Bolita in Havana

Twice a day, six days a week during its 6:00 a.m. and midnight newscasts, Radio Martí broadcasts the current winning Florida Lottery numbers, each slowly repeated three times. Radio Martí is the federally funded shortwave station (also heard on some AM frequencies) mandated by Congress to transmit balanced and objective news and information specifically to the people of Cuba. (The United States government is actually prohibited by law from broadcasting to its own residents.)

So what reason would there be for an official instrument of U.S. foreign policy to transmit the results of the Florida Lottery to someplace outside the state, much less the national borders? The only possible answer, as far as thousands of Cubans are concerned, is to aid them in committing a certain "crime against the state," also known and loved as la bolita, the intricate and absorbing Cuban lottery. Florida Lottery numbers are conveniently transformed into winning combinations in bolita. The game has been illegal on the island for more than 40 years, along with every other form of gambling, ever since Fidel Castro's revolutionaries kicked out the mafiosos, hookers, and other degenerates harbored by Fulgencio Batista's corrupt regime. But bolita, named after the little numbered balls chosen at random in lotteries, is more than gambling. It's a social order, a mathematical challenge, even a form of self-expression. And especially since the economy bottomed out in the Nineties, many Cubans credit bolita with simply helping them survive.

Nevertheless the U.S. government is using tax money (Radio Martí's annual budget is around $15 million) to aid and abet criminal activity in a foreign country. Joe O'Connell, spokesman for the International Broadcasting Board, the Washington, D.C. agency that oversees Radio and TV Martí operations, says Radio Martí began passing along Florida Lottery results "at the listeners' request. Our program [analysts] tell me focus groups [of Cubans recently arrived in the U.S.] talk about the Florida Lottery being very popular," O'Connell advises. He has not confirmed whether the Martí managers were aware the numbers would be used in bolita.

Nor do they weigh on the minds of Havana boliteros such as Carlos, a retired laborer living in the stifling southeast Havana neighborhood of Párraga. Carlos, who doesn't want his real name published, has worked for more than twenty years as a listero -- one of the low-level workers who take bets and compile the long coded lists of who has wagered how much on which numbers. Neither he nor the others in his network really care where they get the winning bolita numbers, as long as they get them reliably each day (Sunday everyone rests), and as long as they're all working with the same numbers.

In recent years, as Cubans increasingly are able to procure satellite dishes on the black market, banned Spanish-language television broadcasts from Miami have become Havana's first choice for timely verification of lottery results. Several of the higher-ups in Carlos's organization enjoy the luxury of switching between the Channel 23 (Univision) and Channel 51 (Telemundo) offerings of trashy telenovelas, tit-shaking talk shows, and one-sided local news as well as the nightly presentations of the winning Florida Lottery combinations. Without some illegal satellite hookup, TV in Cuba consists of only two state-operated channels.

"Poor people like me who can't afford a satellite dish have to get the numbers from Radio Martí," explains Carlos, a grinning, silver-haired man in wire-rim glasses, baggy shorts, and a faded blue T-shirt that hangs like a curtain from his bony shoulders. He's holding forth at a small, square table placed just outside the entrance to his bathroom-sized kitchen, where his redheaded daughter-in-law is boiling yuca.

In the center of the table, which tips crazily with the slightest weight placed at any point, is a tattered Punch cigar box. Carlos is making his lists on two pages of a notebook with a well-traced sheet of carbon paper between them. Every ten minutes or so someone appears at his front door or outside the kitchen window. He motions them inside, where they hand him money and make sure he gets the bet correctly; there are many variations that can be played, each with its own odds and sometimes limits on the amount of the bet. The ten-peso note or the one-peso coins go in the cigar box. Carlos painstakingly notes down the numbers with a blue ballpoint pen. Later he'll circle winning bets with red ink and write the amount of the payoff in black. "I have a lot of good customers," he says between visits. "Sometimes one or two will come to me without anything and they'll ask for credit. I don't mind helping them out. It's good business."

And it's his life; Carlos is sure he never would have survived retirement, five years ago, without bolita. The extra income, of course, has become indispensable -- even as a lowly listero Carlos earns around 500 pesos per week, about $20 (more than the standard monthly wage in Cuba) -- but he loves the ritual and creativity of the game almost more than the money. Cuban bolita gives every number different names and meanings, making up a whole metaphysical vocabulary that can translate a dream or an incident into a bet. The number one, for example, represents caballo, horse. One also means Fidel Castro, who is referred to as el caballo. Another number for Castro is 22, sapo, or frog ("Because he's always leaping into the middle of everyone's business," explains one bolita player). Eight is death. Therefore, if someone, say it's Fidel, dies, everyone in Cuba (and plenty in Miami) might play 1, 8, and 22, or some version. Actually, if such an event occurred, the banqueros (bankers) -- the organization heads and repositories of all money bet and won -- would have to limit the amounts that could be bet on those numbers or eliminate betting on the numbers entirely.