Pushing Your Luck in Cuba & Impact of Telesur
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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