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Pushing Your Luck in Cuba & Impact of Telesur

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  • Cort Greene
    http://hereishavana.com/2013/05/04/pushing-your-luck-in-cuba/ MAY 4, 2013 · 8:43 AM Pushing Your Luck in
    Message 1 of 1 , May 4, 2013

      MAY 4, 2013 � 8:43 AM
      Pushing Your Luck in

      The querida phenomenon; why locals love iron bars and pure-bred dogs; and
      the story behind those ridiculous �dos: Here is Havana is your go-to
      resource for the inside scoop on all sorts of Cuban cultural minutiae.

      This place is so intriguing and complex, I�m constantly heeding Mom�s
      advice to �learn something new every day.� If you�ve been here, you know
      this perpetual learning curve of which I speak, surely. Or maybe you live
      somewhere/somehow that, like Cuba, allows � indeed forces � you to learn
      something new every day. If so, I salute you.

      What�s holding my fascination and providing �ah ha!� moments lately is the
      long-standing, deeply-rooted Cuban tradition known as La Bolita.

      From Ciego�s pi�a-studded *campo* to the listing wooden houses of Regla,
      Cubans are playing the numbers. Like an underground Powerball, La Bolita is
      technically illegal but in practice allowed to function (not unlike other
      things here including the world�s oldest profession; two houses sharing one
      phone line; and foreigners buying property). Not only does it function, La
      Bolita flourishes as a twice-daily gambling habit nursed across the country.

      I was quite surprised to discover how many people I know play La Bolita �
      work colleagues, neighborhood doctors, Harley dudes, government guys,
      grannies, ballet dancers. So diverse are the Cubans playing the numbers, I
      think it may be one of the most genuinely and naturally integrated and
      equitable systems in contemporary Cuba. La Bolita leaps across class, race,
      gender, and geographical lines and though I haven�t made a point of asking,
      I�m sure my LGBT friends are also placing their daily bets (see note 1). In
      short: La Bolita doesn�t discriminate.

      First a little background: Most HIH readers know that until *los
      barbudos* rolled
      into Havana in 1959, Cuba was a viper�s nest of dissolution � rotten with
      drugs, prostitutes, gin joints, and gambling (no wonder Hemingway called it
      home!). In those days, fun seekers and ne�er-do-wells from the US used to
      hop down to use the island like college kids do Canc�n and the ghetto: a
      place to score, get sloppy and slum, before returning to safe, cushy lives
      back home.

      The Revolution put an end to all that (mostly, technically, anyway) and
      gambling was especially targeted and vilified. Big, lucrative casinos in
      nightclubs like the Tropicana and Sans Souci and hotels including the
      Riviera and Capri were shut down, along with smaller enterprises in the
      back alleys of Barrio Chino and out in Boyeros. La Bolita, however, was a
      national pastime, a traditional pursuit and while publically and officially
      banned, has survived all these years. The daily numbers, for those
      wondering, are drawn in Miami and Caracas, if my sources are correct (see
      note 2).

      From why folks emigrate to how Cubans (mis)behave at all-inclusive resorts,
      I find all aspects of culture intriguing here. But La Bolita captures my
      fascination beyond what may be rational. To wit: I recently placed my first
      bet. I thought this was just a question of picking a series of numbers from
      the 100 in play and laying down my money � la the NY Lotto. Silly me. This
      is some really complicated shit and I needed a tutorial from my friend Aldo
      to place my bet correctly.

      Here�s what I learned:

      Numbers range from 1 to 100. Nothing complicated there. But each number
      corresponds to a symbol � think Mexican *loter�a*. The symbols are key and
      transcend simple number-figure association, however. For instance, Cubans
      often play numbers appearing in dreams: if you�re chased by a Doberman
      while dreaming, you should play 95 (big dog), if it�s a Dachshund, 15
      (little dog) is more appropriate. Beware dreams of 63 leading to 8, because
      that will land you in 78 and finally 14 (murder, death, casket, cemetery).
      Scary. When this happens, do you play these numbers, just in case?

