Old Cuban Casinos Might be Revived

Once the gaming Mecca of North America, Cuba may someday be reborn as a casino destination now that the United States and the island nation have started to thaw relations. Casinos were once owned by legendary Vegas operators like Wilbur Clark, who operated the Tropicana casino in Havana (l.).

The old classic casinos that have lain unused in Cuba for more than a half-century may open someday soon if the recent rapprochement between the United States and Cuba leads to economic development in the long dormant communist holdout.

However, most experts say not to expect anything to happen very quickly.

Havana, capital of Cuba, was once known for casinos long before Las Vegas was more than a gleam in Bugsy Segal’s eye.  In fact, it was Segal’s partner Meyer Lansky, who did the most to develop casinos on the island—a fact that fans of the movie The Godfather will recall from a scene in the movie where the island, represented by a cake, is being carved up by various crime dons.

Whether it will ever be anything like that again, depends on many factors. According to Bob Jarvis, a professor at Nova Southeastern University interviewed by the Star Tribune, “I don’t think there’s any question every casino executive in the United States and beyond is thinking of a plan to get into Cuba. It was the play land for the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, and it could be again. It’s fabulous.”

Fidel Castro, the retired dictator who shut down all 13 of those casinos almost immediately when he came to power in January 1959, is still alive, and his brother Raul is still running the country as president. The Castros considered gambling to be a waste of the nation’s resources. Many of the casino managers who were forced to flee the country eventually refocused on Las Vegas.

Even if Castro were to suddenly rescind that prohibition, it could still take a decade or more for a modern casino to begin operating there, say experts.

Michael Pollock of Spectrum Gaming, who has researched the island’s potential as a reborn gaming Mecca, told the Star Tribune: “So many steps would need to be taken before it becomes a realistic pursuit.”  He added, “It would require a stable, open government, a relatively transparent regulatory system, a lot of capital investment for the fading, crumbling tourism infrastructure. A lot has changed since Cuba was a gambling destination, not the least of which a lot of other islands offer gambling, and it’s so prevalent in the United States. But it’s a beautiful island, and there’s an enormous curiosity factor.”

Chad Beynon, a senior analyst for Gaming and Leisure with Macquarie Capital, told the Sun Sentinel, “It really would be tough. It’d be more like a Caribbean casino, where sometimes locals aren’t even allowed.”

The possible expansion of casinos in nearby Florida may be related to whether gaming ever returns to Havana. If casinos are in Cuba’s future, they could prove fatal to supporters of larger casinos in the state, including the Seminole Tribe, which operates several casinos there.

The legislature might be less inclined to grant concessions to the tribe, including its request that any new state tribal gaming compact include a continuation of blackjack. But some will argue that expanded gaming in Cuba will mandate expanded gaming in Florida to remain competitive.

Beynon commented, “And, absolutely, if there’s successful gaming in Cuba, it’s a harder sell in Miami from a return standpoint.”

The Seminole Tribe of Florida is playing its card close to its vest on this question. “Way to early to comment,” a spokesman for the tribe told the Sun Sentinel.