The Cuban Lottery: Luck and Other People’s Money

(The names and details of those involved have been changed to protect their identity.)

The business that has been set up around la bolita in Cuba – a lottery draw which, next to cock fights, is the most popular illegal game on the island – has a defined and stable structure that allows it to operate efficiently.

Two draws are made every day: one at 2:15 pm and the other 8:15 pm. The information is published on the Internet, accessed through illegal cable connections or obtained at short-wave radio stations. The people we interviewed use the results of the Miami lottery.

To convert the lottery results to the numbers selected in Cuba, the first number of the results “up north” is eliminated. The following two numbers are considered set numbers, and the consecutive pairs of numbers as the secondary numbers.

For instance, if the results were 423 57 80, the 23 would be considered the set number, while 57 and 80 would be considered secondary numbers. The combination of set and secondary numbers (23-57 and 23-80) is known in Cuba as the parle. Though prices vary across different neighborhoods, they tend to have similar values. Secondary numbers are paid at 20 and 30 pesos for each peso bet, fixed numbers earn you between 75 and 100 to one, and parle combinations between 900 and 1,000 to one.

The real impetus and popularity of the game depends on the people behind the curtains, who either make or lose money, depending on their position in the system. At the lowest rung, a veritable army of bet-takers canvas entire neighborhoods in search of betters, or, as in the case of Osvaldo – a bet-taker from the neighborhood of La Lisa who’s been in the business for 15 years – players visit a known location to make their bets.

They are followed, in hierarchical order, by collectors, who show up at the bet-taker’s home twice a day, once for each draw. There, they pick up the money and bets to take them to the “banker” an hour before the draw. Since it is not advisable to involve many people in this, some bet-takers act also as collectors, but only a select few deal directly with the banker, the key and most protected figure in the whole mechanism. Many bet-takers never get to meet the banker.

The person who’s hired Osvaldo – let’s call him Mr. X – has been in the business of la bolita since the 1990s. The heads of these businesses tend to have been involved in them for decades. The distrustfulness they always seem to exude is not paranoia or whim: in addition to the authorities, bankers must steer clear of criminals who are after their money and the competitors who want to ruin them.

Only those closest to the boss – almost always relatives – ever make it to the “top.” Some are tasked with organizing the information brought by collectors, which consists in putting all of the bets that must be addressed on a single sheet of paper. This is a critical moment for the banker, because it is completed after the lottery numbers have been announced. If someone betrays him and makes up a bet after the fact, he will have no way of knowing and will be forced to pay up – which is why he never keeps his eyes off this process.

The mysterious banker was Osvaldo’s godfather. A friend of his father, who died during a military mission in Africa, he took care of him since adolescence. In addition to their family ties, Osvaldo was the star bet-taker in the area, which is why he gets other benefits in addition to the money due him. He turns in an average of 2,000 pesos a day, of which he is entitled to 20% – the general norm, according to different people. Bankers compete for the best bet-takers, which is why Mr. X incentivizes his godson with extra money and prizes for certain lottery draws.

Many people envy and long to have Osvaldo’s job. Enemies are everywhere. Other bet-takers have begun to slander him to steal betters from him. They have spread the rumor around the neighborhood that he did not announce the bank’s latest rise in the amount for parle combinations (to 1,000 pesos) and that he continues to pay the previous 900 pesos. They also say that he keeps paying 75 and 25 pesos for the set and secondary numbers, when these have been bumped up to 100 and 30 pesos, that people ought to stop making bets with him and do it with them. Osvaldo claims this is false, alleging that, that same month they’re referring to, the new rates were going to be agreed on.

Suddenly, a vivacious young man with a 100-peso bill comes along. “Yesterday, I dreamt, and saw and had the certainty that I’m gonna walk away with all that shit,” he says. “Put 20 pesos on 98, set, and 20 on 71, and another 20 on 69. Put 20 on each parle.”

Osvaldo gives the young man his ticket. Then, he organizes the list and the money to deliver to the banker. As is customary, he selects the numbers he won’t report to pocket the earnings. When he gets to the bet made by the inspired young man, he hesitates. Heavy bets are always dangerous. If any of the secondary numbers comes up, they have to pay him 600 pesos. If 98 comes up, it’ll be 2,000. The parle doesn’t worry him, it’s nearly impossible to get. Osvaldo calculates that, if all goes wrong, he has the money to cover the bet. He’ll take it from the money he’s been saving for his daughter’s sweet 15 party.

At 2:10 in the afternoon, as always, he turns on the TV and turns to Channel 3, where he gets the illegal cable signal. He puts on his glasses and sharpens his pencil on a corner of the paper. Twice a day, his pulse begins to race and he experiences the thrill he enjoys so much. He enjoys it as much as watching a baseball game.

Five minutes later the numbers of the Florida Lottery flash on the screen: 598 56 71.  For Osvaldo, the suspense turned into a tragedy.

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Cuban “Bolita” lottery numbers. Photo: Marita Perez.

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