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On Diamonds, Razzle, and Goddesses of the Flesh

On Diamonds, Razzle, and Goddesses of the Flesh

Yet perhaps the most important connection between Cuban and American baseball was eventually formed in the minor leagues. In 1954, the Havana Sugar Kings were established as an AAA International League team affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds. It was considered by many to be the first step towards the establishment of a Cuban-based major league franchise. Though the Sugar Kings’ roster included many Americans as well as players from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico, and Panama, the team reveled in the association with Cuba. On the road in their first season, it brought along its own eleven-piece charanga band, which played whenever the team was at bat. In October of 1959, almost ten months after Batista had fled the island, the Sugar Kings won the Minor League World Series in Havana. Fidel Castro threw out the first ball in front of thirty thousand cheering supporters who gave him a standing ovation.

“After baseball was nationalized, the American teams stopped coming down, and my brother never returned,” said Leowaldo Fornieles wistfully. Meanwhile Alicia Figueroa breezed toward us, phone at her ear, offering little porcelain cups of coffee prepared by her Havana housekeeper. Fornieles handed me my cup then sipped elegantly from his. “Three times I applied for United States visas,” he said, “but the Americans denied me every time.”

Hearing Fornieles say this, Alicia cupped her hand over the receiver and pointed out the window. “Mira, la sección de interés,” she whispered slyly. Indeed, within a stone’s throw of her balcony stood the imposing stone and glass rectangle that houses the United States Interests Section in Havana. Up until that moment I had somehow not noticed it, but there it was—the hub of the exile drama, the symbol of the conflict between Cuba and the United States, or more aptly, between Cubans in Cuba and Cubans in the United States.

La sección de interés, “the interests section” as it is called in Cuba, was a United States embassy until January 3, 1961, when the outgoing U.S. president, Eisenhower, broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba. It was turned over to the Swiss Embassy, which represented American interests in Cuba and Cuban matters in Washington until 1977, when President Jimmy Carter established limited diplomatic relations with Cuba once again, in part to facilitate visits by Cuban exiles to their relatives on the island. Henceforth, the interests section has effectively become an embassy, with a chief officer whose diplomatic status is equal to that of an ambassador.

You can’t miss the interests section when you walk along the Malecón. The building is ringed by a series of guard kiosks and a forbidding-looking steel-post fence painted beige, presumably to blend visually with the local Jaimanitas stone that now covers the facade (originally it was clad in travertine). The structure is an austere rectangle of glass and stone that would fit in at Lincoln Center in New York or on the Mall in Washington. In fact, the building’s architects, the New York firm of Harrison & Abramovitz, later went on to design Avery Fisher Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, as well as Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York; the firm had already designed the United Nations headquarters in New York and CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. According to Eduardo Luis Rodriguez, Cuba’s leading authority on modernist architecture, the prestige of Harrison & Abramovitz and the building’s prime location on the Malecón caused something of a sensation in 1953. Yet, writes Rodriguez, “The architects failed to take into account the Cuban climate, to which the building exposes an excessive amount of glass.”

From Alicia’s window it was hard not to see this as symbolic. I watched the slow-moving, long queue of visa applicants that formed every morning before dawn. Dour Cuban soldiers checked names off an appointment list. When an applicant reached the entrance gate, a uniformed United States Marine inspected his application documents before allowing him inside, usually to wait at least another hour. The process was grueling and often humiliating. In late 2003—the time of my first visit to Alicia’s apartment—Cuba had been placed on the United States Office of Homeland Security’s list of terrorist nations, and as a result, the response was frequently negative. Even artists, filmmakers, and educators who had traveled repeatedly to the United States by invitation of the Museum of Modern Art or the Grammy awards committee were routinely denied visas on the grounds that their presence was detrimental to the interests of the United States—the same language used to keep potential terrorists out of the country.

