HAVANA TIMES — It was 60 years this June since Elizabeth II was crowned Queen of England after her father, King George VI, died in February of 1952.
I was twelve years old at the time and was a high-school freshman at the Instituto de Segunda Enseñanza de Marianao – an institution that since the Revolution was named after Manolito Aguiar, a fellow student murdered by Batista’s police in December of 1958. By then I had already come to be interested in politics.
At home we read the moderately liberal newspaper El Mundo in the morning and the somewhat more left-wing Prensa Libre in the afternoon as well as the influential democratic left weekly magazine Bohemia.
Although our Cuban-Spanish neighbors subscribed to Diario de la Marina, it was not well looked up by my parents, Polish Jews suspicious of any ideological extremism, in this case of a right-wing kind, and with an anti-semitic history.
It was Bohemia, and especially its militant anti-Batista section En Cuba, that became the principal source of my early political education – many years before I read a book that was not a school textbook – after Batista’s military coup in March 10, 1952. This tragic event greatly accelerated my interest in Cuba’s politics and my involvement in student political life.
But the clearest memory I have of the death of the British king has nothing to do with politics and much to do with the gambling that went on in the island. I am not referring to casino gambling, which only involved tourists and rich Cubans, but to the gambling that was popular among regular people.
Every Saturday the national lottery held a drawing sponsored by the Renta de la Lotería, an agency of the Cuban Treasury Department established by the Cuban state especially for that purpose and that became a big source of government corruption.
The drawings were broadcast over the radio, with the orphan and abandoned children sheltered by the Casa de Beneficencia announcing the numerous prizes in a distinctive and unforgettable voice, tone and cadence typical of those events.
The fact that even the smallest fractions of the official lottery tickets were relatively expensive, stimulated the growth of an informal and illegal lottery that accepted bets as small as five cents.
These bets could be “stationary,” when exclusively placed on the first prize of the official lottery, or of the “running” kind when placed on any of the first three official prizes. Naturally, the “stationary” prizes paid more than the “running” ones.
This illegal lottery, called “la bolita,” was big business and had its own capitalists who interestingly were called bankers, some of whom got to be well known. But the bankers could not have existed without their numerous agents in the barrios (neighborhoods,) especially in the humblest ones, who were called “apuntadores” (equivalent of “numbers runners” in the United States.)
They were poor, even middle class people who did this to supplement their income. My parents, small business people whose obsessive dedication to work and saving could not have been any further removed from the gambling mentality, also participated in la bolita, not because they expected to win anything but because their small weekly bets –always on the same number – was a way of helping a poor neighborhood old lady who became an “apuntadora” in order to survive.
To play the bolita every week, people bet on a symbol, be it object, animal or person, often based on a dream or on an event of special political or personal significance. Each symbol had a numerical equivalent in the Chinese Cuban “charada” to which people resorted to obtain the numbers that corresponded to their preferred symbols: thus, number 1 meant horse, 2 butterfly, 3 sailor, 29 mouse, 32 pig, 33 Christ’s age, etc.
And that is precisely what created havoc with the death of the British king in February of 1952.
The number equivalent to the symbol “big dead person” was 64 (number 8 was equivalent to “small dead person”.) La bolita bankers immediately limited the winnings to be earned if number 64 won in the drawing of the following Saturday.
But 64 did win and the bankers lost a lot of money in spite of all the precautions that they took. I imagine that the bankers must have cursed the untimely death of the British king, although it is highly unlikely that the members of the House of Windsor ever knew that.
For their part, the “apuntadores” of Los Quemados, the old working and middle class neighborhood where I grew up in Marianao – which by that time had become “the city that moves forward” as per its popular mayor Francisco Orúe – (a.k.a. the little Corporal) – were not as affected.
As far as I know, the bankers did not reduce the apuntadores’ already meager commissions when the winning of the gamblers were limited; in fact, the apuntadores generally received tips from those who had won significant amounts of money in the game of bolita.
One never knows, but perhaps there are some people that are still alive in the island who won a lot of money on that occasion and who were reminded of that when the jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II was celebrated.
(*) Samuel Farber was born and raised in Cuba and has written numerous articles and books about the island. His last published book is Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959. A Critical Assessment (Haymarket Books, 2011).