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Of Mobs And Revolution: T.J. English's 'Havana'

Before Tony Montana, there was Meyer Lansky. True-crime writer T.J. English recounts the history of a mob-ruled Havana before the 1959 revolution.

34:26

Other segments from the episode on July 3, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 3, 2008: Interview with T.J. English; Interview with Michael Sokolove.

Transcript

DATE July 3, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Crime writer T.J. English on his new book "Havana
Nocturne" and Cuba in the late 1950s
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

At a moment when the people of Cuba await the passing of Fidel Castro and face
an uncertain future, our guest T.J. English recalls a very different time in
the Caribbean nation. He's written a new book about the Cuba of the 1950s,
when a military dictatorship opened the nation to the American mob, which saw
the island as a safe haven for gambling and prostitution. English describes a
Havana teeming with American tourists, staying in swank, mob-owned hotels,
gambling at casinos, dancing the mambo at nightclubs and indulging their
fantasies at live sex shows and bordellos. English believes the hedonism and
sense of American exploitation fueled Castro's guerilla movement, whose
exploits lend a sense of exotic danger to Cuban tourism and eventually led to
the downfall of the regime.

T.J. English has written three previous books and numerous magazine pieces,
as well as episodes of "NYPD Blue" and "Homicide." I recently spoke to English
about his new book, "Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It
To the Revolution."

000
WELL, T.J. ENGLISH, WELCOME BACK TO FRESH AIR. THIS BOOK THAT YOU'VE WRITTEN
DEALS WITH A PERIOD IN THE '50S, MOSTLY, WHEN THE AMERICA MOB HAD ITS WAY IN
HAVANA. AND I THOUGHT WE WOULD BEGIN BY LISTENING TO A CLIP FROM THE MOVIE
"THE GODFATHER II," WHICH FOCUSES ON THIS PERIOD. AND THIS IS A SCENE IN
WHICH THE MAIN JEWISH MOBSTER IN THE FILM, HYMAN ROTH, WHO IS BASED ON THE
REAL HISTORICAL CHARACTER OF MEYER LANSKY, IS HAVING A BIRTHDAY PARTY ON A
BALCONY IN HAVANA, AND HE'S MEETING WITH A WHOLE OTHER AMERICAN MOBSTERS WHO
ARE THERE AND TALKING ABOUT THEIR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE. LET'S LISTEN.

(Soundbite of "The Godfather: Part II")

Mr. LEE STRASBERG: (As Hyman Roth) These are wonderful things that we've
achieved in Havana, and there's no limit to where we can go from here. This
kind of government knows how to help business, to encourage it. The hotels
here are bigger and swankier than any of the rough joints we've put in Vegas,
and we can thank our friends in the Cuban government. We just put up half of
the cash with the teamsters on a dollar-for-dollar basis, has relaxed
restrictions on imports. What I'm saying is that we have now what we have
always needed: real partnership with the government.

(End of soundbite)

117 DAVIES: THAT'S LEE STRASBERG PLAYING HYMAN ROTH, THE MEYER LANSKY CHARACTER IN THE FILM "GODFATHER II."

T.J. ENGLISH, THIS MEETING OF MOBSTERS IN HAVANA IS ACTUALLY PREDICATED ON A
REAL EVENT, RIGHT?

Mr. T.J. ENGLISH: Yes, it is. That incident took place at the Hotel
Nacional in Havana in 1946, with a gathering of the brain trust of the mob in
the United States at that time. All of them to meet in Havana to discuss the
exploitation of Cuba, establishing Cuba as a kind of criminal base, which had
been the dream of the American mob going all the way back to the 1920s.

DAVIES: NOW, THIS PLAN TO IN EFFECT SORT OF ADOPT CUBA AS A SAFE HAVEN FOR
MOB ACTIVITY TOOK MANY, MANY YEARS TO GET GOING. BUT A CRITICAL MOMENT WAS IN
1952, WHEN BATISTA WAS IN EFFECT RUNNING CUBA AT THE TIME, AND HE BROUGHT
MEYER LANSKY BACK. AND IT'S INTERESTING THAT THEY QUICKLY FORMED THIS CLOSE
PARTNERSHIP. AND THE HOTEL AND CASINO AND NIGHTCLUB SCENE IN HAVANA
FLOURISHED, AND THE MOB BEGAN MAKING A FORTUNE. TELL US JUST A LITTLE BIT
ABOUT THE FINANCIAL RELATIONSHIPS THAT MADE THIS POSSIBLE. TO WHAT EXTENT WAS
THE MOB REALLY RUNNING CUBA, AND TO WHAT EXTENT WAS THE GOVERNMENT OF CUBA
HELPING TO FINANCE THE MOB'S OPERATIONS?