In mid-2005, hopes of reconciliation between the two countries are not bright. That was a fact hard to imagine in 1953, when the building first opened its doors. Back then there was almost no border between the two countries. Americans flocked to Cuba, and tens of thousands of Cubans visited the United States annually. Among the many Cubans who honeymooned in Miami were Fidel Castro and his first wife, Mirta Diaz Balart, in 1948; and my parents, who were married in 1954. Pan American averaged twenty-eight daily flights between Miami and Havana. In 1948, roundtrip airfare cost thirty dollars. In spring and summer, Havana’s newspapers were filled with advertisements for hotels and shops in Miami. The Peninsular & Occidental Steamship Company, with offices at municipal pier #2 in Miami and on the Paseo del Prado in Havana, published guidebooks in Spanish for the Cubans who went to Miami for weekend shopping trips, advertising everything from Burdine’s department stores to Wolfie’s Jewish delicatessen. Martín Fox was liberal about sending his staff to the United States for anything that was needed. Ernesto Capote, Tropicana’s lighting designer, went at least once a year to purchase bulbs and electrical cable. Rodney and the costume designers went to New York annually to buy fabric, shoes, sequins, and feathers.

Nineteen fifty-three, the year that Alicia Figueroa began dancing with Alberto Alonso’s conjunto at Montmartre, was also the year that Meyer Lansky left the county jail in Saratoga after serving a two-month sentence and made what was to be a permanent move to Cuba. Lansky had pleaded guilty to conspiracy, forgery, and gambling charges brought against him by New York State under pressure from the Kefauver Committee. Despite this, Lansky was back on the nation’s payroll as a gambling advisor, courtesy of his old pal Batista, as soon as he made it back down to Havana. Lansky might seem a poor choice for a nation trying to maintain good relations with the United States, but gambling was Lansky’s business, and he had a reputation for scrupulousness among both his peers and enemies. At the time Cuba desperately needed someone who could restore the reputation of the casinos after a cheating scandal that had threatened its growing tourist industry.

The scandal was sparked by a fast-paced and tricky combination dice-and-card game known as razzle or razzle-dazzle. According to Valentín, who told me what he knew about it, razzle-dazzle is a game with shifting rules that only the dealers seem to understand. (“Don’t even talk to me about it,” he said, when I ask him to explain how it was played. “Those guys were crooks. And what’s worse, they wouldn’t teach any of us how to run the game.”) Razzle would be offered to a client by a smooth-talking dealer—always an American—who would insist that it was easy, that the odds were stupendous, and that there was no way to lose. In truth, there was no way to win. Under the thrall of the lights and the music, with a few rum-and-Cokes under his or her belt, and the dealer shuffling cards and rolling dice rapidly, promising double or nothing as a way to make up losses, a player was a sitting duck. “Among the victims was a honeymoon couple who lost the five hundred dollars they had saved towards furnishing their apartment. Another was a mother of four children who paid her losses with five checks, predated against her husband’s salary,” wrote Saturday Evening Post reporter Lester Velie, in an exposé that appeared in the widely read March 1953 issue. Velie’s article, “Suckers in Paradise, How Americans Lose Their Shirts in Caribbean Gambling Joints,” identified Tropicana as the operating place of Billie Bloom, “the most expert of the razzle pitchmen.” And it would have been disastrous for tourism had Batista not taken action before the article even appeared.

Complaints had been filtering in to the embassy in Havana, and these were being transmitted to Marcial Facio, president of Cuba’s tourism commission. Then, one day in 1952, a Pasadena lawyer named Dana Smith fell victim to a razzle scheme at Sans Souci while on vacation in Cuba. Smith lost four thousand dollars to the razzle dealer in a matter of minutes. He wrote a check to cover the losses, but upon his return to the United States he cancelled payment and was subsequently sued by Norman Rothman, San Souci’s manager. But Smith had powerful political connections, most notably Senator and Vice President–elect Richard M. Nixon. In fact, Smith was one of the organizers of a private fund that had put Nixon’s candidacy in jeopardy when it was made public by the New York Post, and that eventually led to Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech. Smith’s complaint to Nixon set off a chain of phone calls to the state department, to the embassy in Cuba, and the Cuban tourism commission. When word reached Batista himself, he acted swiftly. A brief note in the March 31, 1953 issue of the New York Times announced the ouster of thirteen Americans who were “employees of the Sans Souci and the Tropicana night clubs.” Velie reported that “helmeted and bayonet-wielding Cuban troops marched into the gambling joints and ordered the [razzle] games out. Gun [sic] in hand, they patrolled the casino entrances to keep the games banished.”

