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Could Casinos Return to Cuba?

In the 1940’s and 50’s Havanna was a playground for wealthy Americans, a tropical paradise lined with palm trees and glossy casinos. That all changed when the Castro regime came to power in the late 1950’s, of course. However, following President Barack Obama’s efforts to thaw US-Cuba relations, some casino executives are beginning to eye the island nation once again.

Fidel Castro

Nick Sortal of the Florida-based news publication, Sun Sentinel, has posed the question with the view of how it might affect Florida in terms of competition for the casino and hospitality industries. Bob Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University professor and expert in gambling issues, told the Sentinel, “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.”

As Jarvis noted, it was Fidel Castro who brought an end to the glitzy and often romanticized era of Cuban casinos. There were a total of thirteen casino establishments, all of which were forced to close down or move elsewhere immediately after Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista. Castro’s view was that gambling was a ‘sin industry’ and a ‘criminal waste of the nation’s financial resources’. A number of those casinos relocated to the rapidly growing city of Las Vegas in Nevada.

The Sun Sentinel put the question to the Seminole Tribe of Florida, owners of Hard Rock Casinos and an active international expansion program, Hard Rock International. Tribe spokesman Gary Bitner said simply, “Way too early to comment.”

Another expert on the industry, Michael Pollock, managing director for research firm Spectrum Gaming, told the Sun Sentinel that casino’s won’t appear in Cuba anytime soon. He said, “So many steps would need to be taken before it becomes a realistic pursuit. It would require a stable, open government, a relatively transparent regulatory system, a lot of capital investment… A lot has changed since Cuba was a gambling destination, not the least of which a lot other islands offer gambling, and it’s so prevalent in the United States.”

However, there is another, more optimistic view. Nelson I Rose, author, columnist and world-renowned gambling expert, writes, “Castro’s communist regime may have accidentally contributed something else to the speedy rebirth of casinos. There has been so little economic progress on the island that apparently the ornate buildings constructed in the 1950s to house the mob’s casinos are still standing, waiting to be refurbished and reopened, under new management.”