Mr. ENGLISH: Right. Well, there was a development institution known as
Banco de Desarrollo, Economico y Social--BANDES. It was a development
institution controlled by the government that financed the building of bridges
and highways and everything else on the island. There were also a couple of
banks, Banco Atlantico y Banco de Creditos y Inversiones. These were banks
that were controlled by the mob in Cuba so that this tourism boom that was
also part of this development of the criminal empire was all financed by mob
money. So you would have the overflow of money from the casinos, which was
phenomenal, that would flow into the nightclubs and also flow into the
financial institutions like banks and development agencies so that the very
development of the country was being financed by the mob, by the criminal
activity. And this is really kind of unprecedented. In terms of developed
organized crime in the 20th century, this is something the mob had often
dreamed of trying to pull off, but never had quite been able to put all the
pieces together as they were able to finally do it in Cuba.

357 DAVIES: SO WHEN THEY GET THIS THING REALLY UP AND ROARING, YOU HAVE QUITE A
SCENE IN HAVANA. JUST GIVE US A PICTURE A LITTLE BIT OF WHAT HAVANA WAS LIKE.
WHERE WERE THE TOURISTS COMING FROM AND KIND OF WHAT WAS THE EXPERIENCE...

Mr. ENGLISH: Right.

DAVIES: ...IN THE CLUBS AND CASINOS IN HAVANA?

Mr. ENGLISH: 415 Well, I wish I had been there. I was born in 1957, but I
talked to a lot of people who passed through Havana and worked in Havana
during this period of time, and it really is remembered as quite an
extraordinary period. 432 What you saw were the wonderful hotels that had some
really beautiful casinos, unlike anything that existed anywhere else in the
world at that time. You also had nightclubs that were extraordinary, like the
Tropicana was located kind of in the jungle, just on the outer reaches of the
city. And it was quite an alluring place. It had an outdoor theater under
the stars surrounded by tropical foliage, and they staged really elaborate
nightclub shows. In Cuba they often used aspects of Afro-Cuban culture in the
music, in the dance, so they were quite exotic and sensual, if not sexual.

520 And they attracted a flood of tourists, mostly from North America and from
Europe, who came to Havana seeing it as one of the great entertainment scenes
throughout history, in a way, because it really was a confluence of a kind of
entertainment and sort of slightly dangerous feel to it, particularly as the
revolution began to unfold. And we can certainly talk a bit about that. And
so really what you had is this great entertainment era of dance and music and
gambling and sex.

600 DAVIES: ONE OF THE SLOGANS THAT VEGAS USES TODAY IS "WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS
STAYS IN VEGAS." AND WE LIVE IN AN ERA WHERE THERE'S SO MUCH, YOU KNOW, WHERE
SEX AND ALL KINDS OF HEDONISM IS SO MUCH MORE A PART OF THE CULTURE THAN IT
WAS IN THE 1950S. DID AIRLINES AND TRAVEL AGENTS AND OTHERS TALK ABOUT HAVANA
AS A PLACE YOU COULD REALLY GO AND JUST LET IT ALL OUT?

Mr. ENGLISH: Oh, boy, did they ever. I mean, they really--see, this is part
of what led to the revolution. There became this relationship between the
criminal elements, who were promoting Havana for their own reasons, and large
American corporations like Pan Am and the Hilton hotel chain who were
promoting Havana for their reasons. And so you started to see an intersection
between the legitimate American corporate business entities and also the
underworld entities. And so Havana was heavily promoted. You know, Havana
had sort of existed in the consciousness of Americans for quite some time,
probably beginning in the 1920s, through the music and through Hollywood
movies. And it had been promoted as kind of an exotic tourist destination
that was, you know, just 90 miles off the coast of the state of Florida.

And part of it was also that it was somewhat organic. I don't think even the
mob anticipated the extent to which the Havana entertainment scene, the dance
and music and just the kind of hot entertainment scene that it eventually
became. Some of it grew out of Afro-Cuban culture. And it's just there was
so much money around that the nightclubs were able to hire this huge
orchestras. And they probably wouldn't have been able to if it had not been
for the money that was generated by the casinos. And so you had orchestras
like Perez Prado, who began the mambo craze. And all of this was really quite
an extraordinary period in time for those who passed through it.

757
DAVIES: YOU KNOW, SEX AND THE SALE OF SEX IS ALWAYS PART OF AN ESCAPIST
TOURISM SCENE. AND THERE'S A MEMORABLE SCENE IN "THE GODFATHER II" WHERE THE
GANG GOES TO A REALLY, WELL, EXOTIC SEX CLUB AND SEES A GUY WITH A REALLY
EXOTIC SEX ACT. HOW KINKY WAS THE SCENE IN HAVANA BACK THEN?

Mr. ENGLISH: Well, that scene in "The Godfather," where they go to the
theater, that is based on an actual theater, the Shanghai Theater, which was
located in Havana's Chinatown. And it was an old Chinese theater that had
been converted into a kind of live sex emporium that was pretty kinky, I think
about as kinky as you can get. Although it also had a theatrical nature to
it. You know, this just wasn't a strip club. It was a club where you would
go where they would actually do kind of comical skits, often, little theater
pieces that were bawdy and usually ended with outright nudity, if not actual
live sex acts being performed on the stage. I mean, a lot of the tourists
that passed through Havana in the 1950s wanted to go to the Shanghai because
it was notorious at the time. There was a performer there who went by the
name of Superman who was famous for the size of his appendage, and that's also
portrayed in the movie "The Godfather II."

