Editor’s note: This is the third of four parts.
Under Fulgencio Batista, the Mafia was entrenched in the gambling industry. The day after my duty as Shore Patrol, some shipmates and I had liberty in this vibrant city and were sight-seeing. In the evening, we went to see the Tropicana night club. Just to see the place, I emphasize.
The management was glad to give tours of the venue. The tables were outdoors, among palm trees. Show girls were prancing on the stage and around the catwalks, to the music of the orchestra, on two sides of the audience, who were dining and drinking. The women wore evening gowns, and the men were clad in guayaberas, a long Cuban shirt with four front pockets, worn outside the trousers like a jacket. This was the Cuban equivalent of jacket and tie in the U.S. It was the right kind of formal wear in a tropical climate.
We were then shown the vast gambling casino, indoors, of course, and air-conditioned attached to the nightclub. The room was cavernous, and the gamblers were formally attired. We were told to take our hats off. I suppose we had to show respect for a place in which so much money changed hands. I noticed, about twenty yards in front of me, a group of obviously American young women. They might have been there to celebrate their graduation from high school. One of them apparently spoke Spanish, and was talking to one of the employees. I went over to the group. I heard the girl say, with a strong American accent, “Perdon, senor, puede usted decirme donde esta el exito, por favor?” I was sure that was not what she actually wanted to say. This interested me.
The employee was short, had a scar on his cheek from near his eye almost to his mouth. I noticed a bulge under his jacket, which I was sure was a pistol in a shoulder holster. After all, there was a great deal of cash circulating in this establishment. I wondered what he would say to her. He said nothing; he simply stared at her without a single word.
This seemed to unnerve the girl. Her cheeks took on a bit more color. She asked again, but in a noticeably shorter sentence, her voice quivering a bit, “Senor, por favor, donde esta el exito?”
The man simply continued staring at her, his eyes narrowing.
The other American girls looked at their spokeswoman as though wondering if she really spoke Spanish.
My second training cruise, which included liberty in Cuba, took place about a year later.
It did not make port in Havana, but in the US Naval Station of Guant’namo Bay, familiarly called “Gitmo.” It was in Oriente Province at the opposite end of this island nation from the Capital. It was not far from the second largest city, Santiago, and the rugged Sierra Maestra mountain range, which was Fidel Castro’s base.