A new chapter in Cuba: the US allows lawsuits over properties seized by Castro

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Image by Bárbara Camargo. All rights reserved.

Trump administration set a stage for a very complex issue. For years, the heirs of a gangster claim the iconic Riviera Hotel and Marina Hemingway back or it's equivalent in cash. What´s next?

About two months ago the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced an important decision concerning Trump´s administration towards Cuba policy: the US will no longer renew a bar on litigation that has been in place for two decades. From now on the doors are open for lawsuits against foreign firms operating on properties Cuba seized from Americans after the 1959 revolution.

Frank Sinatra assumed jointly owned assets with the gangster Meyer Lansky. Originally designed for 450 yachts its current capacity is down to 100 slips. Image by Bárbara Camargo
Frank Sinatra assumed jointly owned assets with the gangster Meyer Lansky. Originally designed for 450 yachts its current capacity is down to 100 slips. Image by Bárbara Camargo
Marina Hemingway: Frank Sinatra assumed jointly owned assets with the gangster Meyer Lansky. Originally designed for 450 yachts its current capacity is down to 100 slips. Image by Bárbara Camargo. All rights reserved.

According to Al Jazeera, although the opposition of the European Union (EU) to that matter,

Pompeo’s decision gives Americans the legal right to sue companies that operate out of hotels, tobacco factories, distilleries, and other properties Cuba nationalized after Fidel Castro took power. It allows lawsuits by Cubans who became United States citizens years after their properties were taken.

Any person or company doing business in Cuba should heed this announcement, Pompeo said.

This policy shift could draw hundreds of thousands of legal claims, according to the US Secretary of State, and worth tens of billions of dollars.

In May, the broadcast channel CNN disclosed the first lawsuits against a company accused of trafficking in confiscated Cuban property, both targeting Carnival Cruise Lines. The lawsuits allege that the Miami-based cruise company has been using ports that belonged to their family or family’s company without compensation.

Since 2015, the heirs of the famous gangster from American history Meyer Lansky declare they also seek compensation for his properties, including the Cuban iconic buildings Riviera Habana Hotel and Marina Hemingway.

For the agency Associated Press:

now that the countries have begun trying to resolve billions in dollars in claims for the confiscation of American properties by the island’s socialist government, Lansky’s family sees an opportunity to reclaim.

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Image by Bárbara Camargo. All rights reserved

The next photo essay The Race for American Properties in Cuba is a result of a work created in 2016 and recaps the fascinating paradox of a country, crossing over decades of communism, back to unfettered capitalism, finally hitting the core of a “gambling” era in Havana, bringing back-references upon racketeering, cronies, and mafia.

Stefan Klein and Ricardo Pagliuso Regatieri´s study about the intertwined relation of capitalism and the mafia provides a suitable introduction to the mobster’s histories in Cuba.

In the early 1940s, critical theory borrowed the term racket from the urban crime underworld and applied it to criticize monopoly capitalism, which was regarded as a constellation ruled in a mafia-like manner.

Decades later, after the experiences of the welfare state in the core counties and catch-up modernizations in the periphery, concepts such as cronyism and mafioso state were proposed.

What these three approaches have in common is the fact that they highlight the mafia-like nature of capitalism and do so for different social and historical contexts.

What the authors suggest is that rackets, cronies or mafias have more recently, and increasingly, become structural elements of capitalism, as was first envisaged by critical theory during World War II.

For its turn

Cuba still tries to reshape the government on the Island and to approach more modern political and economic arrangements to keep the socialist course.

About a year ago (in July 2018), Cuban lawmakers had approved a document that removes the national goal to build a communist society in countries, but still, leaders insist that they are only investing in an incremental transition to prosperous socialism without renouncing their ideas, highlighted Time´s reporter, Ciara Nugent.

A place that reminds us of the complexity of Cuba

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Symbol of a high life era in Havana, the Yatch Club. Bárbara Camargo. All rights reserved.

Havana. It was mid-June 2016, the peak of summer in Cuba, and my plan that day was to spend a few hours at Marina Hemingway. But I ended up in another place, randomly, and the name of this scenario is Marianao beach, where it ran the Yacht Club.

I remember walking by along 5th avenue that morning, outside of Havana center. The heat sensation on the pavement was almost of flames, and as if a new chapter of my ride had just been disclosed, I came across a run-down mansion, which I felt instantly linked into, as something enigmatic emanated from the structure. Soon, I slowed down my pace, until I got stuck, astounded. From afar, I got into digression for space.

It took a while for me to understand what it was about that discovery, where have I been. I not only find out the name of that place but also the story behind it months later on.