And so, stemming from that, you just had a lot of sex going on in Havana,
ranging from just kind of tourists on the loose in an exotic foreign land,
sexual tourism, but you also had prostitution, and you had sex performances.
Along with the Shanghai Theater, they had private shows. You could go to a
home in a kind of nice, discreet neighborhood in the city, and there in that
home would be a kind of sex parlor, which you could view and perhaps even take
part in. And so it was kind of a multileveled sexual marketplace that
contributed to what was viewed as the allure of this whole entertainment era.

1022 DAVIES: TELL US ABOUT AMERICAN CELEBRITIES GOING TO HAVANA. SINATRA, I MEAN,
HE WAS KNOWN FOR HAVING FRIENDS IN THE MOB. JOHN F. KENNEDY MADE IT DOWN
THERE.

TELL US ABOUT SOME OF THE, YOU KNOW, BETTER KNOWN EXCURSIONS BY
AMERICAN CELEBRITIES TO HAVANA.

Mr. ENGLISH: Right. Well, that was also part of what would become the
reputation of Havana in the '50s, was that it became this scene that drew a
lot of celebrities there. And so you would have got celebrities like Marlon
Brando, who came to Havana in the 1950s. He was drawn by the music and the
women. Brando was a conga player, a bongo player, amateur percussionist, and
was down there to buy a conga drum, and also to take part in the music and the
dancing. The actor Errol Flynn was quite prominent there in the 1950s. Of
course, Hemingway had been coming to Cuba since the 1930s and actually lived
there in the 1950s, and so he was kind of a local mascot during this period of
the 1950s. The casinos often hired celebrities. The Capri hotel hired the
actor George Raft, who was kind of near the end of his career by that time,
but he was famous for portraying mobsters and gangsters throughout the '20s,
'30s and '40s in many, many movies. And they hired him as kind of meeter and
greeter at the casino at the Capri. He became another kind of mascot of the
era.

Yeah, that was a big part of it, the draw of the celebrities. Partly the
underworld allure, the connections to gangsters. That was certainly the case
with Sinatra, who had many mobster friends. And keep in mind, gambling was
legal in Havana, and so you could go to the casinos and hang out with known
mobsters; and since you were outside of the United States, it really wasn't
going to cause you any problems with the law.

1227 – REIDs/ FLOATER - OK
DAVIES: OUR GUEST IS T.J. ENGLISH. HIS NEWEST BOOK IS "HAVANA NOCTURNE:
HOW THE MOB OWNED CUBA AND THEN LOST IT TO THE REVOLUTION." WE'LL TALK MORE
AFTER A BREAK. THIS IS FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)------------

1238 – REID - ok
DAVIES: IF YOU'RE JUST JOINING US, OUR GUEST IS WRITER T.J. ENGLISH. HE'S
WRITTEN A BOOK ABOUT MOBSTERS IN CUBA IN THE 1950S. IT'S CALLED "HAVANA
NOCTURNE."

WHILE THE MOB IS HAVING ITS FUN IN HAVANA AND MAKING A FORTUNE, AND TOURISTS
ARE STREAMING IN, AND THIS HEDONISTIC NIGHTCLUB CULTURE FLOURISHES, A GUERILLA
MOVEMENT GROWS IN THE EASTERN PART OF THE ISLAND, LED BY FIDEL CASTRO, THE SON
OF A LANDLORD WHO WAS A STUDENT, AN INTELLECTUAL. AND WE DON'T REALLY HAVE
TIME, I GUESS, TO DESCRIBE HOW THE REVOLUTION DEVELOPS. YOU DESCRIBE IT
REALLY ONE BIG IMPROVISATION, A WHOLE SERIES OF DISASTERS THAT BEFALL IT.

Mr. ENGLISH: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: BUT EVENTUALLY IT TAKES HOLD AND BEGINS TO GET MORE SUPPORT AND
BECOME A REAL THREATENING FORCE IN THE LATE '50S. TO WHAT EXTENT DID THE MOB
SCENE AND THE NIGHTCLUB AND CASINO SCENE IN HAVANA FUEL THE REVOLUTION? TO
WHAT EXTENT WAS RESENTMENT AT THAT FORM OF AMERICAN EXPLOITATION, IF WE WANT
TO CALL IT THAT, A DRIVING FORCE FOR THE REVOLUTION?