      Folks also bet numbers they see in their daydreams � I�m sure you know
      someone who hopes to get a 100 or some 38 (car, money) or a Cubana who has
      already made their dreams come true through a 62 (marriage) to a foreigner.

      The numbers and their corresponding symbols have also passed into common
      vernacular. Fidel is called the *caballo* (1) for obvious reasons and for
      those who doubt my claim that Cuban Spanish can stump even fluent, native
      speakers, what would you do if your taxi driver said you owe a fish and a
      nun? Would you hand over $5? $20? $50? You�d be ripping either yourself or
      him off if you did (see note 3).

      My life (like everyone�s if we choose to pay attention) is riddled with
      symbols and I had no problem knowing what numbers I would play. In fact, I
      determined not to let this year go by without playing La Bolita as soon as
      I learned 43 (my age) stands for scorpion (my sign). What could be more

      But how to play? I knew I�d have Aldo place the bet because I didn�t want
      to show my foreigner face at any of the neighborhood �*bancos*� � Cuban for
      Bolita bookie � lest I make them nervous; it is illegal after all. So I�d
      play 43 and if I needed to pick a bonus number, I figured I�d go with 52 in
      honor of my beloved Frances.

      Were it that easy.

      As it turns out, there are all kinds of variations you can play, including
      the �parl�� (a type of trifecta); a fixed number with additional jackpot
      numbers; and other combinations which still confuse me. There�s also a
      specific way to note your numbers on a piece of paper that needs to be
      folded a special way when you place your bet. The minimum bet is 1 *peso
      cubano* (about 4 cents) but most people wager more; payoffs can be huge �
      Aldo recently hit for 700 pesos and another friend�s uncle once won 5,000.
      Of course, he�d bet much more over the course of his lifetime, but that�s
      the gambler�s carrot and curse, no?

      *En fin*: like many things Cuban, I�m sure La Bolita is played differently
      in different latitudes (see note 4) � including in South Florida where it
      thrives. What I relate here is simply how it went down in my corner of
      Cuba. I ended up playing scorpion-San Lazaro-machete (43-17-94) in keeping
      with various symbolic occurrences lately. Alas, my 37 (*brujer�a*) proved
      powerless: I lost my 25 pesos.

      Oh well, there�s always tomorrow for learning something new (and placing
      another bet).


      1. Let me take this opportunity to wave the rainbow flag: every May, Cuba
      celebrates the �jornada de anti-homofobia� � known as IDAHOBIT globally �
      and it�s one helluva good time. This year�s festivities kick off May 7 and
      run through May 18 in Havana and this year�s host province, Ciego de �vila.

      2. Over several years of writing this blog, it has become clear that Here
      is Havana readers are hip, informed, and sit upon a wealth of knowledge; if
      anyone has light to shed on the *mec�nica* or history of La Bolita, please

      3. A nun is 5 and a fish is 10; your taxi ride cost $15.

      4. While researching this post in fact, a friend of mine and closet
      bet-placer, told me about La Charada (traditionally *la charada china*).
      This predates La Bolita, which takes its first 36 numbers
      (horse/*caballo* through
      pipe/*cachimba*) from the older chinese tradition. This numbers game dates
      from the 1800s when Chinese workers arrived on these shores. According to
      one source, in 1957, Cubans wagered between $90 and 100 million on La
      Charada, la Bolita and other numbers� games.


      The Impact of Telesur and Cuba�s Media CrisisMay 2, 2013 | | 81

      Fernando Ravsberg* <http://cartasdesdecuba.com/>
      [image: Cubans watching Telesur. Photo: Raquel

      Cubans watching Telesur. Photo: Raquel Perez

      HAVANA TIMES � �At last I get to see what Capriles looks like and hear what
      he thinks,� a 65-year-old Cuban friend says to me. News reports aired by
      the station*Telesur *, now broadcast on Cuban television, continue to be a
      topic of conversation among Cubans, surprising many and raising questions
      in others.

      Alarmed, the wife of a mechanic tells me of an interview televised by the
      station, in which a Venezuelan woman declared she didn�t want her country
      ending up like Cuba, that she didn�t sympathize with communism and that all
      Cuban physicians in the country ought to be expelled.

