A Stroke of Luck / Iván García

It was a lucky day for Ernesto. After 10:00 last night, a neighbor told him that the number he had bet 250 pesos (10 dollars) on had come out first in the local (illegal) lottery.

He won 24,000 pesos (1,000 dollars). The money arrived just when he needed it most. His daughter, Yenima, was turning 15. And his mother, bedridden, suffering from terminal cancer, was waiting to die.

Ernesto is a self-employed craftsman, mediocre and unlucky. Every day, he spends 12 hours trying to sell a collection of leather shoes with gaudy decoration. It wasn’t going well. He barely earned enough money to feed his four children and buy milk and juice for his sick mother.

He had a bag of debts with the worst sort of troublemakers. He had pawned the few valuable jewels of his family, a Chinese Panda television, a refrigerator from when Russia was communist, and some silverware that came from his grandmother.

The way to win a few thousand dollars and stay afloat was by venturing to bet every day on the illegal lottery known as the bolita. In Cuba, gambling is prohibited.

But for years, the police have looked the other way when it comes to gambling. The bolita or lottery is the hope of the poor. In Cuba there are illegal banks, which move large amounts of Cuban pesos. Arnoldo, 59, is one of them. He has always lived off the lottery.

After 20 years in business, he is considered a guy who is solvent. He has a couple of comfortable houses and two 1950s American cars, which are gems. He has more than enough money and influence. He almost always get what he wants.

He is used to slipping a fat packet of money under the to one or another difficult policeman. On any day, Arnoldo earns 3 thousand pesos (125 dollars). Every day, more than 600 people are betting money in his bank.

Ernesto is among them. The night when he learned he had been favored by luck, he borrowed 100 convertible pesos and went to the corner bar. He bought three cases of Bucanero beer and six bottles of aged Caney rum.

He invited all his friends to drink with him. In the morning he paid his debts. He bought beef and powdered milk for his mother. He gave 300 convertible pesos to his wife for the quinceañera party for his daughter. He went with the kids to have dinner at a paladar, and with the rest of the money he bought glasses, towels and sheets that were so badly needed at home.

Two days after winning the award he was penniless. But without debt. He still had problems to solve. The stroke of luck in the lottery was only temporary relief.

Translated by Regina Anavy

January 16 2011