The Havana high life before Castro and the Revolution, 1920-1950

Cuba's reputation as an exotic and permissive playground emerged in the 1920s, when the country became a favorite destination for robber barons and bohemians. Hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, golf clubs and casinos in Havana cater to wealthy jet-setters seeking luxury. Socialites, newcomers, celebrities like Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, and American mobsters came to play in the Cuban paradise.

Sugar was Cuba's economic lifeline, but its exoticism and tropical beauty made American tourism a natural and flowing source of revenue. A 1956 issue of Cabaret Quarterly, a now-defunct travel magazine, described Havana as "the mistress of pleasure, the lush, green goddess of pleasure."

What tourists didn't see, or didn't want to see, was the underclass, people of poverty like macateros – sugarcane cutters – who only worked during the four-month season, and were unemployed and angry the rest of the year.

Cuban historian Luis Pérez says, "Havana then was what Las Vegas has become." It also attracted some of the same Mafia leaders, such as Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante, who were avoiding national investigations of organized crime.

In Cuba, they could continue their stock trades of gambling, drugs, and prostitution, as long as they paid off government officials. The fees, although high, were a small price to pay for an industry that made millions of dollars every month.

But while tourists were eagerly spinning the roulette wheel in sexy Havana, a revolution was brewing in the less glamorous countryside. The sugar boom, which had provided much of the energy to Cuba's economic life, was waning, and by the mid-'50s it became clear that expectations had exceeded the results. With no credible economic replacement in sight, Cubans began to feel the pressure. Poverty increased especially in the provinces.

By the late '50s, American financial interests included 90 percent of Cuba's mines, 80 percent of public utilities, 50 percent of railways, 40 percent of sugar production and 25 percent of bank deposits – totaling about $1 billion. American influence also extended to the cultural sphere. Cubans became accustomed to the luxuries of American life.

They drove American cars, owned televisions, watched Hollywood movies, and shopped at Woolworth's department stores. Young people listened to rock and roll, learned English in school, adopted American baseball, and adopted American fashion.

In return, Cuba got hedonistic tourists, organized crime, and General Fulgencio Batista. Batista, who had been in military power since the early 1930s, appointed himself president in a military coup in 1952, dashing the Cuban people's long-held hopes for democracy.

Not only was the economy weakening as a result of American influence, but Cubans were also angry at what their country was becoming: a den of prostitution, brothels, and gambling.

That degree of income inequality, along with allegations of corruption within the government of President Fulgencio Batista, laid the foundation for the Cuban Revolution, leading to permanent economic sanctions by the United States and the rapid end of Havana's high-life.

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