Mr. ENGLISH: Right, well this was--yes. To me, this is the most important
point of the book. Because, you know, this period of the mob in Havana has
been alluded to in movies and novels, and of course the revolution, there've
been dozens and dozens of books written about the Cuban revolution, but the
two events are usually treated as if they kind of were unrelated. And in the
course of researching the book, I could see that here were these events, this
exploitation of Havana and the revolution sort of--they were unfolding at the
same time, so of course they had to have had some sort of relationship. And I
think what it was is the exploitation of Havana, the plundering of Havana
economically and turning it into a kind of a bordello was a symbol to the
revolution of the capitalist exploitation that was taking place through the
Batista regime. The Castro and the revolution saw the mob and the capitalists
who were operating in Havana kind of as all one entity. And so what was
taking place in Havana really became a symbolic motivation for the revolution,
a driving motivation for the revolution in a way.

1455
DAVIES: YEAH. AND AS YOU SAID EARLIER, THE FACT THAT THE REBELS WERE MAKING
SOME PROGRESS AND THERE WERE ACTS OF SABOTAGE MADE THE HAVANA SCENE ALL SEEM
THAT MUCH MORE DANGEROUS. THIS OF COURSE COMES TO A CLIMAX ON NEW YEAR'S EVE
1958, DECEMBER 31ST, 1958. AND IT WAS KNOWN THAT THE REBELS HAD MADE PROGRESS
AND WERE GETTING CLOSER TO HAVANA. DID THE FACT THAT THERE WAS SOME
SENSE--AND BATISTA WAS SEEN AS PERHAPS BEING INCREASINGLY ISOLATED AND ON HIS
LAST LEGS. DID ANY OF THAT PREVENT THE NIGHTCLUBS FROM HOLDING BIG NEW YEAR'S
EVE CELEBRATIONS? DID THEY HAVE ANY SENSE OF HOW CLOSE THE REVOLUTION WAS TO
TAKING OVER?

Mr. ENGLISH: No, I think it just added to the excitement of the nightlife
scene in Cuba at the time. See, the revolution was unfolding on the island
mostly outside of Havana. And Havana was kind of this little dream world
where all this kind of money was flowing and people were dancing and drinking
and fornicating into the tropical night. And so they didn't really pay much
attention to what was happening around the rest of the island. And since
Batista controlled the media on the island, there was propaganda that led
people to believe that Batista had things under control and everything was OK.
There were intimations of it, because, like you say, there was occasional acts
of sabotage, bombs that would go off in the city of Havana. Even in the
Tropicana nightclub a bomb was set off. But this only added to the
excitement, in a way. And so you kind of have a frenzy, a peaking as rumor of
the revolution grows and grows, the excitement of the nightlife scene in
Havana at the time only became more heated and exciting.

DAVIES: SO NEW YEAR'S EVE, PEOPLE ARE PARTYING THE NIGHT AWAY, AND THEN
SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, BATISTA QUIETLY RESIGNS AND LEAVES THE
ISLAND WITH ZILLIONS OF DOLLARS.

Mr. ENGLISH: Yeah.

DAVIES: AND WHAT'S FASCINATING IS, YOU DESCRIBE HOW MEYER LANSKY, I MEAN, THE
AMERICAN MOBSTER, WHO IS IN MANY RESPECTS THE ARCHITECT OF ALL OF THIS, LEARNS
OF THE EVENTS. TELL US ABOUT WHAT HE HEARD AND WHAT HE DID.

Mr. ENGLISH: Yeah, well, I had a great source on this. I had a number of
good sources on this, but I--the best source I dedicated the book to a man by
the name of Armando Jaime Casielles, who was Lansky's driver and bodyguard and
valet during the last two years of this period, '57, '58 on into '59. And he
had become quite close to Lansky and was with Lansky that night. And Lansky,
he caught wind of it. The revolution at that time was coming very close to
Cuba. They were in the city of Las Villas. Che Guevara led a column of
soldiers that had taken the city of Los Villas. So everyone knew that the
revolution was approaching, and Lansky actually got word that the city of Las
Villas had fell and that Batista had fled the country. Batista had loaded up
a lot of cash and, without telling the mobsters or anyone else, he'd got on an
airplane and left the country right after midnight on January 1st, 1959.

And so Lansky is given this information discreetly before anyone else really
knows it, when he's at this restaurant, and he immediately kicks into action.
And his first concern, of course--and it makes perfect sense--is get the
money. Get the money. He tells Armando Jaime Cassieles, `We've got to make
the rounds to all the casinos. We've got to make sure that the counting rooms
are secure, that the money is secure. You know, the island is going to fall.
It could get violent. It could get heated. And we have to protect our
assets.' So there was a frenzied night and into the early morning of Lansky
and his driver/bodyguard driving around to the different casino/hotels and
trying to make sure that the cash was secured so that if they needed to get it
off the island they would at least have it all gathered and ready to go.

DAVIES: T.J. English will be back in the second half of the show. His new
book is "Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It To the
Revolution." You can read an excerpt from the first chapter of "Havana
Nocturne" and download podcasts of the show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross back with T.J.
English. His new book, "Havana Nocturne," describes the Cuba of the 1950s,
when American mobsters ran hotels, casinos and nightclubs in Havana while
Fidel Castro's guerillas were gaining support in the countryside. When we
left off, English was describing New Year's Eve 1958, when the island's
dictator Fulgencio Batista had fled the country and the legendary mobster
Meyer Lansky went around Havana trying to secure cash from hotels and casinos.

