and danced to the hot rum
ba rhythms of the Cuban
big bands, drinking daquiris and rum
s and smoking cigar
s. Gambling was big in Cuba, too. But Batista
had a problem. The games, it seemed, were seen as crooked and no one was playing. Tourism started to falter as gamblers bypassed the Cuban casino
s in favor of the more honest Puerto Rican joints. Things began to look bad for the dictatorBatista
needed to inject some honesty into his games quickly and he turned to Meyer Lansky
his advisor on gambling reform and gave him the authority to clean up the crooked gaming houses like the Sans Souci and the Montmartre Club.
saw the enhancement of revenues from foreign visitors, and from Americans in particular, as a major source of future income for Cuba – and for himself,` Lacey wrote.Lansky
went to Havana and immediately began to roust the crooked casino
bosses. He kept Santo Trafficante Jr., the son of Tampa’s chief racketeer, but leaned on Sans Souci operator Norman Rothman to start running a clean game. He ordered dealers and croupiers – most of them American – who were crooked to be deported and started the practice of dealing Blackjack from a six-deck shoe, which not only helped the house in terms of percentage, but minimized cheating by the dealer and player.
While Meyer’s reformed Montmartre Club was the in place in Havana, he had long expressed an interest in putting a casino
in the elegant Hotel Nacional, which overlooked El Morro, the ancient fortress guarding Havana harbor. Meyer planned to take a wing of the 10-storey hotel and create luxury suites for high stakes players. Batista
’s idea over the objections of American expatriots like Ernest Hemingway
and the elegant hotel opened for business in 1955 with a show by Eartha Kitt. The casino
was an immediate success.
That spring, Lansky
began working on his own casino
, a 21-story, 440-skyscraper called the Hotel Riviera. When it opened it would be the largest casino
-hotel in the world outside Las Vegas. The Hotel Riviera was Lansky
’s second attempt at building a hotel from scratch – the first time was the ill-fated Flamingo Hotel in Vegas with his friend and partner Benny Siegel.