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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Death of Meyer Lansky's driver unnoticed

The Associated Press

The man who was Meyer Lansky's driver and bodyguard during the mob's heyday in prerevolutionary Cuba died earlier this year, a curious footnote in a communist-run country whose past as a gambling Mecca for vacationing Americans is all but forgotten.

There was no story in the Communist Party daily Granma about the Feb. 12 death of Armando Jaime Casielles, at age 75, from lung cancer. No mention on Cuban state television either, despite the decades he spent promoting Afro-Cuban dance and music in his post-mob years.

Casielles' close friend, Enrique Cirules, got the news through word of mouth.

''He liked his cigars, he liked his whiskey, never stopped working,'' Cirules told The Associated Press. ``He was a very respected man.''

A stout, reserved man who sported eyeglasses, a goatee and a pinky ring, Casielles was among the last people alive with firsthand knowledge of mob operations in the colorful, decadent Havana that thrived before a young rebel named Fidel Castro seized power.

Stoic and discreet, Casielles was there with Lansky during numerous meetings with Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, who protected gambling businesses on the island, and accompanied him when the mobster traveled around the Caribbean to talk with underworld figures such as Santos Trafficante Sr.

Casielles helped Lansky hide in the Cuban capital in late 1957 after the Sicilian Mafia families of New York tried to grab control of the mobster's Havana operation, and violence erupted in Manhattan.

And he was behind the wheel of Lansky's silver-gray 1957 Chevrolet Impala convertible on New Year's Eve 1958. As word spread that Batista had fled the island and Castro's bearded rebels were close to victory, he helped the gangster scoop up millions of dollars in profits from his Havana casinos.

The next day, Cuban mobs, euphoric over the revolutionary triumph, ransacked the gambling dens, exposing their deep resentment of mob control of the island. Bonfires of smashed slot machines and roulette tables raged in Havana's streets.

Soon thereafter, the revolutionary government outlawed gambling, prostitution and nonprescription drugs, and the mobsters gave up without a fight.

''The gigantic projects of gaming, drugs and sex; channels of heroin to the United States, and cocaine powder for the consumption of thousands of American tourists who visited the wildest spots in Havana . . . were condemned to disappear as soon as Batista's tyranny fell apart,'' Cirules wrote in The Secret Life of Meyer Lansky in Havana.

Available only in Cuba in Spanish, it sold out when it was published in 2004 and is now in its second edition.

The book also revealed the secret life Casielles led before undergoing what he described as a moral conversion, rejecting his mob past and becoming the public relations director of the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional dance troupe for more than three decades.

Born in Havana in 1931, Casielles left the island in 1948 to study public relations at Northwestern University, perfecting his English. He was a card dealer in a Las Vegas casino when Lansky persuaded him to be his assistant in Cuba.

As Cirules researched his book, the two men spent countless afternoons visiting Lansky's haunts: the former military base where Lansky and Batista met, the Marina Hemingway where Lansky took his mistress Carmen; the hotels where raucous Americans arriving on 80 daily flights from the United States once crowded around roulette wheels and blackjack tables.

The Capri, the Rivera, the Deauville and the Nacional hotels still stand today, destinations for beach-seeking Europeans on travel packages and the rare American congressmen on trade and fact-finding missions.

''I began to discover a Havana that I never knew existed,'' said the 68-year-old Cirules, who grew up in eastern Camaguey and didn't arrive in Havana until long after the revolution.

Casielles described how Lansky left Cuba for good with a fake passport in April 1959. Carmen accompanied him to the United States, where he died in 1983, 12 years after he was indicted for allegedly skimming millions of dollars from the Flamingo hotel-casino in Las Vegas. The charges were dismissed because of his poor health.

The millions of dollars they collected that New Year's Eve had already been spirited out.

''You're coming with me,'' Casielles recalled Lansky telling him.

``I told him no.''

''Well,'' replied Lansky, ``you know what you're doing.''

Casielles underwent a ''spiritual, ethical and moral crisis'' about the harm organized crime had caused Cuba, Cirules said.

''This was the reality of many Cubans at that time,'' agreed longtime friend Gregorio Hernandez, a musician and dancer. ``Jaime became a super revolutionary, an admirer of Fidel Castro and his work.''

Casielles later became interested in Cuba's African-influenced music, helping the dance troupe launch projects such as Havana's popular Sabados de la Rumba, which brings families together to enjoy traditional music each weekend. He also married twice, and had three children: a son and daughter now in Venezuela, and a daughter in Havana.