1912
DAVIES: NOW, LANSKY GETS WORD BEFORE THE POPULACE DOES, BUT AS HE'S
PROCEEDING THROUGH, TRYING TO SECURE THESE ENORMOUS AMOUNTS OF CASH THAT THE
CASINOS HAVE GENERATED, WORD BEGINS TO LEAK OUT OF BATISTA'S DEPARTURE. HOW
DO THE CITIZENS OF HAVANA REACT?

Mr. ENGLISH: Well, there was--it took awhile because no one quite believed
it when they first started to hear it, and the word spread through the streets
of Havana, and people were kind of stunned by it. It wasn't kind of thing
that would make its way into the media, because the government controlled the
media, and so it was just wild rumor for a while. But as time went on and
people got a sense of what was happening, they started to gather in the
streets, it became a kind of a combination celebration and riot all rolled
into one, and one of the most telling things about it was, by the early
morning as huge mobs of people started to flow through the streets of Havana
making music and cheering revolutionary slogans, one of the first things they
did was target the casinos. They went into a number of the casinos and
trashed the casinos and dragged gambling equipment out into the streets and
set it on fire. So this was a really clear example of the degree to which the
casinos and the gambling and the whole presence of the mob in Havana had
become a source of resentment, anger and even revolutionary fervor that
eventually boiled over on the morning of January 1st, 1959.

2052
DAVIES: AND THE ACTOR GEORGE RAFT WAS DOING HIS USUAL BUSINESS, GREETING
PEOPLE AT--WAS IT THE CAPRI CASINO?

Mr. ENGLISH: Yes, it was.

DAVIES: And what happened?

Mr. ENGLISH: The people in the revolutionary guard stormed into the casino
at the time, when he was there. He was determined to save the place, and
so--he tells the story--there are other eyewitness accounts of this story, his
version of it from his biography is of course the most flattering to him, of
how he stood up to the revolutionaries. And one of the lead revolutionaries
who was there to trash the casino look at him and said, `Yeah, there's'--she
said, `That's George Raft, the actor.' So they all kind of stopped, a
recognizable face, and he said to them, `Look, you know, take what you want,
but there's no need to trash the casinos.' And so, legend is that he kind of
talked them down and saved the Capri hotel/casino from being trashed.

DAVIES: The reach of celebrity.

Mr. ENGLISH: Yes.

2105
DAVIES: WELL, SO THE MOBSTERS WHO WERE ABLE TO SECURE THE CASH FROM THE
CASINOS GET AWAY, AND THEY GATHER AT THE HOME OF ONE OF THE MOBSTERS, JOE
STASI, WHO, AS YOU DESCRIBE IT, WAS SORT OF THE TYPICAL MEETING PLACE FOR
FOLKS TO GATHER THROUGHOUT THE YEARS AND DISCUSS THEIR COMMON INTERESTS IN THE
HOTEL AND CASINO INDUSTRY.

Mr. ENGLISH: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: SO THIS IS NEW YEAR'S EVE, THE COUNTRY IS FALLING TO THE REBELS,
THERE'S CHAOS IN THE STREETS, AND ALL THESE MOBSTERS HAVE TRIED TO GET THEIR
TAKE AND THEY CONVENE AT JOE STASI'S HOUSE. WHAT'S THE SCENE THERE?

Mr. ENGLISH: Yeah, they get the cash, as much of it together as they can,
and they all convene at Joe Stasi's beautiful house, which I saw myself,
located in a nice, ritzy neighborhood in Havana. And they divide up the
money. And they basically try to--you know, they're in a state of shock and
frenzy and panic at the time, and so they're not sure whether they should flee
or whether they should stay and try to deal with the new government. There's
a lot of mixed feelings about what's the best way to proceed. Some of them
will leave the island that night. Lots of people are fleeing the island, by
the way. Anyone's who's sort of an easily identified with the Batista
government fears for their life, believes that they're maybe going to be
imprisoned and even assassinated once the revolution comes to Havana, so
there's this kind of general sense of panic among the mobsters as they gather
together what they can in the way of cash and try to decide what their next
step is going to be.

2333
DAVIES: AND, YOU KNOW, IF YOU LOOK AT THE POSITION OF SOMEONE LIKE LANSKY, I
MEAN, THERE WAS A--BACK THEN, IT WASN'T SO CLEAR EXACTLY WHAT KIND OF
GOVERNMENT FIDEL CASTRO WOULD SET UP. AND IF YOU'RE MEYER LANSKY, YOU'VE PUT,
I GUESS, TENS OR HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS IN AN INVESTMENT INTO THIS PLACE. IT'S
MAKING A FORTUNE. AND YOU FIGURE THAT THIS NEW GOVERNMENT IS NOT GOING TO
WANT TO GIVE UP ALL THAT CASH, ALL THAT FOREIGN EXCHANGE. SO YOU MIGHT BE
ABLE TO DEAL WITH THEM. ON THE OTHER HAND, THEY MIGHT SHOOT YOU. WHAT DID
LANSKY DECIDE TO DO?

