Trying One’s Luck in Cuba

Rosa Martínez

A scene from Havana’s Chinatown. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — Ana is 27 years old. She is a typical mulatto woman with big brown eyes, long curly hair, a penetrating gaze, very white teeth and a broad smile. From looking at her, one would say this young Cuban woman has a whole life ahead of her, that the world could be at her feet. She, however, does not see it that way: she’s lost the will to live and has tried to commit suicide twice. Fortunately, she has not been successful, but, right now, she is institutionalized at a psychiatric hospital, under medical supervision and the constant care of her relatives, who are worried sick about her.

Ana traveled abroad about two years ago, thanks to an Italian she met while visiting Santiago de Cuba. Next to him, she travelled across the Iberian Peninsula and made her dreams of traveling outside Cuba a reality. But, after a series of mix-ups and misunderstandings, she was back home, ill, not physically but emotionally.

Tito is a neighbor of my parent’s. He is the same age as them, but very different as a person. Tito comes from a humble family and inherited the dream all poor people have: to improve their financial lot and get out of poverty. To achieve this, he didn’t follow in the footsteps of his parents (who worked the land), but opened up his own business: buying and re-selling farm products, houses and plots of land. Luck seemed to accompany him everywhere until he pushed it away. Today, penniless and unable to invest in anything, he is desperate and doesn’t know what to do.

Albertico is a typical 10-year-old, neither smarter nor less clever than other kids his age. With the street-smarts characteristic of today’s children, he dreams of owning a laptop. Since his parents don’t have any relatives living abroad who could bring him one, or the money to buy one, he has no other recourse than to pray his dad will make good money somehow and give him the gift he longs for.

Ismael is one of my cousins, a member of my extended family, one of the eldest and most fortunate. Fortunate, not because he made it to university and became an engineer, or because he has two beautiful and intelligent children (though these are things anyone would be envious of). For us, Ismael is fortunate because he was able to travel abroad and, with the money earned there, purchased a home and a number of domestic appliances that are beyond the reach of the average Cuban, particularly a professional. My cousin’s run of good luck, like that of many a poor person, didn’t last long. In less than a year, he lost everything he had bought after making so many sacrifices working abroad.

Maria is a 28-year-old neighbor of mine who has devoted the last ten years to increasing Cuba’s birth rate. During this time, she had five children. I am sure the country is grateful to her for her important contribution to a population that will soon be among the most aged in the planet, but what no one can be grateful for is that she should bring children into this world to suffer. That is precisely what her children are subjected to, because their mother sells the food she gets with her ration booklet, and other products the Cuban State gives her free of charge, to improve the quality of life of her children.

“You bastard, damn good-for-nothing! I don’t know why you were even born, you’re a plague! My God, how long do I have to put up with this?” Thus began Isabel’s morning after getting the news most Cubans wait for every day. The news wasn’t good this time. She continued to curse at her 13-year-old son, until her eyes began to redden and swell. Then came the tears. Little by little, she began to lose strength and curled up in a corner, hating the whole world – and herself most of all.

Lisvan, her son, hates everything and everyone having to do with that which made her mother go completely crazy and turned her into that beast that only figures can control.

Readers have probably been asking themselves how these stories, which appear unrelated at first sight, are connected.

They may even be thinking that these people and their families have suffered the consequences of drug abuse, and that this is the main cause of their problems – but that is not the case.

What I can tell you with absolute certainty is that many Cubans play the bolita (a type of lottery popular on the island) – from a primary school student who chooses a number for his parents to an officer in the military or police.

This lottery has existed in Cuba for as long as one can remember. Before Fidel Castro came to power, there were several casinos in Havana and, of course, a national lottery. Castro has been criticized for having taken many things away from Cuba, but, if there is something I’m happy about, is that he should have done away with the casinos that threatened to spread across the country.

Castro also did away with the national lottery, but he only achieved this at the legal leave. The lottery continued to operate illegally.

The lottery is the most popular chance game in the country (where cock-fighting is the only legal game of the kind). There are no official statistics, but it is believed that a very high percentage of the population plays the lottery (including regular players, people who take bets and bankers).

Bankers and people who take bets have no problems whatsoever. The former fill up their coffers with every new bet (though there have been cases of bankers who have gone bust). The latter don’t take such a big cut but live better than the rest of the population, earning 10 CUC or more a day.

I believe everyone should be free to do what they please with their money, and to try their luck as they wish – I assume this is something inherent to human beings, who have always sought to put themselves to the test in different ways. But Cubans should know the house never loses and those who play out of need are bound to lose, as a saying as old as the lottery goes.

3 thoughts on “Trying One’s Luck in Cuba

  • Lotteries are a tax on the mathematically ignorant. The odds of winning are so incredibly small as to be practically zero. The house always wins.

  • all it shows is Cubans want the same things as everyone else .. lots of americans play the lotto ..

  • These stories break my heart……

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