Walking through the streets of Havana —amid all the slang, street language and jargon used— you’ll hear numbers being whispered out around you: “8,” “42,” or “16 came up, damn!” One person might say, “I played my phone number,” while someone else could comment openly that: “I dreamed about a dog and I played that number, but what came up was a Chihuahua. I blew it.”
Quite a few people have always been involved in the numbers. In Cuba it survives despite everything. It’s both concealed and open at the same time, as a level of permissive complicity serves to expand it.
The gambling shows itself every day as people attempt to “take a shot to see if something comes up.” They hope for luck, feeling a combination of obsession and thrill, each trying to hit the jackpot.
Making money is one reason it hasn’t ceased to exist, but it has continued to move around changing its form over the years; it’s become a needed psychological companion – though “a few extra pesos never do any harm either.”
Some on the outside of all this convince themselves that those people who play are only those on the social fringe, those in the shadows of poverty and alcoholism.
The prohibition on “playing for money” hasn’t eliminated the numbers. It has only established a legal term, one which those who are implicated in it fear little, because there are plenty of ways to work the game.
Among Cubans, playing numbers is like a religion: a mixture of turbulence and relief. And like that belief system, superstition is important. When playing the numbers, people go around believing: “I know I’ll win; last night I dreamed about a scorpion,” or they’ll say, “I’m gonna play my son’s birthday” (either his age or the day).
Just like any place else, here people get involved in gambling, cards, animal fights, betting on baseball or dominos. But they’ll also bet on the number of the next license plate or the badge number of the police who’ll ask you for your ID when you’re coming from home from work this evening.
In some only a few participate, in others… large numbers of people.