When Florida Senator and Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, a second-generation Cuban-American, visited his former hometown of Las Vegas in late May, it was just the latest reminder of the connection between Vegas and Cuba. Two other reminders: Rubio’s cousin is Nevada Senator Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas. And fellow Cuban-American Otto Merida, who emigrated here at age 14, is the president of our city’s Latin Chamber of Commerce.
But the Cuba-Vegas bond runs deeper than a handful of dignitaries: Before the Marxist-led Revolution of 1959, Cuba was a model for gaming and casino-resort development. The Mafia, allied with the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista’s thoroughly corrupt government, had remade Havana’s seaside skyline with high-rise hotel-casinos. After the Revolution, expat Cubans with casino and hotel-management skills flocked to Las Vegas, some of them directed to the desert by Cuba’s onetime top investor and mob associate Meyer Lansky.
In present-day Cuba, Havana’s seafront Malecón—a seawall and boulevard filled with visitors and locals—is bracketed by two hotel-casinos built by Lansky: the Hotel Nacional on the east and the Hotel Habana Riviera to the west. Lansky’s partners in the two properties, which today are operated by the government but whose casinos haven’t accepted a wager since the Revolution, included such Las Vegas luminaries as Ed Levinson of the Fremont Hotel, Wilbur Clark of the Desert Inn and Moe Dalitz of the original Las Vegas Riviera.
A few blocks away from the hotels, booksellers in the busy colonial plazas of the “Old City” are busy peddling tomes about American gangsters and pre-Revolution Cuban history.
Indeed, despite a nearly 60-year ban on legalized gambling, Cubans remain fascinated with Las Vegas, as I confirmed during a recent visit to the island.
A trip from Las Vegas to Cuba, while challenging, is far from impossible (see sidebar). And despite U.S. sanctions against Cuba, you won’t get arrested upon setting foot back on American soil. In fact, recent decisions by the Obama administration have made it a lot easier to visit without getting fined.
Still, the island continues to have a unique relationship with the United States, one that’s vacillated between friendly and violent. Cuba is one of the few places in the Western Hemisphere that has succeeded in thumbing its collective nose at American power. Today, there’s talk of relations that are “normalized,” but that seems an odd word to apply to Cuba. Because Cuba is different. Like the rest of the Caribbean—over which I have traipsed, east and west, pretty much all over—Cubans enjoy music and dancing, strong rum and time at the beach. Unlike the rest of the islands, a Marxist dictatorship comes with that piña colada.
The good news? Once you get to Cuba, everything is cheap. Really cheap. A beachfront apartment in Guanabo, a typical residential community where I stayed, is $30 a night. And my apartment came with a lovely terrace, air conditioning and a kitchen, so I could cook at home and free up more Cuban pesos for rum-infused endeavors.
I knew most of the country’s accepted history long before I arrived. For my lefty friends, Cuba was supposed to be the socialist paradise of the Western Hemisphere—a place that would forever be free of the cutthroat competition, environmental destruction, and social and economic inequities fostered by (they believed) the corrupt capitalist tyrannies exemplified by the United States. Since the late 1960s, thousands of American volunteers (including many Las Vegans) have gone against their government’s wishes and traveled to the island nation to cut sugarcane (a horrendous, backbreaking and dangerous job) and take on other industrial work. (My visit was considerably less strenuous.)
Although Cuba remains a communist state, the heavy hand of the party is much more gentle than in years past. This explains why the State Department on May 29 dropped Cuba from its list of “state sponsors of terrorism” and was set to announce July 1 that the countries will re-open embassies in each other’s capitals. Also, earlier this year, the U.S. allowed the importation of a Cuban-developed lung-cancer vaccine that has been validated and used for years in Europe and Canada.
Today, Cuba operates under a peculiar, often confusing and occasionally amusing sort of socialist dictatorship—one that’s part Pyongyang, part Montego Bay. Case in point: Walking through the airport, I immediately felt the government’s presence in the form of uniformed functionaries. Along with dozens of armed men dressed in various uniforms, there were just as many attractive young Latinas whose stark-green outfits with black epaulets gave a distinct air of authority … until I looked down and noticed their flowery black fishnet panty hose. You can see the same panty hose on female servers in the ubiquitous government-run restaurants and on other young female government workers—so, pretty much everywhere.
