Dim the lights of the Las Vegas Strip for … Fidel Castro? By John L. Smith November 29, 2016 at 8:59 am His name never graced a Strip marquee or splashed along a major thoroughfare, but former Cuban President Fidel Castro had a substantial impact on Las Vegas. Castro, who led a Marxist revolution that descended from theSierra Maestra Mountains and survived in the shadow of the mighty United States for more than half a century, died Friday at age 90. He challenged presidents and maintained control of his people through decades of economic isolation. He also played a key role in the story of American gambling and Las Vegas — not that I’m expecting the Strip’s casino bosses to dim the lights of their resorts in his honor any time soon. It’s too bad, really. Castro ranks with crime-busting U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver and a few others as unlikely positive influences on the evolution of Las Vegas. In fact, Castro and Kefauver, each in their own way, applied political pressure that forced changes in America’s shadowy legalized casino business. Kefauver’s rackets committee hearings in the early 1950s caused a national stir and generated a forced migration of casino operators and underlings from Eastern cities to sunny Las Vegas. On Dec. 31, 1958, Castro’s revolutionaries drove corrupt President Fulgencio Batista from power and turned Cuba’s mobbed-up casino bosses on their heads. Organized crime powerhouses such as Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, Santos Trafficante, and Vincent Alo had operated in a wide-open atmosphere for years by paying a substantial percentage of profits to Batista. By the dawn of 1959, the Malecon was a mess. The Hotel Nacional and Hotel Habana Riviera were dark. The Tropicana and Trafficante’s San Souci were out of business. Although he was supposedly divested from Cuban casinos by 1958, Las Vegas gambling giant Moe Dalitz also tasted the Havana action — and redoubled his focus on the Strip. The racket bosses had been in Cuba since the days of Prohibition, when they used the island as a source of rum. When Castro’s revolution gave them the bum’s rush, the were forced to rethink some of their investments. And from a legal standpoint, Nevada casino gambling became the only game in town. Like Kefauver’s crusade at the start of the decade, Castro’s rise in the late 1950s drove a generation of skilled casino mechanics and operators from Havana to Las Vegas. A wave of Cuban immigrants who were experienced on the gaming floor and in the showroom made their way to the Strip. Card and dice pros who’d cruised down to Havana from Eastern cities hoofed it to Las Vegas and started fresh. From the casino pit to the showroom, Las Vegas benefited from the great Cuban defection. The DeCastro Sisters and bandleading mambo master Pupi Campo gave the neon a whole new rhythm. A Latin version of the Andrews Sisters, the DeCastros were the daughters of a supremely-connected sugar plantation owner, Juan Fernandez DeCastro, who histories of the era report lost his mansion to Castro’s revolution. Away from the glare of neon, the Cuban migration paid other dividends for the Southern Nevada community as it grew and became more diverse. Las Vegas is among the top cities for Cuban-Americans living outside Florida. Members of the community continue to make important contributions to business and politics. By routing Batista’s forces and surviving American attempts at counterrevolution and regime change, Castro guaranteed the gambling operators who’d enjoyed the run of the House in Havana would never be welcome as long as he was alive. Will that change now that he’s gone? It’s hard to say, but it’s undeniable that what was bad for Batista and confounding to U.S. foreign policy was certainly good for Las Vegas. Farewell, Fidel. We owe you one. John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas journalist and author. Contact him at email@example.com, or on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.