Tag Archives: Cuban Revolution

Pushing Your Luck in Cuba

The querida phenomenon; why locals love iron bars and pure-bred dogs; and the story behind those ridiculous ‘dos: Here is Havana is your go-to resource for the inside scoop on all sorts of Cuban cultural minutiae.

This place is so intriguing and complex, I’m constantly heeding Mom’s advice to ‘learn something new every day.’ If you’ve been here, you know this perpetual learning curve of which I speak, surely. Or maybe you live somewhere/somehow that, like Cuba, allows – indeed forces – you to learn something new every day. If so, I salute you.

What’s holding my fascination and providing ‘ah ha!’ moments lately is the long-standing, deeply-rooted Cuban tradition known as La Bolita.

From Ciego’s piña-studded campo to the listing wooden houses of Regla, Cubans are playing the numbers. Like an underground Powerball, La Bolita is technically illegal but in practice allowed to function (not unlike other things here including the world’s oldest profession; two houses sharing one phone line; and foreigners buying property). Not only does it function, La Bolita flourishes as a twice-daily gambling habit nursed across the country.

I was quite surprised to discover how many people I know play La Bolita – work colleagues, neighborhood doctors, Harley dudes, government guys, grannies, ballet dancers. So diverse are the Cubans playing the numbers, I think it may be one of the most genuinely and naturally integrated and equitable systems in contemporary Cuba. La Bolita leaps across class, race, gender, and geographical lines and though I haven’t made a point of asking, I’m sure my LGBT friends are also placing their daily bets (see note 1). In short: La Bolita doesn’t discriminate.

First a little background: Most HIH readers know that until los barbudos rolled into Havana in 1959, Cuba was a viper’s nest of dissolution – rotten with drugs, prostitutes, gin joints, and gambling (no wonder Hemingway called it home!). In those days, fun seekers and ne’er-do-wells from the US used to hop down to use the island like college kids do Cancún and the ghetto: a place to score, get sloppy and slum, before returning to safe, cushy lives back home.

The Revolution put an end to all that (mostly, technically, anyway) and gambling was especially targeted and vilified. Big, lucrative casinos in nightclubs like the Tropicana and Sans Souci and hotels including the Riviera and Capri were shut down, along with smaller enterprises in the back alleys of Barrio Chino and out in Boyeros. La Bolita, however, was a national pastime, a traditional pursuit and while publically and officially banned, has survived all these years. The daily numbers, for those wondering, are drawn in Miami and Caracas, if my sources are correct (see note 2).

From why folks emigrate to how Cubans (mis)behave at all-inclusive resorts, I find all aspects of culture intriguing here. But La Bolita captures my fascination beyond what may be rational. To wit: I recently placed my first bet. I thought this was just a question of picking a series of numbers from the 100 in play and laying down my money á la the NY Lotto. Silly me. This is some really complicated shit and I needed a tutorial from my friend Aldo to place my bet correctly.

>Here’s what I learned:

Numbers range from 1 to 100. Nothing complicated there. But each number corresponds to a symbol – think Mexican lotería.
loteria mexicana
The symbols are key and transcend simple number-figure association, however. For instance, Cubans often play numbers appearing in dreams: if you’re chased by a Doberman while dreaming, you should play 95 (big dog), if it’s a Dachshund, 15 (little dog) is more appropriate. Beware dreams of 63 leading to 8, because that will land you in 78 and finally 14 (murder, death, casket, cemetery). Scary. When this happens, do you play these numbers, just in case?

Folks also bet numbers they see in their daydreams – I’m sure you know someone who hopes to get a 100 or some 38 (car, money) or a Cubana who has already made their dreams come true through a 62 (marriage) to a foreigner.

The numbers and their corresponding symbols have also passed into common vernacular. Fidel is called the caballo (1) for obvious reasons and for those who doubt my claim that Cuban Spanish can stump even fluent, native speakers, what would you do if your taxi driver said you owe a fish and a nun? Would you hand over $5? $20? $50? You’d be ripping either yourself or him off if you did (see note 3).

My life (like everyone’s if we choose to pay attention) is riddled with symbols and I had no problem knowing what numbers I would play. In fact, I determined not to let this year go by without playing La Bolita as soon as I learned 43 (my age) stands for scorpion (my sign). What could be more propitious?

But how to play? I knew I’d have Aldo place the bet because I didn’t want to show my foreigner face at any of the neighborhood ‘bancos’ – Cuban for Bolita bookie – lest I make them  nervous; it is illegal after all. So I’d play 43 and if I needed to pick a bonus number, I figured I’d go with 52 in honor of my beloved Frances.

Were it that easy.

As it turns out, there are all kinds of variations you can play, including the ‘parlé’ (a type of trifecta); a fixed number with additional jackpot numbers; and other combinations which still confuse me. There’s also a specific way to note your numbers on a piece of paper that needs to be folded a special way when you place your bet. The minimum bet is 1 peso cubano (about 4 cents)  but most people wager more; payoffs can be huge – Aldo recently hit for 700 pesos and another friend’s uncle once won 5,000. Of course, he’d bet much more over the course of his lifetime, but that’s the gambler’s carrot and curse, no?

