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La conexi?n cubana: Narcotr?fico, contrabando y juego en Cuba entre los a?os 20 y comienzos de la Revoluci?n

Author(s):Rovner, Eduardo Saenz
Reviewer(s):McGreevey, William

Published by EH.NET (August 2005)

Eduardo Saenz Rovner, La conexi?n cubana: Narcotr?fico, contrabando y juego en Cuba entre los a?os 20 y comienzos de la Revoluci?n. Bogota, Colombia: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Facultad de Ciencias Humanas, Colecci?n CES, 2005. 278 pp. ISBN: 958-701-472-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by William McGreevey, Director, Development Economics, Futures Group.

Eduardo Saenz Rovner presented the principal results of this fascinating book at a three-day seminar on current research in Latin American economic history held at the Universidad Nacional in Bogota in May 2005. I was privileged to hear his summary and encouraged to look in more detail at his work. He spent the better part of a sabbatical year, 2002-03, in archival research in the U.S. and Cuba seeking out the uneven documentation of criminals quite happy to remain outside the purview of public agencies. One must imagine how Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics (2005) and recipient of the John Bates Clark Award, might have wished to join the expedition that Saenz Rovner made through archives and eyewitnesses.

In my own tour d’horizon through the book, I was taken by the manner in which the author injects a certain rhythm to its twelve chapters plus prologue and epilogue. The prologue leaps to a conclusion of the phase he is examining. He focuses, like a French film noir, on a future tied to Colombia, the base from which he works and writes. It is 1956 and Rafael and Tomas Herran, sons of the Bogota and Medellin elites have been arrested in Havana for importing heroin. “Narco-trafficking across international frontiers was not a business for the poor. It required know-how, capital and international connections” (pp. 18-19).

In Chapter 1 the author jumps back to the link between U.S. prohibition, enacted in 1919, and the implicit invitation to contraband trade from nearby Cuba. Chapter 2 describes how the processing requirements for morphine, heroin, and cocaine made Cuba an ideal entrepot for transforming legal drugs into illegal recreational substances. Chapter 3 brings in background on the 125,000 Chinese who entered Cuba between1847 and 1874, and another 20,000 mostly males who arrived between 1903 and 1929. A small minority of them served a domestic Chinese-Cuban market for opium.

By 1942, drugs seep out of legal channels to be discovered in Kansas City by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics as Chapter 4 begins. From two specific upper-class Colombians, the author leads his readers to the general themes of alcohol Prohibition in the U.S., international trade in prohibited drugs, the role of an Asian minority within Cuba, and the creation of the Cuban connection to drug abuse and attempted suppression as World War II is beginning. The stage is thus set for roles of key players to be presented in subsequent chapters.

Chapter 5 introduces Salvatore Lucania, aka Lucky Luciano, and reminds the reader that Thomas Dewey, later the Republican who lost the 1948 presidential race to Harry Truman, had helped convict Luciano and had him deported from the U.S. Cuba, narcotics and the Mafia thus became embroiled in a battle that rages unabated into the current century.

Chapter 6 brings us to Carlos Prio Socarras, Cuban president, 1948-52, who was widely suspected of aiding the narcotics traffic. Chapter 7 begins with the name of Estes Kefauver, U.S. Senator from Tennessee, and the leading investigator of organized crime in the U.S. Attention turned from drugs to gambling, perhaps a greater source of criminal profits. Cuban casinos were part of a network of illegal but tolerated operations for gambling in the U.S. (As a child I recall my own parents traveling occasionally to an illegal casino in northern Kentucky, just outside the reach of justice in Cincinnati, Ohio. Casinos there were closed in the early 1950s.) Stamping out gambling, stamping out illegal drugs, returning to Protestant principles of behavior, a variant on the Third Great Awakening admired by Robert W. Fogel in The Fourth Great Awakening (2000), was the order of the day in postwar North America.

Chapter 8 turns to a revitalized Andean connection, this time focused on cocaine from Peru and Bolivia that made its way north through Cuba in the 1950s. Chapter 9 addresses the theme in a 1971 movie, The French Connection. Corsicans and dockworkers in Marseilles had a role to play; travel through Cuba, especially Camaguey, continued to be an important mode for moving heroin from the Golden Triangle to French processing plants and thence to the U.S. market.

Chapter 10 reminds us that Harry Anslinger was the long-time director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He complained that the government of Fulgencio Batista, 1952-58, absolutely refused to provide any support to the effort to suppress the drug trade, instead taking millions of dollars of bribes from the traffickers. Saenz Rovner examined thirty cases of convicted drug dealers in Cuba in the 1950’s. Most were young, single, black and poor. They dealt in marijuana, not cocaine and posed little real risk to U.S. or Cuban health and safety. Rounding up the usual suspects did little beyond offer a fig leaf of cover for the Batista regime to demonstrate its cooperation with the drug suppression effort.

Chapter 11 brings the overthrow of Batista on 31 Dec 1958 and Fidel Castro’s arrival in Havana to start the year 1959. The revolutionary government was glad to rid itself of traffickers, gamblers and the Mafiosi said to manage these activities. By the time the U.S. and Cuba broke off diplomatic relations in April 1961, neither government trusted the other on any matters of importance. In Chapter 12, the author shows that the government of Castro was nonetheless determined to wind up Mafia and other illegal operations and arrested or deported key figures from the U.S. and several Latin American countries. Cuba ratified the UN convention on narcotics in 1962. Despite periodic North America accusations of Cuban trafficking, Cuba’s revolution, like that of Red China, was no friend to monopoly profits to be earned by gamblers and drug dealers. Socialist morality showed that it could equal the wrath of the Evangelical morality that inspired Anslinger and Kefauver.

In an epilogue, Saenz Rovner observes that the drug dealers, ousted from Cuba, found other avenues to feed the unquenchable demand for recreational drugs in North America. He notes that the Herran brothers, with whom his story began, did not again appear in archival records, even though one U.S. drug agent expressed certainty that they continued their work but off the radar screen. It’s too bad that no U.S. government will ever thank Fidel Castro, who suppressed at least one channel of the drug trade.

This Saenz Rovner book is at once a work of scholarship and a great tribute to the integrity and determination of an analyst tackling a difficult topic. Unlike politicians or artists, his subjects would prefer to remain anonymous. Thanks to Francis Coppola and The Godfather series of movies, we have some visual images to associate with the colorful characters that show up on the pages of this book. We are much better off now with an accurate factual picture based on the solid work in archives and secondary sources.

William McGreevey taught economic and social history of Latin America many years ago at UC- Berkeley (1965-71). He worked on social sector projects, especially health care financing, at the World Bank (1980-97) and has more recently focused on the economics of reproductive health and HIV/AIDS with Futures Group (1997-present). He can be contacted at

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII