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.

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."

And compared with U.S.-style bolita, Cuba's is tame. Police in Miami-Dade County believe several murders over the past twenty years were bolita-related, though they've never proved a connection. And there were the notorious mid-Eighties firebombings in New York. More than 60 people died in this war between the Italian and Cuban mafias over control of bolita in New York, New Jersey, and Florida. The firebombings (more than 120) and accompanying murders triggered presidential and congressional investigations and brought into public view "the Bolita King," José Miguel Battle.

The Cuban vice detective-turned-Bay of Pigs veteran was said by police and federal witnesses to control lucrative bolita operations in New York, New Jersey, Tampa, and Miami. The South Florida Business Journal named Battle in 1986 as one of the 21 richest South Floridians, with a net worth of $200 million. Police always suspected he was responsible for more than 30 murders. But they never nailed him on more than passport fraud and firearms possession. In 1999 Battle was released from federal prison after doing a little more than two years.

While the Italians and Cubans continue to share in the bolita action up north, Florida is Cuban territory, according to Miami-Dade Police Det. David Shanks, who has been investigating bolita operations for fifteen years. Battle is in poor health and has retired from his "corporation," as many call it, but a relative still controls the huge $100 million-per-year tax-free bolita business in South Florida. Police say a small ring of Cuban immigrants with an estimated 1000-2000 employees and subcontractors throughout South Florida rake in the cash. Within the past decade law enforcement officials have arrested a chosen few low-level workers (penalties for misdemeanor gambling in South Florida usually doesn't exceed small fines and probation) in order to get to the bigger bolita fish. A half-dozen of them have gone to prison on federal money laundering and gambling racketeering charges.

"In Miami especially there are a lot of independent operators," Shanks says. "But somewhere along the line, we've found, even the independent operations are linked up to the top of the corporation. We've now had a generational shift: The fathers used to control it, now the sons do."

Back in Párraga, Carlos vows to migrate to Miami as soon as he can get a visa to visit his daughter, who lives in Hialeah. The classic ploy -- he'll neglect to return home, the visa will expire, and in a matter of months, since he's Cuban, he'll have his permanent U.S. residency. Like hundreds of Cubans his age, Carlos will probably continue to play bolita once in Miami, he speculates, because he can't imagine a day without the calculations, the gossip with friends and clients, the order and security of being part of a well-run organization, and the cash, of course. And he'll probably need the money here more than even in Cuba, where no matter how bad the economy gets he still enjoys subsidized rent, basic medical and dental care, and neighbors who have always protected and helped him.

As a senior citizen in the U.S., he may find health care, medicine, and transportation problematic, but he will certainly have no trouble playing bolita, maybe even getting a job as a listero. One Hialeah beat cop says he notices people placing bets "right before my eyes. At every coin laundry. It's a way of life," the officer goes on. "I'd never make an arrest for it. These people live for that!"

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Kathy Glasgow
Contact: Kathy Glasgow