What a difference a half century makes.
Like Rip Van Winkle, Cuba has emerged from hibernation to face the economic reality of a brand new world. The revolution launched in the 1950s by Fidel Castro and his peasant army is now a thing of the past. A new revolutionary army is organizing. Its objective: a return to an improving economy that will reward all the people, not just the politicians and the super-rich.
Although I lived and worked in the Caribbean five years, I never visited Cuba. I worked as a journalist on the islands of St. Kitts, Nevis and St. Maarten, just a hop, skip and a jump to Cuba, a land of mangoes, coconut palms, congo drums, pristine beaches, sugar cane, rum and beautiful women.
At one time, before a bearded communist sympathizer named Fidel Castro picked up a gun and grew a beard, Cuba was also a tropical paradise where the Jet Set came to play and gamble.
Yes, gamble. The Tropicana, one of the world's most exotic night clubs, with an island beauty that almost defied the imagination, was where the wealthy traveled to indulge their desires, fantasies and craving instant gratification that gambling provides.
President Barack Obama has handled things differently in the White House than his predecessors. I haven't agreed with some of his Executive Orders, but I applaud his decision to normalize relations with the Cuban government and the people of Cuba who have been seriously harmed by 50 years of economic sanctions.
Without getting into politics, as a poker player, writer and adventure seeker, I cannot wait to visit the island that produced Desi Arnaz, Chano Pozo, Bebo Valdez, Carmen Miranda and so many other talents who have entertained audiences around the world.
Let me whisper something in your ear that you probably already know: casino owners, entrepreneurs and other powers that be are already hard at work on plans to invest their money in Cuban real estate and bring back those old days of glory when the world partied on the beaches of Havana.
After President Obama made his announcement about Cuba, Jose Gabilono, who teaches at Florida International University College of Law and who is an expert on financing in Cuba, said U.S. business interests should view Obama's action as a very positive sign.
'Cuba needs investment in many area, especially real estate,' said Gabilono. 'There is a lot of valuable seashore and rural areas that can be developed.'
At the same time, he said American interests will take their time in pouring millions of dollars into developing casinos, hotels and other businesses until the Cuban government has reformed its real estate system. This includes protecting titles, improving financing laws and relaxing control over property in order to attract more foreign investments.
The university professor added that the people of Cuba are excited over the prospects of bringing in dollars from America, Canada, Great Britain and other countries to improve their economy and provide jobs.
'President Obama should be commended for his decision to normalize relations between the two countries,' Gabilono added. 'You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. This was a courageous act. It changes the rules of the game.'
The history of the Tropicana and gambling in Cuba goes back to 1939. That was when a cabaret opened at Villa Mina on an incredible six-acre estate in Havana's Marianao district. The acreage had lush tropical gardens with tall fruit trees and an island setting that epitomized the Cuban culture.
A Bohemian night club known as Eden Concert was the original building that became the Tropicana. It was owned by Victor de Correa who operated it as a restaurant and night spot for locals. Two casino operators approached him with a proposal: they wanted to turn it into a combination casino and cabaret to attract a bigger clientele and higher profits. Correa liked the idea and went into a partnership with them.
The cabaret was located on Havana's outskirts on property owned by Guillermina Perez Charemont, whose nickname was Mina. Her property included a tropical garden that had sky-high trees that would be one of the features to attract the super-rich from around the world.
As the Tropicana developed, the partners expanded it to include an outdoor setting where the casino's clientele could enjoy those exotic Cuban nights as long as the weather permitted.
The Tropicana opened for business on Dec. 30, 1939, with Alfredo Brito's orchestra supplying the dance music. Because of the table games and slot machines offered, the fame of the colorful Tropicana quickly spread to countries where gambling was not legal. Its popularity slowed down briefly during World War 11, but picked up again after the armistice.
Martin Fox, a big time gambler with top connections, rented table space in the casino. By 1950, Fox had taken over the gambling lease, using profits from his numbers operation in Cuba to provide the financing.
His friends called him the 'Guajiro Fox' because he had grown up in the Cuban countryside. Martin was not well educated, but he was shrewd and he has 'brass cojones,' according to his associates. With the help of his partners, he was able to muscle Corrrea out of the operation.
Two other investors, Alberto Ardura and Oscar Echemendia, stepped into the picture. Using their money and creative expertise, they hired a choreographer named Roderico 'Rodney' Neyra, stealing him from the Club San Souci, a rival cabaret.
While Neyra. hired island beauties to form the 50-girl chorus line, the other partners expanded the Tropicana, adding a showroom that could seat 1,700 paying customers and up to 2,000 if they didn't mind standing at the bars.
In that era when there was big money and gambling, there was the syndicate. Mobsters like Santo Trafficante Jr., Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky saw a profitable future in Havana and they moved in, paying off the right politicians with bribes in order to gain influence on the island.
The mob worked from inside to take over the gambling operations at the Tropicana and several other casinos including the Havana Hilton, the Capri and the Nacional. While the drinks and dinners covered the operating costs, the gambling provided the real profits.
One former island promoter said, 'Get one thing straight. The Tropicana was never a sleazy gambling operation. It was a first-class night club establishment with an incredible casino, restaurants and entertainment. It just attracted the mobsters because they liked the place and of course they loved the gambling.'
The real draw at the Tropicana besides the 24-hour gambling was the showgirls.
Nicknamed 'The Flesh Goddesses,' they came from all over the Caribbean and Central and South America to dance in fabulously designed costumes that emphasized their physical assets and left little to the imagination.
One of the showrooms featured a sequin and feather musical theater that was later duplicated in Paris, New York and Las Vegas. The lavish show headliners included Xavier Cugat and his band, Abbie Lane, Carmen Miranda, Nat King Cole, Josephine Baker, Yma Sumac, Paul Robeson and Liberace.
The Tropicana gained the nickname, 'Paradise Under The Stars.'
The house band had 40 musicians. Management hired Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo and other top musical groups from New York.
Like a Frank Lloyd Wright creation, the Tropicana used the tall spectacular fruit trees to tower over the tables in the showrooms -- some of them shooting through the roof. They erected catwalks high over the patrons. Customers were entertained by beautiful long-legged dancers in spectacular costumes on the floor as well as overhead.
Cuban Airlines set up a regular daily schedule between Havana and Miami. You could fly to Havana during the day and return home at 4 a.m. the next morning and the cost was nominal. The special plane used for the flight had a well stocked bar and a musical combo to provide music for dancing in the aisles.
Just when it seemed it couldn't get any better, Castro and his revolutionary army made their move. It was all over. A bomb was set off next to the main bar and a female tourist lost her arm. Meyer Lansky, a Russian Jew, recognized the flavor of a communist revolution and knew the casinos were history. He left the island while Trafficante stayed behind, hoping to sway Castro and his fellow communists with bribes. It didn't happen.
Castro's handpicked president closed the casinos and nationalized all the resorts, hotel properties and other businesses that had been built by foreign investment. People fled the island. It was an ugly time on the beautiful island.
Today the Tropicana is still in operation. It provides a 9 p.m. floor show Tuesday through Sunday in the main showroom. The girls have the tropical beauty the Caribbean is famous for, and their costumes rival the costumes of the past.
Can you imagine what the new Cuba will look like when outside investors pour billions of dollars into the island's economy to attract tourists from around the globe?