“Na, na, there weren’t any soldiers,” scoffed Valentín when I read to him from the article. “But si, I remember our guy. Dino Cellini brought him by for Martín. He would post himself at the door, to get people as they were coming in. Once this young couple lost like a hundred dollars before they even set foot in the casino, and that’s when a hundred dollars was something. When Salas Cañizares [Havana’s chief of police] came to arrest him he took off running into the fields behind the cabaret.”

“Chica, I was working at Sans Souci back then, but I don’t recall anything about that razzle scandal,” said Alicia, breezing by on three-inch platform mules, her pink tunic rustling against brown gabardine slacks as I discussed the matter with Fornieles. I had been waiting just under an hour for her, not bad by Cuban standards. Besides, watching her walk around with the phone glued to her ear was like getting a lesson in regalness. Her voice was even-toned and musical, even as she explained her cell phone situation for the umpteenth time to someone who was evidently still unable to solve her problem. Anyone else would have been exasperated at this point, but Alicia’s only sign of impatience was the occasional tapping of her terracotta-colored nails against a tabletop. She was tall and long-limbed, with the robust sensuality of Sofia Loren, and a wide, perfect smile. Her skin was flawless. She was sixty-six-years-old, but if not for her white hair, which she wore cropped and swept off her face, she could have passed for forty. Not that she was trying to. Like Ofelia, Alicia seemed completely comfortable with age. She did not agonize over it; when asked, she told the truth.

Our mission that morning—our first day together, after weeks of talking on the phone and e-mailing from Los Angeles to the Yucatan—was to visit Ana Gloria Varona. Alicia had tried calling the former mambo star on my behalf but had gotten no answer. “Let’s just go to her house, we’ve got a car.” As I watched her step outside her building, I immediately wondered how she’d manage on those three-inch platform heels. In this windswept part of Vedado, where Alicia still managed to retain the apartment she had lived in before marrying the Mexican publisher and leaving Cuba, there were so many holes and chunks of lifted sidewalk that breaking one’s ankle wearing running shoes would have been a distinct possibility; but she gingerly stepped around mud and pools of water from a morning rainstorm without so much as a downward look. We got into her brand-new rented Nissan. “It’s another world in here,” quipped a Cuban artist who was joining us this morning. Indeed, there was no comparing the world of cell phones, new-car upholstery, and powerful air-conditioning with the general difficulties—broken sidewalks, blackouts, and shortages—one faced in the rest of Havana. Alicia laughed, then without a trace of irony put on Yves Saint Laurent sunglasses and started the engine.

While we sped along Vedado’s wet streets, Alicia made suggestions about whom else I should meet. “You’ve got to see Rosita Fornés,” she said, referring to the country’s most beloved vedette, a term for a cabaret singer-dancer, similar to a musical theater performer. The blond Fornés starred in only one of Tropicana’s shows—Rodney’s 1955 version of the opera The Merry Widow, titled Las viudas alegres—but her name was forever linked to Tropicana, possibly because Las viudas was such a huge favorite with the Cuban public. It was first staged in 1952, starring vedette Zoraida Marrero as well as Ana Gloria and Rolando, and then a third time in 1957, with Jenny León in the starring role.

“Tomorrow we’ll drive out to Guanabacoa to see La China Villamíl,” Alicia continued. “And you also must meet my great friend Santiago Alfonso. He’s not from the period you’re working on, but he has been the choreographer for the last fifteen years. You should also see Tomás Morales, who has taken over the position in the last few months. Both men are very important to the Tropicana story.”

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