At the moment I got there, I remember seeing a short amount of people crossing over the mansion´s side garden, and then through a small gate, towards behind. The path, honestly, seemed to lead to nowhere, as the mansion was visibly hollow, as well the surroundings quiet, almost silent. I wondered a couple of times, observing for a while, why people were entering there, and for a few minutes, I just stared at a distance the ongoing situation. They were talking, laughing and, finally, they walked into the property until they disappeared. In the sequence, it was me who decided to come closer and enter.

There´s nothing extraordinary in the fact people come and go from dilapidated, mysterious buildings in Havana. Even if what is at stake are people wearing swimwear, holding lifebelts on the neck crossing over to nowhere. It is part of the city´s ambiance, of people´s reality, of the country´s history neoclassical and art nouveau underpin buildings, that in the past were meeting points for vibrant nightlife and days. Havana is like an archeological city, full of reminiscences.

But curious anyway I crossed the old gate and pretended using my camera. For sure it wasn´t a private circumstance, and while I walked through the side yard, I found the explanation for why those people were there: that mansion holds a shoreline in its background, a bathing beach. That one: Marianao beach.

The first mental picture of the mansion background at Marianao beach was a few trees shading the classical stair that led to the interior of the building, besides a huge Cuban flag-waving hard into a silent room, on top. For a while, I stayed in front of the building, just staring at it.

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Marianao beach, 1930

Away and with my back to the beach, I still could hear murmurings from people laughing and talking, further down at the sand portion.

Three years ago the mansion’s floors threatened to collapse. It was not allowed to visit the interiors of the building. But it blew my mind to imagine those corridors and floors decades ago, and while I looked to the mansion´s architectural details I had a digression into the 1920 Havana.

Needless to say, Havana´s façade can be sometimes prominent to recall another era related to luxe, mambo, roulette wheel, and even mafia. — Do you need help? Someone asked me. I halted to look at the façade, searching for the direction of the voice. He seems just passing by too.

— I´m fine, thank you, I answered, but he continued to look at me. Staring at him, I kept mine thinking out loud flow for a few seconds, concluding to myself reporting to him:

– I am just wondering where I am, I finally said.

The man reacted to my presence in an easygoing manner saying he was there with his family, in case need anything, and continuing the conversation, he unintentionally finished our brief talk with a handshake saying that boats coming from Miami used to stop there for the dances that used to take place around 1930. He pointed to the ruined platform into the water and after that to the mansion where a casino ran.

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Marianao is a bathing place, at Playa lña concha, Havana, where run the Yacht Club. Pictures and posts from 1930 and 1940´s decades

I took an overview look at the beach and the historical palace once again. It was insanely bright, hot, and humid, that day. I was using my hands to protect my face against the hard sun. Finally, I smiled, farewelling him.

From then and on I became a discrete observer. I didn´t seek any further information about that place and the mansion.

I was alone and using a professional camera and telephoto lens. I didn´t want to disturb the locals acting inquisitively.

Furthermore, in a country where people feel the heavy hand of economic and political sanctions, as a result of strong ideologies and breakdowns along the time, it is not always a great moment for conversations or discriminates questions about rights, properties, family legacies, past, or even future.

The past is much present, and the future seems heavy. Taking that into account I just wanted to conceal me into the crowd, and observe the whole movement in front of me.

Later, searching for information about that place I found those pictures I show here, took at Marianao beach, and date from 1930. That decade I tried to imagine a couple of times before leaving that place. A time when mobsters own Cuba with the blessings of government.

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Before Castro Cuba was owned by mobsters. The former president Fulgencio Batista allowed gangster runs enterprises in Cuba, including gambling and prostitution, in exchange for kickbacks
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Casino at Cuba’s Hotel Nacional in 1957

Cuban people who were involved (in those practices) always made money, had great jobs and were happy, said Lansky´s grandson, Gary Rapport, to Daily Mail newspaper.

The centric figure of a gangster in Havana´s past

Sandi (Sandra) Lansky is the daughter of one of the most financially successful gangsters in American history: Meyer Lansky. An Italian suit and pistol group type. Lanksy created the casino chain Monte Carlo SA and important places in Cuba.

According to The New York Times, Lansky personal fortune hit $300 million, “most of it tucked away in Swiss bank accounts, real estate, and hidden investments”. Because of his mathematics abilities and incredible enrichment, Meyer Lansky was widely known as the mob´s accountant.

However, when he died, in 1983, the family got shock to know that his estate was worth around $57,000, accordingly to the Daily Mail reporter, Shekar Bhatia.

The story continues here Could the US decision affect gangsters patrimony in Cuba? A review of a mobster story

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