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Posted March 03, 2003 by publisher in Cuban Culture

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Chicago Tribune

(KRT) - That gambling is illegal in Cuba doesn’t stop thousands of people from playing the local numbers game.

It’s not called Powerball in Cuba, but bolita - little ball. And unlike in Mega Millions or Superlotto games in the United States, winners do not haul in millions of dollars.

Gambling in Cuba is small-time stuff. Most people pony up from a penny to a dollar in hope of taking home enough to buy a pound or two of meat, a new pair of shoes or something else usually out of reach in this impoverished country.

“I lose more than I win, but I live under the illusion that someday I’ll win a lot,” said a Havana grandmother who plays every day. “I could take care of some of my problems.”

In one of the twists of Cuba’s complex relationship with the United States, the Cuban games use the lottery numbers broadcast nightly in Florida.

At the bottom of the Cuban games’ hierarchy are the legmen, known as apuntadores, who collect the bets. They answer to the banqueros, bankers who handle the money and payouts. A couple of dollars is a sizeable win. Anything more than $100 is the score of a lifetime.

Like many things in Cuba, the bolita is illegal but widespread, hush-hush but something everyone knows about. Despite periodic crackdowns, including one this month as part of a broader sweep against drugs and other illegal activities, the game’s popularity reflects the canyon-sized disparity between the Cuban government’s uncompromising rhetoric and the more complicated reality of life.

Cuba in 2003 is a place where almost anything can be had, where many rules can be broken, for the right price.

It’s illegal to buy and sell property in Cuba, but there is a thriving real estate market. It’s prohibido to serve lobster in private restaurants, but there are few top-notch eateries that don’t have it on the menu.

Gambling is a different story. It goes to the heart of the revolution.

One of the first things Cuban President Fidel Castro did after seizing power in 1959 was to shutter the mob-run casinos and later the state lottery. Angry Cubans chucked slot machines and gambling tables into the streets and then smashed them up with baseball bats and stones.

To Castro, gambling represents everything that was wrong with Cuba’s corrupt pre-revolutionary government. But his anti-gaming stance also reflects a puritanical streak among revolutionary leaders characterized by the ubiquitous calls for work and sacrifice.

Castro has stuck to his principles despite the fact that Cuba desperately needs to attract more tourists to keep its economy afloat.

“You won’t see any casinos here,” Castro said last month when he inaugurated the island’s largest resort. Instead, the Cuban president said he wanted tourists to enjoy “safe and sane recreation.”

Cubans say the underground lottery began spreading in the early 1990s with the country’s economic opening. Winning numbers were initially taken from the Venezuelan lottery until Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez reportedly cut the shortwave radio transmissions to the island several years ago as a favor to Castro.

Because of listener demand, Radio Marti, the U.S.-government funded shortwave station, stepped in and broadcast the Florida lottery numbers to the island. U.S. officials say that ended last month. Gambling organizations now reportedly pick up the winning numbers off pirated television broadcasts from Florida.

Like gamblers everywhere, many Cubans say they have their favorite numbers, each of which has a different name or meaning. The number 1, for example, represents a horse; the number 2 is a butterfly; the number 3 is a sailor, and the number 4 is a cat.

Some gamblers say they choose a series of numbers because of how they sound together. Others say they choose them through dreams, such as picking the number four if they recall dreaming about a cat. Others say the numbers are drawn from everyday conversations or events.

When Castro travels abroad, the number 45, one of the numbers that represents the president, is very popular. Gamblers celebrate Dec. 17, the day Cubans pay homage to San Lazaro, patron saint of the sick, by choosing 17.

The winning numbers are passed along by word of mouth in code. “Someone will say that their meal was good today,” explained a construction worker who has played the bolita for a decade. “That means the number 65 was picked because that is the number for food.”


2003, Chicago Tribune.

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