En fin: like many things Cuban, I’m sure La Bolita is played differently in different latitudes (see note 4) – including in South Florida where it thrives. What I relate here is simply how it went down in my corner of Cuba. I ended up playing scorpion-San Lazaro-machete (43-17-94) in keeping with various symbolic occurrences lately. Alas, my 37 (brujería) proved powerless: I lost my 25 pesos.

Oh well, there’s always tomorrow for learning something new (and placing another bet).


1. Let me take this opportunity to wave the rainbow flag: every May, Cuba celebrates the ‘jornada de anti-homofobia’ known as IDAHOBIT globally – and it’s one helluva good time. This year’s festivities kick off May 7 and run through May 18 in Havana and this year’s host province, Ciego de Ávila.

2. Over several years of writing this blog, it has become clear that Here is Havana readers are hip, informed, and sit upon a wealth of knowledge; if anyone has light to shed on the mecánica or history of La Bolita, please share!

3. A nun is 5 and a fish is 10; your taxi ride cost $15.

4. While researching this post in fact, a friend of mine and closet bet-placer, told me about La Charada (traditionally la charada china). This predates La Bolita, which takes its first 36 numbers (horse/caballo through pipe/cachimba) from the older chinese tradition. This numbers game dates from the 1800s when Chinese workers arrived on these shores. According to one source, in 1957, Cubans wagered between $90 and 100 million on La Charada, la Bolita and other numbers’ games.


Filed under Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad

A Cuban Snapshot (or Three)…

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The Cuban psyche is shaped, some might say warped, by four fundamental factors:

1. We’re on a slab of land you can drive across in 15 hours. Water hems us in. As on every island, there’s an intrinsic self-reliance tempered by that nagging question: what’s beyond all that blue, blue sea?

2. Revolution, capital R. Almost 50 years of it. Dignity, self-esteem, solidarity with the downtrodden, and kick ass culture are part of the post-1959 Cuban DNA at this point.

3. Blockade, capital B (for Bully, Bollocks, Botched, Bogus, Besieged).

4. Sex.

Some days, like yesterday, I do think it’s twisted, this Cuban psyche. What with all the melodrama. Then there are other days when it’s refreshing (the psyche, not the drama-rama), revelatory, and yes, downright revolutionary goddamn it.

When the small island that’s hard to get off doesn’t drive you stir crazy with the eternal question: what’s beyond all the water?, it unifies. Its simple state of island-ness, combining the tenacity of the underdog with the confounding irony of needing to be, but never becoming, self-sufficient puts us all in the same boat so to speak.

From Malta to Manhattan, name an island and you’ve got a co-dependent.

Even so, exactly how can an island, any island, become self-sufficient when it’s totally blockaded (ironically, that other fundamentally unifying element)? It’s sick and expensive the lengths the USA goes to screw Cuba. I won’t go into it here; you’ve got Google. But I’m quite sure history will judge – sooner rather than later – the US embargo policy as just that: sick, expensive, and cruel. Not to mention failed.

But back to right now.

The Revolution. It’s more grayed than frayed, as some might have you believe. Still, the former can be just as dangerous. Maybe more so. Frayed can be mended; gray just withers and dies.

Then there’s Fidel.

He was so influential for so long. His mere presence inspired, as anyone who has met him will attest. He was game changer personified. I don’t think he’s much different in reclusion: whatever his state of health, he still stirs hearts, minds, (and ire), influences events, and provokes thought (and fights).

How did I get off on Fidel? See how it’s always about him? Certainly the foreign press seems to think so, if their Enquirer-esque pursuit of anyone with the Castro last name is any measure.

But I was talking about the Revolution after all and what the Revolution is, essentially, is a compact between him and the Cuban people to create a more dignified life for as many as possible. And honestly, I think when it all shakes out, Cuba has done that as well, if not better, than any other country in the world. (Don’t agree? Live here for seven years, then we’ll talk.)

Not to say mistakes weren’t made and shit didn’t happen. Mistakes are still made and the excrement still hits the cooling element: making ends meet is a nightmare for some, a pipe dream for others. And those that have ‘resolved’ their ends to meet are probably making serious sacrifices and compromises to do so. They may even have to break a few laws or bend a rule or three hundred to get the job done. But from Calle Ocho to Callejón de Hamel, when you need a job done, call a Cuban.

Then there’s Havana’s decrepit splendor or splendid decay, depending how you look at it. No matter how you look at it, though, it’s here. High above clothes drying on the line a turret crumbles, the toilet overflows at the breathtaking Gran Teatro, and another dozen families are evacuated from a seaside building threatening collapse.

But it’s improving. Slowly, very slowly, but surely, Havana’s being reinforced and restored. I can imagine a day when every grand palace and collonade is all spruced up capitalistic-Home Depot style with luxurious landscaping and hot interior design.

When that day comes, no doubt Havana will look swell. But the traffic, not to mention the nostalgia, will be hell.


Filed under Americans in cuba, Fidel Castro, Uncategorized