It’s a distinctively mixed message to visitors. But that’s Cuba, a nation desperate to attract and develop tourism, but one still burdened by a centralized, command economy that looks a lot like the Soviet Union of the 1970s. Cubans are justifiably proud of the schools and health care and roads that are pretty good compared with other parts of the Caribbean (including islands under the U.S. flag). But most government workers—including highly skilled doctors and engineers—have private side jobs working as taxi drivers or other tourism-related gigs. The average monthly government wage, subsidized with ration tickets for food, housing and other needs? $20.
So you can understand why the natives, while proud of their history, welcome the development that capitalism is bringing. And let me cautiously suggest: Tourism means capitalism.
Then again, this is still a nation where the government owns sparkly new international resorts and car rental agencies, but where gas stations often have no gas, and where those numerous car-rental spots are filled with new-looking vehicles that do not run.
It’s a nation where large and modern high-rise beach resorts (controlled by the government) sit empty and closed at the same time that neighboring resorts (also controlled by the government) are completely booked.
It’s a land whose seven cable TV channels happily rebroadcast U.S. dramas (in English with Spanish subtitles), as well as music videos from the likes of the Killers. (No joke, I saw our local boys on a show called Rock & Rollando—I doubt they got their royalty check.) Yet these cable channels are government-run, and while the programs that are aired happily supply information on Internet links, access to the Web is so limited and tightly monitored that even connecting online (as I discovered) can be an expensive exercise in futility.
It’s a culture that’s defined in part by its incredibly rich, varied and beautifully rendered music, yet Celia Cruz—the First Lady of Cuba’s distinctive salsa heritage—is a nonperson, without official acknowledgement for her sin of leaving the island.
It’s a place that desperately wants U.S. dollars—its international currency is pegged to the dollar—yet you have to make sure you’ve exchanged those dollars for Mexican or Canadian currency before arriving, or face an exchange penalty ranging from 10 to 15 percent. (As for your gringo credit card, in Cuba, it’s just a useless piece of plastic.)
Right now, though, more than anything else, this is a society, an island, a people on the precipice of enormous change. You can feel it in the air, see it in the airport filled with international tourists, and hear it from the people on the streets who are eager to embrace (and desperate to profit from) a new way of economic life.
Destination: Cuba (But Not for Tourism)
Although the number of Americans prosecuted for traveling to Cuba has in recent years dwindled to zero, a trip to Cuba for “tourism” purposes technically remains illegal for U.S. citizens. Rather, Americans can only visit Cuba under 12 classifications, including cultural exchanges, for religious purposes and an all-inclusive euphemism that most American visitors use: to support the Cuban people.
Authorization from the U.S. State Department is no longer required; just fill out a simple form listing the 12 predetermined justifications before boarding your flight. Upon landing on the island, Cuban customs officials give American citizens the option of having their passport stamped with their required visa, or not. In other words, unless you publicize your visit, there’s no need for an official record that it ever happened.
Yes, upon returning to McCarran International Airport, you will be asked about the Cuban cigars you absolutely did not purchase and reminded—as I was—that tourism in Cuba is against the law. But, as was reported earlier this year, of the many thousands of U.S. visitors to Cuba in 2014, only one penalty was assessed by the State Department—in that case, against Red Bull, which violated trade rules back in 2009.
Of course, if you do choose to trek to Cuba under the existing rules, you will have to find a travel company willing to arrange your visa and flight. Although regular ferry service from Florida may eventually come, as of now there are only a few direct flights from the U.S. to Cuba (and none originating from Las Vegas). But if you see a local travel agency with a large neon sign in the shape of a certain island country flashing Viajes a Cuba!, you may have found a broker. Or you can try the Internet.
While diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. are improving, it’s unlikely that the U.S.-imposed embargo will be lifted anytime soon. But if it ever happens and travel restrictions are eased, expect a rapid influx of American visitors—and likely a quick and sharp price escalation from the $30-a-night beachfront apartment rentals now in ample supply on the island.