Mr. ENGLISH: Yeah, this was the most fascinating phase of the story to me.
What did the mob do after Havana fell, after Castro came into Havana, which he
did on January 8th; he finally arrived in the city. And so now the revolution
has taken over. And the mob is caught in this in-between phase of trying to
see if they can salvage whatever they can salvage, or are they just going to
have to lose everything and leave the island. And Lansky and also his primary
partner in Havana mob was a mafioso by the name of Santo Trafficante Jr. from
Tampa, Florida. These two men kind of were the controlling gambling
impresarios on the island.

2455 And both of them maybe were in a denial to an
extent. They--Trafficante, in particular--believed that this was all just
going to blow over and that Castro would be no different than all the other
people who had run Cuba over many decades, that they would need the gambling
money, that the money generated by the casinos and the nightclubs really was
what was keeping the island afloat, and they wouldn't be able to cut that off
or the economy would collapse.

2517
And so the mobsters, Lansky and Trafficante, placed a lot of faith in this
belief and started a process of negotiating with the revolutionary government
over the course of a few weeks and months on into the middle of 1959. And it
just started to become apparent to them that this was something different,
that Castro government was not just another government taking over in Cuba,
that it was a true revolution and that, you know.

2549 The last straw was that the revolutionary guard wanted to have rebels in the
counting rooms in the casino to monitor the money as it came in to the
casino--because they knew the gangsters were, you know, skimming money from
the casino when it went directly to their bank accounts. And so the Castro
government, if they were going to allow the casinos to operate, they were
going to make sure that they got their piece of the pie. And that's when the
mobsters saw that this was an untenable situation. `There's no way we would
be able to exist with this government.' That was made emphatically clear in
early 1961 when the Castro government finally took over ownership of all
American businesses on the island, not only the casinos, but the holdings of
Shell Oil company and the Hilton hotel company and all the major American
corporations that had flourished and benefited from this mobster exploitation
of Cuba through 1950s.

2648
DAVIES: YOU TRAVELED TO CUBA TO RESEARCH THIS BOOK.

Mr. ENGLISH: Yes.

DAVIES: TO WHAT EXTENT IS THIS PERIOD OF UNDERWORLD DOMINATION, YOU KNOW, NOW
DECADES AGO, STILL A PART OF THE CUBAN POPULAR OR NATIONAL CONSCIOUSNESS?

Mr. ENGLISH: Well, I think it's the Rosetta stone. It's the most important
thing to know, to understand the revolution and why it happened, and also the
relationship between Cuba and the United States that has existed since 1959,
the animosity, the deep resentment and hatred, a lot of it has to do with the
capitalist exploitation of Havana that took place in the 1950s, the belief
that the gangsters, the organized crime figures and the heads of the so-called
legitimate American corporations and American politicians were all kind of in
it together. And this has been used over the many decades by Castro and
others within the revolution as a kind of a call to arms, a reason why we
could never trust the United States government, because of its criminal
connections and criminal roots.

2759
And in modern day Havana today, you still see the remnants of this era through
the--the casinos are all gone, but many of the hotels are still there, the
Nacional, the Hotel Riviera, which was Lansky's baby, and a few others. And
this era in general still exists in Havana. You know, Havana kind of froze in
1959. So anyone who's been there knows this kind of surreal atmosphere of
American cars from the 1940s and '50s, the architecture, which really hasn't
changed much. It's all still there. It's crumbling and broken down, but it's
still very much a visible presence in Havana when you were there. So in terms
of research, it was very easy to recapture the spirit and atmosphere of this
time just by walking the streets of Havana.

DAVIES: Well, T.J. English, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. ENGLISH: It's my pleasure.

DAVIES: T.J. English. His new book is "Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned
Cuba and Then Lost It To the Revolution."

Coming up, the epidemic of injuries in womens' athletics. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Michael Sokolove discusses the rate of injuries in
young women sports athletes
DAVE DAVIES, host:

Since Congress enacted the law opening new athletic opportunities for women,
known at Title IX, in 1972, America has seen an explosion of women's
participation in sports. Women's collegiate championships are regularly
broadcast on national television, and more than a million girls now play high
school soccer, basketball, lacrosse and volleyball. But our guest Mike
Sokolove says there's also been an explosion in injuries to female athletes,
with serious knee injuries occurring at rates several times higher than those
among male athletes. Sokolove says the damage is due partly to differences
between men's and women's bodies, particularly in the teen years, and partly
to what he calls the insanity of our youth sports culture. His book says
there are things parents can and should do to protect their kids. Sokolove is
a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and the author of two
earlier books. His latest is "Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters
Against the Injury Epidemic in Women's Sports."