Casielles didn't hide his years with Lansky from others in Castro's Cuba, but ''his life after that was so different,'' said Hernandez. ``He left behind a life of wealth and shared all these difficult years with us.''

It was not the former mob driver Cubans mourned when Casilles died, but a revolutionary who delighted in promoting his country's traditional culture. That's the man Hernandez sang his farewell rumba to at the memorial service, fulfilling a last promise to a good friend: ``When one loses a brother, what sadness! What pain is left in the soul!''

Saturday, May 19, 2007

It's like a nightmare where nothing changes...

1. Oh yes, it’s election season coming up in Miami Beach, which promises to keep us filled to the gills with troubling but often hilarious news. The Beach will elect 4 of 7 of the City Commission this November. The Mayor slot is open because of term limits as are the seats of Commissioner/ Resident dental assistant/ Ethnic art critic Matti Herrera-Bower and Simon Cruz. Commissioner Michael Gongora, who filled a one year term must reclaim his seat this fall. So here are the candidates, and their status in the all important filling of jars of mother’s milk:

On the Mayoral side of things Simon Cruz is running far ahead of Herrera-Bower and Raphael Herman. Commission Seat 4: Jonah Wolfson and Luis Salom are running neck and neck with Linda Grosz trailing. Michael Gongora, the incumbent for Commission Seat 5 actually has a, ahem, challenger, Ivor Rose who has raised $0, which may not bode well for his candidacy. In one of the hottest commission seats, Commission Seat 6, has Elsa Urquiza with a slight lead over Frank Kuszewski, though Urquiza is entirely self financed at this point.

Simon Cruz, in his desire to finally get real estate developers, mortgage banker and other members of the housing industry involved in politics did some grass roots work in that community. Over eighty of these disenfranchised, hard working folks gave him baskets of leafy green cash from the fields they toil in, amounting to $27,500. Jonah Wolfson also decided to engage in community activism among his people- his people being high priced attorneys.

Much more forthcoming…

2. When the getting’s good… Sunny Isles Beach. Mayor Norman Edelcup, tells Comfort Homes that their site plan approval has expired and will not be renewed. The denial means the developer will now have to reapply under current zoning codes. Comfort Homes obtained their development rights from Triumph Development over a year ago. The cause of the delay is, surprise, a weak market. It underscores what may happen with a lot of projects that were brought for approval to lock into the more permissive codes but are in doubt in a soft market.

3. Some are looking for other defibrillators to bring a pulse back to Miami real estate-

Such as lower mortgage rates. Will lenders step in to deliver the zap of electric life? Maybe not, if the greater appreciation of risk premiums today influences them to require a greater spread from Treasuries, according to John Burford, senior vice president and investment portfolio manager at The International Bank of Miami. In simpler speak banks will tighten rather than relax access to money in this market climate.

4. It’s really my parents fault I have all these issues. So why not make them pay? South Florida’s young and upwardly mobile are looking for a way to shift taxes to established home owners.

5. The Related Group plans to level the late architect Morris Lapidus "Americana" in Bal Harbor. The 600 feet of private beachfront, on ten acres it didn’t stand a chance. Sheraton Bal Harbour Resort will be giving the pink slip to 648 of its employees come July.

Hotel operator Starwood Hotels & Resorts is partnering in a joint venture with builder-developer, the Related Group to build the St. Regis Resort & Residences, a 568 unit condo-hotel complex will replace it. In giving approval for the demo of this MiMo landmark, Bal Harbor officials may be hoping that Related will maintain their special version of commitment to affordable housing.

6. The poor will always be with us, even in Fisher Island. The working poor can at least get onto Jeb’s access restricted hideaway, which should be calculated into their benefits package. Let’s just hope they don’t unionize. Because that would be so… black. And that has to be bad right Café Porto Cervo?

While the Editor 'Ista begs to differ on some points, we will still share with you this well reasoned piece by another Miamista.

Cities all over Florida have gouged the taxpayers this year. That's why the State wants to force tax rates down. Cities and counties and school boards are out of control, wasting huge amounts of money. (Editor's notes, true of Dade historically but Dade and Florida are still at the bottom of per pupil spending and at least now Dade has responsible leadership of its schools.) One example is Surfside, which used to be a model of prudent management, but is now an example of largess and waste due to political abuse. This year's budget is the largest and most bloated in the town's 70+ year history. Here's the HX:

Surfside 1935: Local residents obtain state approval and create an independent municipality, the Town of Surfside, based on their desire to maintain a community with independence from Miami Beach and to have a small, accountable, and efficient local government to reflect the priorities and well being of its own residents. Over the 7 decades to follow, Surfside has its ups and downs, but generally does a superb job at serving its residents, remaining debt free, and being a widely recognized example for cities and towns and villages all over the nation.

