Disappeared in Havana – The Brooklyn Rail
Havana’s Cabaret Las Vegas is one of the most eccentric nightclubs in the world: a seedy state-owned bar that a decade ago was officially named Cuba’s first gay nightclub ( to my knowledge, this is the only gay bar in the world opened by military decree). Inside, government workers in socialist uniforms speak apathetically to an audience that includes: drag queens dressed in gold lamé dresses, chubby Miami Cubans wearing heavy gold chains, hustlers who just arrived from the countryside, middle-class queens bumping into her for the night, aging Italians looking for a Latin Tadzio, and even the odd American tourist who seems to have gotten the wrong cabaret.
In the years since Obama’s trip to Havana and the reopening of the US Embassy in 2015, Las Vegas has made appearances in several novels about the city’s nightlife by American authors and English. In all of these cases, Las Vegas is portrayed as one of the darkest cabarets in town, with its nightly drag shows and pauper’s dance numbers.
Despite its humble appearance and nondescript facade, Las Vegas has an illustrious literary and cultural history dating back to the years before the Revolution. At Guillermo Cabrera Infante Three trapped tigers (1966) – the best novel about Cuba of the 1950s – the club appears like a dive where the protagonists drink themselves to oblivion while listening to La Estrella – a black singer inspired by the real Freddy – sing boleros.
Cabaret Las Vegas opened in the 1950s, when Havana was teeming with cabarets, casinos, and American tourists. Gangsters like Santo Trafficante and Meyer Lansky lived the city life and made millions through gambling. El Tropicana and the Hotel Nacional were filled with Americans, but Las Vegas, from the start, was a space for indifferent Cubans. to pomp.
But who created this most unusual cabaret? In Three trapped tigersCabrera Infante mentions that one night the police descended on Las Vegas, arrested the owner – identified in the novel as Lalo Vegas – and charged him with drug trafficking.
The novelist got his name slightly wrong, but the story of the arrest holds up. The real name of the owner was César Vega Pelegrino. The cabaret was just one of the many adventures, crazy projects and mad projects he dreamed up in what seems like a very long life.
Vega was born on April 15, 1925 in Santiago, Cuba’s second largest city, to a wealthy family. In his late teens, he moved to the capital to attend the University of Havana, where he befriended Fidel Castro, who was enrolled in law school.
They both opposed dictatorships in Latin America – there were many of them at the time – and in 1947, when Vega was 22, they joined a few hundred Cuban adventurers on an ill-fated military expedition to the Dominican Republic. intended to bring down dictator Rafael Trujillo. Castro and Vega escaped unscathed.
After Fulgencio Batista took power in 1952, Castro and Vega worked to bring down the dictator through violent means. In 1953 Castro launched a failed attack on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago and spent the following years in prison and then in Mexican exile, before returning to the island in 1957 to lead the guerrilla movement in the Sierra Maestra. At the same time, Vega shuttled between Miami and Havana until in 1958 he was arrested in the Florida Keys, along with 29 other young Cubans about to set sail on a boat loaded with automatic weapons in what was to be a coup against Batista. . A federal grand jury charged the group with “conspiracy to undertake a military expedition against a foreign state with which the United States was at peace.” Vega has been identified as the gang leader. Around the same time, he took part in another failed expedition to conquer Cayo Sal, an island in the Bahamas long disputed by Cuba. This obsession with the islands earned him the nickname Kid Cayo.
Amid these plots, Vega opened Cabaret Las Vegas on Calle Infanta. Vega’s social circle comprised three distinct groups: freedom fighters like Castro; socialites from Vedado and Miramar; and American gangsters who controlled most of the city’s nightlife. These three groups have never mixed, except at Cabaret Las Vegas. Castro was a notorious puritan who stayed away from drinking, dancing and sex for most of his life, but if he ever set foot in a cabaret in Havana, it would be in Las Vegas of his friend Cesar.
On January 1, 1959, Castro’s guerrillas marched on Havana. Batista had fled the island the previous night. The new government closed casinos and cabarets but, after workers protested the loss of their livelihoods, Castro ordered owners, including Vega, to reopen them.
Although Las Vegas had reopened, Vega seemed more interested in continuing his groundbreaking business. In November 1959, he led another groundbreaking maritime expedition, this time to Panama. The incident provokes a diplomatic crisis: the United States and nineteen Latin American countries offer their assistance to Panama to put down the rebellion.
This latest adventure seems to have caused a rift between Castro and Vega, who left Cuba in the early 1960s. He was sighted in Costa Rica and Puerto Rico, but eventually settled in Miami. I couldn’t find any trace of him since the early sixties, except for a few census records that listed his various addresses in Miami.
While writing this article, I came across an online presentation of Michelle Ayala, Vega’s granddaughter, sketching some scenes from her post-Cuban life. Apparently Vega got married in Puerto Rico in the sixties before moving to Miami where he started his own church. He had six children with four different women and was arrested sixteen times in his life. I couldn’t find an obituary for him, so he might still be alive: if he is, he’d be ninety-seven. I was last in Havana in March 2022. Las Vegas is still going strong, with drag shows three times a week.