Well, Michael Sokolove, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Since Title IX was enacted
in 1972, which ensured women and girls access to athletic opportunities in
school, we've seen an enormous increase in their participation, tenfold.
What's the price we're paying in injuries to our daughters?

Mr. MICHAEL SOKOLOVE: The price is just this raft of injuries in community
after community. Knee injuries have gotten a lot of attention. Girls suffer
injuries to their ACL, which is the stabilizing ligament in the knee and which
is a horrendous injury when it is ruptured, at times five to eight times
greater than boys do, and in sports that they play in common. And this is
mostly the pivoting and cutting sports of basketball, volleyball, soccer,
field hockey to some extent. But it's not just the knee injuries that have
gotten a lot of attention. From head to toe, back pain, ankle pain,
concussions. When you go across communities, you see entire teams of girls
where you'll see 18 girls and eight of them with major injuries, sometimes
with lifelong consequences by the time the season is over.

DAVIES: Now, you write about Amy Steadman, who was once one of the most
promising young soccer players in the nation. I'd like you to describe
meeting her, what she was like when you first met her and just tell us a bit
of her story.

Mr. SOKOLOVE: Well, Amy was going to be one of the great soccer players of
her generation. She was captain of the US under-19 team. She was just this
wonderful, spirited, fast player, and was going to go off to the University of
North Carolina. Before she could get there, she tore her ACL. She went on to
tear it three more times. She had a series of surgeries. By the time I met
Amy, she was 20 years old. She was done playing. I met her down at the
University of North Carolina. And as she walks toward me, that first time, if
I had not known her history, I would have never believed she had been an
athlete, let alone in an elite athlete. She walked very stiffly, she was in a
great deal of pain.

And we sat there for close to three hours that first time we talked. And she
just described this litany of injuries and surgeries to me and described the
last one that she had had, in which the doctors said to her when she came out
of anesthesia, `Amy, there was nothing in there left to fix.' And that just,
you know, in three decades of journalism, it has been rare for me to have to
hold back my own emotions. It was such a sad story to be told by someone I
had known to be this wonderful athlete. Amy is retired now, she can't play
anymore, and is looking at having an artificial knee probably by the time
she's 30 years old.

DAVIES: Let's talk about some physiology here. How are the differences
between boys' and girls' bodies, particularly as they take up sports,
contributing to this rash of injuries?

Mr. SOKOLOVE: When girls and boys move into puberty and when they move
through puberty, boys add muscle. They get stronger, often without much
effort of their own. Girls do not get appreciably stronger, but girls get
more flexible. When that flexibility is not accompanied by strength, you
know, good old fashioned muscle, to keep joints stable, that leads to
injuries. So what we're seeing is these girls being asked to play
extraordinary schedules--five, six, seven times a week--to specialize in one
sport. You know, by the time they reach puberty, if not much earlier, to play
that sport nine, 10, 11 months a year, and their bodies are not holding up to
it.

DAVIES: You know, you had an interesting idea, I think, in trying to get a
sense of kind of the prevalence of these injuries, and that was to go to the
military, where women have now been serving for several years and have to go
through the grueling exercise of basic training. And there's some evidence on
the frequency of injuries among women. What did you find in the military?

Mr. SOKOLOVE: I tapped into some fascinating research in the Army basic
training. They have tracked their injuries going back a couple of decades.
And what the Army knows is that women are much more often injured in basic
training--lower extremity injuries, stress fractures. They don't broadcast
this because gender in the military is a sensitive subject, just as it is in
sports. But what the Army also knows is that women are tougher than the men.
It takes a much bigger injury to drive a woman out of basic training than it
does to drive a man out of basic training. So you have to ask, well, why is
that?

Some people imagine or assume that women have a higher pain tolerance. The
research, by the way, does not necessarily back that up or does not do that
definitively. I think that women in the Army, as in sports, are still
relative newcomers and they are perhaps trying to prove their bona fides, and
one of the ways that you prove your bona fides in the military or in sports is
to play through pain. And I believe that that is absolutely what's going on
on our playing fields with young women, not of Army basic training age, but
12- and 13- and 14-year-old women or young women who are being encouraged to
play through pain or feel that it's something that they must do, or perhaps
have played in so much pain since they began playing sports that they're
inured to it.

DAVIES: You border upon the politically incorrect message here that women are
dainty, delicate things that shouldn't be putting cleats on and tearing up an
athletic field. And there are, of course, strong advocates for women's sports
out there, people who have fought to make Title IX a reality and open up
athlete budgets and athlete opportunities to women. What are they seeing in
terms of injury rates? Do they see a problem?

Mr. SOKOLOVE: In the course of researching this book, every parent and every
young athlete I talked to was very glad for me to be doing this book. They
said, `Thank you for looking into this.' Because in each community, people
tend to think, `Wow, this is happening on my team. What a stroke of bad
luck.' Or, `This has happened to my daughter.' And then at a certain point,
they realize, well this is bigger than that, and it is in fact a nationwide
trend. And they said, `Well, thank you for investigating this. Thank you for
trying to highlight some research and talking about some solutions.' There
were women's sports advocates who said to me, `Well, you better watch what you
write. You better be careful what you write,' which of course I was. I'm an
advocate of women's sports. I have a daughter who is a college athlete. But
what I found was injury rates that are just simply unacceptable.

