Bolita in Havana

"I always say this is a mafia, but a peaceful mafia."

Tight-knit bolita networks, as in any efficient criminal enterprise, stake out turf across Cuba; big cities such as Havana and Santiago are divvied up among many (no one knows the exact number) self-contained operations. This particular bolita organization in Párraga involves more than 100 people, each with his or her well-defined job description. It's possible that local state security officers have in fact figured out who's who in the group, but look the other way. The police as well as anyone know how hard it is to get by. In a society where access to U.S. dollars has become the great quality-of-life determinant, bolita, always played with Cuban pesos, is a long-ingrained daily ritual for the masses who don't have tourism jobs or relatives on the outside supplying foreign currency. At the same time, because it is an outlaw operation, bolita has made most of its top lieutenants rich, and not just by Cuban standards. Nevertheless the cost of pocketing a few hundred or few thousand extra pesos a month can be high: Those unfortunate enough to be arrested for participating in bolita, according to the players, go to prison for at least a year.

Until about five years ago boliteros in Havana usually took their winning numbers from the Venezuelan lottery via radio broadcasts. In Santiago de Cuba and the eastern provinces (where Radio Martí reception is said to be spottier) the numbers still come from Venezuela. But the story in Havana is that when Fidel-wannabe Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1998, he stopped the lottery broadcasts from the two main stations utilized in Cuba's capital, in solidarity with the revolution. That's when Radio Martí came to the rescue. The facts of this legend can't be confirmed, but it is true there were problems with the reception of the Venezuelan stations and even incidents of different sets of "winning" numbers being broadcast at different times of the day, a dreaded dilemma that usually results in cancellation of bets and many angry clients. Thus in Havana and western Cuba, everyone seems happier knowing they can rely on la yuma, Yankeeland, for uniformity and dependability.

By 8:00 every evening all the lists, including the three Carlos will eventually compile today, along with the money, have to be on the table at a meeting house, the location of which changes daily and is a secret to everyone who doesn't have to be there. It's the job of the empleado to pick up the lists from each of the listeros working for him (in Carlos's organization, eighteen or twenty). The empleado is the employee of the man with the money, the banquero. (In Santiago some jobs within the bolita hierarchy have different names than in Havana -- for example, delegados or recogedores in Santiago are generally equivalent to empleados -- but the banquero is always the same: a hidden figure who is the money and the brains behind each network. "I've known police officers [in Cuba] who were banqueros," observes an ex-banquero who now lives in Miami.)

The banquero keeps 70 percent of the organization's total daily proceeds but must pay out all prize money and is also expected to financially assist the family of any underling who is arrested. "Nine months ago they arrested a banker," Carlos remembers, "but he had all his money hidden."

The empleado for whom Carlos works comes by his house around 7:00. The empleado is friendly enough, but definitely in a hurry. His brown eyes are wide and watching. He's younger and skinnier than Carlos, wearing a cream-colored linen guayabera and sagging houndstooth-checked pants. He gracefully fishes a pack of Populares from his front pocket, expertly folds up the lists Carlos gives him, and slips them into the cigarette pack. The money -- what's left after Carlos has paid himself 30 percent of all he collected today -- the empleado stuffs into his pants. He has to pick up lists and money from all of his listeros and make it to the meeting house by 8:00. "I'll go to prison for two years if they catch me," he cautions with a valiant grimace.

"Once a lot of police arrived outside just as he was about to leave," Carlos recounts. "We were sure they'd come for him, so we had to think fast, and we ended up pushing him out of a window in back. It turned out the police were going to some other house for a completely different reason, and no one was in trouble."

At the agreed-upon meeting place, the empleados sit around a table and go over all of their lists, about 100 in all. This is where the winners are singled out and prize money calculated, as well as each empleado's cut. And where it's an easy matter to change or add all kinds of information to a list, hacer trampa, trick the bank out of money. Even though empleados are always carefully chosen and trusted friends and relatives, trampas are regularly made and most sooner or later discovered. (The ex-banker from Santiago affirms, "I had to guard my lists like my bride.")

The next morning at around 9:00 or 10:00 the empleado delivers the prize money (if there are any winners) to Carlos. Empleados are paid a salary by their banquero plus 10 percent of what's left over after the prize money is distributed. "There have been plenty of times a banquero has given prize money to a listero but the listero didn't pay [the winner]," Carlos intones. "Of course this will cause the listero to lose clients, probably drive him out of business. If an empleado tricks the banquero, it can cost him his life. It's rare -- in 43 years [since bolita was outlawed] I know of two men who have been killed around here for this. The banquero can also pay someone to beat up the guy but not kill him. That's more common. I've been there once when it happened. I always like to say this is a mafia, but a peaceful mafia."

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