Iván García, 26 September 2016 — Although the bleachers of the old stadium in Cerro are deserted, the overcast sky promises rain and the poor quality of the baseball game between Industriales and Sancti Spiritus invites a siesta, a chubby mulato with arms tattooed in Chinese writing — let’s call him Óscar — sits on the left side in the bleachers to place bets.
“Some years before, betting on baseball had more followers. But present-day baseball is so depressing that people prefer to see a European-league football [soccer] match. But there’s always something that comes along,” he says, agreeing to a bet of 10 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) with a gray-haired man who smokes a mentholated cigarette.
There are various types of bets, explains Óscar. “There are bets that cover you, which are when you see you can lose, and then you opt for what we call rapid bets. An example: Ten pesos that some player is out or that the pitch is a strike. It’s really a booby trap, since in baseball there are more outs than hits or men on base, and the pitchers have to throw more strikes than balls.”
Bets or gambling where money flows is an old passion in Cuba. In the Republican era, the average Cuban played the lottery and the bolita or charada.* And he bet on cock fights, baseball games, or a match of billiards or dominoes.
A sector of the wealthy class went to the casinos and the grand Havana hotels to play roulette, dice or cards, or they went to the Hippodrome, to bet on the best horses. After Fidel Castro came down from the Sierra Maestra and took power, betting was prohibited.
Opportunistic soldiers and diehard supporters of the bearded revolutionaries wrecked the billiard tables, slot machines and roulette tables in the casinos with baseball bats and meat cleavers.
The delusional aim of the Castro brothers and the Argentine, Che Guevara, to construct a laboratory man who would work for free without pay, obey the Regime and hate Yankee imperialism, would happen, among other things, by prohibiting betting.
Cuban laws punish, with prison sentences that range from three months to five years, those who facilitate or manage illegal casinos, lotteries or make bets.
But the prolonged economic crisis that has lasted for 27 years has postponed alienating social experiments and their corresponding punishments.
“Now the police don’t interfere with the betters or the fanatics who gamble for money. It has to be an operation in search of some criminal who goes to clandestine gambling houses. But when they get you, they give you a fine of 60 Cuban pesos (around three dollars); they confiscate the money and release you without opening a file,” says Mauricio, owner of a burle, an illegal gambling house in popular slang.
The burles sprout like flowers in Cuba. There are various classes. The authentic dens are set up in grimy quarters where poor people, pickpockets and rogues gamble a handful of pesos at cards or by throwing dice. But there are also comfortable residences where people go who have money from stealing in tourist centers or prostituting themselves with foreigners.
“In my burle, in order to sit down to gamble, you have to put 5,000 Cuban pesos or 200 Cuban convertible pesos on the table. We also accept dollars, euros, Swiss francs or pounds sterling,” indicates David, the owner of a clandestine casino in the old part of Havana.
According to Mauricio, the preferred games are “three with three, a Creole variation of poker, the longana, which is played with domino tiles, baccarat and Cee-lo, which came from the Orient and is played with dice.” And he says that Cee-lo as well as diverse variants of card games “surged in the prisons, where the prisoners, instead of betting with money, bet with sugar cubes, powdered milk or pornographic magazines.”
In some burles, they also hold cock fights, one of the oldest traditions in rural Cuba. After 1959, pens for fighting cocks were prohibited, but now they’re tolerated on the whole Island and involve a lot of money.
The furor for soccer has generated clubs that make discreet bets. In the absence of a betting game, Román notes in a school notebook the bets for the weekend matches in the European leagues.
“There are those who gamble 5 CUC. But there are bets of 500 CUC and more. It depends on the importance of the match. In the Madrid-Barcelona match, a lot of bills were flying around. People bet until someone gets a goal,” emphasizes Román.
New technologies have incentivized other forms of bets. “There are groups, above all of young people, who gamble in clandestine video-game networks and place big bets. It also pays to have five or six computers with video-games and rent them at one cuc an hour,” explains Ángel, who has set up an illegal business of video-games.
The owners of the burles earn 10 percent of the bets in every game. Films of car races, like The Fast and The Furious, brought to the destroyed Cuban roads the competition of cars and motorcycles for money.
There are no Ferraris, Toyotas or Lamborghinis in Cuba. The races are run, in general, with old U.S. autos, fabricated in the workshops of Detroit 70 years ago, and upgraded cars from the Soviet era. In the rural areas, they organize races of “spiders” or horse carts.
“In the car races, bets can go up to three or four thousand Cuban convertibles. They always choose the best stretch of the road. And every police patrol car is paid 20 CUC to ensure security for the area,” says an organizer of these races.
Other variants of prohibited games are dog fights and clandestine boxing. But the star game of betting in Cuba is the bolita, a local variant of the lottery.
Hundreds of thousands of people play it. From guys with bulging pockets to pensioners who earn nothing. For every peso bet, the bank pays between 80 or 90 pesos at a fixed number. Twenty-five pesos invested and 900 or 1,000 pesos in a trifecta or a combination of two numbers. You bet from one to 100, and every number has one or more meanings. The results come from the lottery in Miami, and there are two rounds of bets.
Any Cuban who hasn’t tried his luck in the bolita, raise your hand.
Hispanost, September 8, 2016.
*Translator’s note: *”Little Ball” was a type of lottery which involved 100 small, numbered balls. The charada assigned names of animals to the numbers. This created a superstitious method for betting, often basing a choice on a dream or an animal seen during the day. The horse was number 1; this is why Fidel Castro was often referred to as el caballo.
Translated by Regina Anavy