      Following 50 years of a biased, grim, monotonous and clumsy way of handling
      information, the arrival of the new television channel awoke so much
      interest among television audiences in Cuba that many stopped watching the
      local news altogether, until *Telesur *coverage stopped being aired during
      Cuban news hours.

      To make matters worse, Cubans know that *Telesur *is unequivocally
      left-wing and pro-Chavez and that it sympathizes with the Cuban Revolution,
      such that it could never be accused of being an �imperialist� broadcaster.
      Nor could its brand of journalism be dismissed as �bourgeois�.

      What makes *Telesur *different for Cubans is that, while the Cuban news
      program recalls a movie with �good guys and bad guys� (where the �bad guys�
      aren�t allowed to share their opinions, lest they �confuse the people�),
      the Latin American broadcaster shows the gray areas inherent to the issues.

      These subtleties make people think. For example, following the coverage of
      the Venezuelan elections, many in Cuba are asking themselves: �why are
      political candidates on the island not allowed to campaign, to present
      their platform and explain what they intend to do if they are elected?

      Watching Nicolas Maduro tour Venezuela and make campaign promises creates
      something of a short-circuit in Cuba�s official political discourse, which
      condemns electoral campaigns as �politicking� and only allows Cuban
      candidates to post a brief personal biography.

      Curiously, a very close friend of mine tells me that *Telesur *news reports
      and documentaries exposed him to the extreme levels of poverty and violence
      that persist across Latin America. He tells me that he hadn�t �imagined the
      situation was so serious.�
      [image: ravs2] <http://www.havanatimes.org/?attachment_id=92375>

      Telesur has had an enormous impact in Cuba. Foto: Raquel P�rez

      When I remind him that this is constantly repeated on Cuban television, he
      laughs and replies: �that�s just bunk (political propaganda), a bunch of
      Cuban journalists talking amongst themselves about how evil capitalism is.
      In Telesur, you see how people actually live.�

      By the looks of it, the �friendly fire� from this regional broadcaster has
      sparked off an internal media credibility crisis that Radio and TV Marti,
      stations used by the U.S. government against Cuba, have always dreamed of
      but never attained.

      Cuba�s national media had already lost the confidence of many Cubans and
      run the risk of alienating the most left-leaning of the lot as well, which
      can now see the two sides of the coin in programs �above all ideological

      *Telesur *could well constitute the sign presaging the restructuring of the
      political mechanisms which have been used to keep the Cuban press under the
      strictest control for over 4 decades, mechanisms which are primarily
      responsible for the creation of Cuba�s severely deficient media.

      And there are other telling symptoms: the blog *La Joven Cuba *(Young
      Cuba), recently censored for its critical stances, has just published an
      interview with Cuban Minister for Culture Fernando Rojas, who declared that
      blogs are the embryo of �the alternative press we need.�

      The official admitted that Cuba does not have a truly socialist press today
      and sent out a clear message to the blog�s readership: �I ask young
      bloggers to continue to do what they�re doing. I hope you can become
      revolutionaries on your own, not because any one of us tells you to.�

      Since the interview, a photograph showing the bloggers from *La Joven
      Cuba *next
      to Cuban Vice-President Miguel Diaz Canel, standing in front of official
      portraits of Fidel and Raul Castro, has been circulating around the
      Internet, a sign that the government is distancing itself publicly from the
      ideological censors.

      The gesture is in keeping with the personality of Diaz Canel, who showed an
      open mind, pragmatism and flexibility when he was Villa Clara�s provincial
      leader. These qualities could prove extremely useful in bringing a new way
      of thinking to the Communist Party�s Ideological Secretariat.

      Cubans know the type of press produced under the vigilance of the country�s
      �protectors of the ideological faith� only too well. Attempting to bring
      about a different kind of journalism, for which critical thought ceases to
      be a heresy and submission a virtue, would well be worth the effort.
      *(*) An authorized HT translation of the original posted in Spanish by BBC
      Mundo <http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/mundo/cartas_desde_cuba/>.*

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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