Missing in Havana
Havana’s Cabaret Las Vegas is one of the most eccentric nightclubs in the world: a dingy, state-owned bar that, about a decade ago, was officially designated Cuba’s first gay nightclub (to my knowledge, it is the only gay bar in the world that was opened by military decree). Inside, government employees donning socialist uniforms tend, apathetically, to an audience that includes: done-up drag-queens in gold lamé dresses, chubby Miami Cubans wearing heavy gold chains, male hustlers just arrived from the countryside, middle-class queens roughing it for the night, aging Italians in search of a Latin Tadzio, and even the odd American tourist who appears to have walked into the wrong cabaret.
In the years since Obama traveled to Havana and re-opened the US Embassy in 2015, Las Vegas has made cameo appearances in several novels about the city’s nightlife written by American and English authors. In all of these, Las Vegas is represented as one of the city’s dingiest cabarets, with its nightly drag shows and poor man’s dance numbers.
Despite its humble appearance and nondescript façade, Las Vegas has an illustrious literary and cultural history dating back to the years before the Revolution. In Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers (1966)—the best novel about 1950s Cuba—the club appears as a dive where the protagonists drink themselves to oblivion as they listen to La Estrella—a black singer modeled on the real-life Freddy—sing boleros.
Cabaret Las Vegas opened in the 1950s, when Havana was teeming with cabarets, casinos, and American tourists. Mobsters like Santo Trafficante and Meyer Lansky were living the city life and making millions from gambling. El Tropicana and the Hotel Nacional were packed with Americans, but Las Vegas, from the beginning, was a space for Cubans indifferent to glitz.
But who created this most unusual cabaret? In Three Trapped Tigers, Cabrera 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 the name slightly wrong, but the story about the arrest holds up. The owner’s real name was César Vega Pelegrino. The cabaret was only one of the many adventures, wild projects, and mad schemes he came up with during what appears to be 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 at the time —and in 1947, when Vega was 22, they joined a few hundred Cuban adventurers in an ill-fated military expedition to the Dominican Republic meant to bring down dictator Rafael Trujillo. Castro and Vega escaped unharmed.
After Fulgencio Batista seized power in 1952, Castro and Vega worked to bring down the dictator by violent means. In 1953, Castro launched a failed attack against the Moncada military barracks in Santiago and spent the following years in prison and later in Mexican exile, before returning to the island in 1957 to lead the guerilla movement in the Sierra Maestra. During 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 on the verge of setting 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 “conspiring to undertake a military expedition against a foreign state with whom the US was at peace.” Vega was identified as the gang-leader. Around the same time, he participated in another failed expedition to conquer Cayo Sal, an isle in the Bahamas long disputed by Cuba. This obsession with islands won him the nickname Kid Cayo.
Sometime in the midst of these plots, Vega opened Cabaret Las Vegas on Calle Infanta. Vega’s social circle included three very distinct groups: freedom fighters like Castro; socialites from Vedado and Miramar; and American mobsters who controlled most of the city’s nightlife. These three groups never mixed, except at Cabaret Las Vegas. Castro was a notorious puritan who stayed away from drink, dance, and sex for most of his life, but if he ever set foot in a cabaret in Havana, it would have been at his friend César’s Las Vegas.
On January 1, 1959, Castro’s guerillas marched into Havana. Batista had fled the island the night before. The new government closed casinos and cabarets but, after the workers protested the loss of their livelihood, Castro ordered owners—including Vega—to reopen them.
Though Las Vegas reopened, Vega seemed more interested in pursuing his revolutionary activities. In November 1959, he led another revolutionary maritime expedition, this time to Panama. The incident provoked a diplomatic crisis: the United States and nineteen Latin American countries offered aid to Panama to put down the rebellion.
This last adventure seems to have provoked a rift between Castro and Vega, who left Cuba in the early 1960s. There were sightings of him in Costa Rica and Puerto Rico, but he eventually settled in Miami. I have found no traces of him since the early sixties, except for a few census records which listed his various addresses in Miami.
As I was writing this piece, I came across an online presentation by Michelle Ayala, Vega’s granddaughter, sketching a few scenes of his post-Cuban life. Apparently, Vega married in Puerto Rico in the sixties before moving to Miami where he founded his own church. He had six children with four different women and was arrested sixteen times over the course of his lifetime. I have not found an obituary for him, so he could still be alive: if he is, he would be ninety-seven years old. I was last in Havana in March 2022. Las Vegas is still going strong, offering drag shows three times a week.