And I understand that the history of gender research that identifies
differences has often come out as justifying bias against women. So I
certainly understand their caution on this. When we look at men and we say
men have more heart attacks, or men get prostate cancer, we don't see that as
a sign of weakness. We don't say men are the weaker sex. But when we point
out differences--and like these, people will often say, `Oh, well, women
shouldn't be playing.' Well that is not my point at all. My point is that
women need to train differently than men train. They need to be recognized as
different physical beings, should probably be coached more by women coaches.

And across the youth culture, boys and girls are playing too much. They're
specializing too early. It's not good for either gender, but what I found is
that it's too often disastrous for girls. So when someone says, `Oh, you
shouldn't write this,' I would just say, `Well, what is the alternative? That
we pretend these statistics don't exist? That we pretend this problem doesn't
exist because it sounds somehow politically incorrect or it may lead to bias?'
I say let's face it squarely. Let's say girls should play. They should play
hard. They should play as competitively as they want to play. But let's
change the whole terrain so that they don't walk off the field whenever
they're done with their sport as if they played a decade in the NFL. That's
just not acceptable.

DAVIES: You discovered that there are some exercise regimes that are
specifically designed to help female athletes prevent knee injuries, the ACL
injuries that have been so troublesome. Just describe what those are like and
tell us what the evidence is that they work.

Mr. SOKOLOVE: These programs focus on landing from jumps and decelerating,
and they teach girls simply to play in what old gym coaches used to call the
athletic position, which is knees bent and butt down. They're very routine,
warm up programs, plyometrics, which is balancing. There's a program in Santa
Monica called the PEP Program, which is one of the larger programs. They
claim to be able to decrease the rate of ACL injuries in young women by as
much as 80 percent. You know, if they do a quarter of that, it's worth doing.
And it is simple, preventative medicine. Which can be boring. It can be
hard. You know, everyone wants to go out to a soccer field and start kicking
the ball or to the basketball court and start shooting the ball. What these
programs do is say, `Let's stop and let's retrain your body to move in a way
that is more protective.'

DAVIES: Our guest is Michael Sokolove. His new book is "Warrior Girls."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is writer Michael Sokolove. His
new book about the epidemic of injuries in women's sports is called "Warrior
Girls."

One of the things you say in this book and spend some time on is the notion
that we need to think, as you write it, more deeply about the insanity of our
youth sports culture. And there are several aspects to this. I mean, one of
them is specialization. Now, you know, when I was a kid, we played baseball
in the spring and summer, football in the fall and basketball in the winter.
And we kind of rolled around and played different sports, depending upon what
the guys on TV were doing. It's different these days, isn't it? What happens
now?

Mr. SOKOLOVE: What happens is that a child begins playing perhaps two or
three sports. By the age of nine or 10, especially if she shows some promise,
some coach approaches her or approaches her parents and says, `Hey, she's
pretty good. I want to move her up a level.' Puts her on the team. She
begins playing four months a year. Then six months a year. And at some
point, very early on, the coach says, `You know, you need to play in the fall
season as well as the spring season, and you also need to play indoors during
the winter.' And before you know it, she's playing 10 months a year, one
sport. Which is the absolute worst thing that you can do physically or
psychologically in an approach to sports. And it is a direct injury cause.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting how as you describe in the book, big name
coaches aren't saying anything about these injuries. Athletic directors
aren't being aggressive about it. And when you talk to them, I think, one or
two of them said, `Well, that's your job to raise this issue.' As you mention,
you wrote a cover story in The New York Times Magazine about this. What has
been the reaction?

Mr. SOKOLOVE: People who have read and read the excerpt in The New York
Times Magazine, I got a lot of reaction from athletes and from adult women who
had suffered injuries and read the pieces I hoped the piece would be read,
which is--and the book--which is a serious look at this syndrome and a serious
look at coming to grips with it and making changes in the sports culture and
educating young women and their parents as to what can be done to decrease
these injuries. There were certainly people who read it very politically.
There's a great women's blog, Jezebel, very snarky, very lively blog, and on
Jezebel, it was alleged that I was, you know, standing in the way of progress
for women's sports. And I think it's just the opposite. I think that what
threatens women's sports and the further evolution of women's sports and the
further expansion of it is injuries, not the few troglodytes who say, `Well,
women shouldn't be playing these sports.' We're not going to get very far if
we have so many of these girls leaving the field broken up and in pain.

DAVIES: Well, Michael Sokolove, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SOKOLOVE: Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: Writer Michael Sokolove. His book is "Warrior Girls: Protecting Our
Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women's Sports." You can read an
excerpt from the first chapter of the book and download podcasts of our show
at our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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