Review- “The Cuban Connection”

Posted: April 12, 2012 in Book Reviews

In The Cuban Connection, Eduardo Saénz Rovner rethinks how Cuba became a hotbed for drug trafficking, smuggling, and gambling and considers how these illicit activities shaped Cuban national identity from the early twentieth century through the rise of Fidel Castro. Prior scholarship largely attributed the growth of narcotrafficking in Cuba to its widespread poverty and close proximity to the United States. Saénz Rovner, however, explains how Cuba’s historically well-established integration into international migration, commerce, and transportation networks, combined with political instability, judicial impunity, and official corruption, facilitated the consolidation of drug trafficking on the island. Moreover, he refutes Cuba’s historical role as a “victim” of international drug trafficking, arguing instead that native Cubans, as well as immigrants living on the island, played active roles in the development of drug trafficking networks. Finally, he suggests that the “drug problem” fueled the Revolution’s anti-yanquí propaganda machine while also framing Washington’s efforts to topple the Castro government.


Saénz Rovner explains how an influx of Spanish immigration to Cuba and U.S. capital investment in the island’s sugar industry created a culture of social fluidity and economic growth that greatly expanded Cuba’s underground economy in the early twentieth century. Havana, with its cosmopolitan character, dynamic economy, and privileged geographic position, attracted both native and foreign-born drug traffickers who built sophisticated networks that linked Cuba to international chains of supply and demand. The 1940s and 1950s saw the expansion of cocaine and heroin trafficking within a triangle connecting the Andean region, Cuba, and the United States. These illegal drug networks operated in a manner that paralleled Cuba’s trade in legal goods and flourished under the umbrella of an economy tied closely to international commerce and to the infusion of people from abroad. Meanwhile, drugs were not only exported from Cuba, but were also consumed locally. Members of the elite favored cocaine, however, their privilege afforded them protection from authorities. On the other hand, police agents routinely arrested black and mulatto marijuana smokers and Chinese opium addicts and often prosecuted them to the fullest extent of Cuban law.

During Prohibition in the United States, Cuba became both a source of contraband alcohol for its northern neighbor and a popular tourist destination for North American tourists who flocked to its mafia-run hotels, casinos, and nightclubs. Mobsters did not introduce gambling, drinking, or even drug consumption to Cuba. Rather, casino construction coincided with Cuban government policies to stimulate tourism and compensate for the fluctuations in sugar prices on the international market. Saénz Rovner argues that the expansion of narcotrafficking in Cuba was not the result of mafia entrepreneurship, but instead reflected   political instability, a climate of permissiveness, and judicial impunity that mitigated the efforts of the Cuban government to suppress the drug trade. Finally, Saénz Rover considers how drug trafficking advanced political ends during the Cold War. While Henry Anslinger and his Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) falsely accused Fidel Castro of promoting narcotrafficking, Cuban revolutionaries accused North Americans of having corrupted the island country by engaging in illicit activities in the pre-revolutionary era.

Saénz Rovner challenges historiography that ties drug trafficking in Cuba to local poverty and its physical proximity to the United States. Instead, he argues that Cuba’s relative prosperity and success in attracting international flows of both people and goods made the island nation an ideal hub for a transnational drug trafficking industry. Furthermore, he discredits recent works that allege Fulgencio Batista’s personal involvement in the drug trade, exploring how pressure from the United States in fact compelled Batista to pursue large-scale drug dealers. Saénz Rovner explains how drug traffickers took advantage of the deteriorating security situation in Cuba, slipping away as the Batista regime focused on quelling the civil war and suppressing political opposition.

 Saénz Rovner deftly traces not only the flows of narcotics and traffickers across borders, but also the international material and cultural connections that converged over Cuba to create illicit networks that linked the island nation to other regions of the world. As a result, Saénz Rover not only sheds light on drug trafficking in Cuba, but also highlights the multinational character of the “drug problem” by linking illicit industries in Cuba to those in North and South America, Europe, and beyond. But while Saénz Rovner provides a groundbreaking, transnational approach through which to explore narcotrafficking, his study of Cuba is hampered by several historical inaccuracies. In particular, he exaggerates the degree to which post-revolutionary trials and executions discouraged U.S. tourism to Cuba in the wake of the guerrillas’ victory, when in fact tourism had already been on the decline in the twilight of Batista’s rule. Finally, Saénz Rovner frequently mentions the activities of various drug traffickers and Mafiosos but does not provide a sufficient historical context so that the reader can understand the significance of these actors to the international drug trade.

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