Surfside 1990 - 1992: Mayor Eli Tourgeman enacts foolish budget policies with a 3-2 vote of his Town Commission that put the Town into the red, ending his term with town deficits. Tourgeman supports a number of major zoning variances and tries to break down the zoning code to get approval for a 20 story condo despite a height limit in the code of 12 stories. The voters turned back Toureman's approval in a referendum that defeated and reversed the condo project's variance approval. In 1990 he was elected mayor, in 1992 he was voted off of the commission when voters saw his real priorities and he came in last from a field of 10 candidates.

Surfside 1992 - 2004: Mayor Paul Novack and a new Town Commission unanimously enact budget corrections and fiscally responsible policies and every year for 12 years the town operated under balanced, stable and efficient budgets, with production of increased levels of town services, and numerous capital projects undertaken and completed that upgraded the parks, playgrounds, streets, drainage system, business district, Veterans Park, Town Hall, and much more, all with no debt, no bonds, and with the building of significant town surplus funds to serve the town's present and future. The town attracted a new Publix and many new restaurants and shops for the business district and made improvements and expansions to town parking facilities. Plans are made for a new town library and hi-tech information center to go on newly acquired property on the west side of Collins Avenue. The town was internationally recognized as a model community, and in 2003 Novack was honored as the state-wide "Community Steward of the Year" in Tallahassee. Mayor Novack was elected by the voters six times to serve as mayor, not one variance for height or density or setbacks or uses were ever approved during his tenure, and he retired from office in 2004 with official tributes from the Florida House of Representatives, the United States Congressional Record, and many others.

Surfside 2004 - 2006: Mayor Tim Will and a new Town Commission operate the town carefully and responsibly with balanced budgets, continued expansion of town surplus funds, obtaining a grant to help pay for the new library project, and making plans for the renovation and upgrading of the Community Center. The project would have made vast improvements to the facilities and would not have involved any closure or reduction in use by residents. There was no debt, no bonds, and yet there were even further enhancements of many town services. The town was honored by statewide organizations for superb levels of municipal accounting and auditing and outstanding transparency and performance with public funds. After several productive terms on the Town Commission, and service on the Town's Planning and Zoning Board, and a term as Mayor, Mayor Will retired from public service.

Surfside 2006 - 2007: Mayor Charles Burkett and a new Town Commission spurs, devises, creates and presides over a new town budget that is the largest and by far the most expensive and bloated budget in the town's history, spending more on lawyers than ever, needlessly paying millions of dollars of town funds to "settle" dubious law suits that objective outside reviews found had no merit at all with payments made to the claimants (Burkett campaign supporters) just before Courts were set to rule in the Town's favor, spending over $300,000 on a town charette to document Burkett's plans to change zoning laws and other pre-conceived notions for the benefit of non-resident commercial interests, hired a large law firm for a minimum annual fee of $600,000, no town projects or improved service levels, serious draining of town surplus funds, hired many new consultants with large fees paid by the town, and initiated plans for a public relations campaign to approve putting the town into deep debt with bond issues for as much as $50 million to substantially raise tax burdens on residents for many years to come. The town newsletter is expanded to include political attacks and misinformation every month at a cost of approximately $100,000 in taxpayers' funds for the one year alone. No projects are undertaken, and the community center pool is closed on a ruse after a pool pump has a minor short that the town fails to repair or replace. During his first year in office many respected town employees leave Surfside including its Police Chief, Town Engineer, Town Comptroller, Tourist Director, Public Works Director, and others, all of whom are replaced with "old friends" and campaign workers of Mayor Burkett. Burkett refuses to release his financial disclosure documents from court cases and his membership on City of Miami Beach boards and committees. Information surfaces that indicates he is really a resident of Miami Beach despite owning a house (one of his many, many properties in Florida) in Surfside. Mayor Burkett seeks to contract out services such as fire service, sanitation services, police services, and administrative services to the City of Miami Beach and private companies. His first year in office ends with a disastrous record of misfeasance, a vastly inflated town budget, and negative results for the community.