Illegal gambling flourishes in Cuba despite potential stiff punishment
Desde La Habana
Although the old stadium in Havana's Cerro neighborhood is almost empty
and rain is in the forecast, Oscar sits by left field and starts taking
"A few years ago, betting on baseball had more followers. But now
baseball is so depressing that people prefer to watch European-league
soccer. But there's always something that comes along," Oscar, whose
arms are covered in tattoos, says as he takes a $10 bet from a
Cuban laws punish illegal gambling with prison sentences that range from
three months to five years. But the prolonged economic crisis that has
lasted for 27 years has postponed the punishments.
"The police no longer interfere with gamblers," says Mauricio, owner of
a burle, an illegal gambling house. "[For the police to interfere] it
has to be an operation in search of some criminal who goes to
clandestine gambling houses. But if they get you, they give you a 60
pesos fine (around $3), confiscate your money and release you without
even opening a case."
The burles, the term used in Cuban slang for gambling houses, sprout
like flowers on the island. There are different types of burles. Some
are authentic dens set up in cuarterías [crowded apartment complexes] in
urban areas where people gamble a handful of pesos playing cards or
rolling the dice. But there are also comfortable residences where people
who have money go.
"In my burle, in order to sit down to gamble, you have to put 5,000
Cuban pesos or 200 Cuban convertible pesos (about $200) on the table. We
also accept dollars, euros, Swiss francs or British pounds," says David,
the owner of an illegal gambling house in Old Havana.
According to Mauricio, the preferred games are "three with three, a
Creole variation of poker; the longana, which is played with dominoes;
baccarat and Cee-lo, which came from the West and is played with dice."
Mauricio says that Cee-lo and other card games "originated in the
prisons, where the prisoners, instead of betting with money, bet with
brown sugar, powdered milk or pornographic magazines."
In some burles, they also hold cock fights, one of the oldest traditions
in rural Cuba that also involve a lot of money. After 1959, cock
fighting was prohibited, but now they're tolerated everywhere on the island.
Other variants of illegal gambling include dog fights and clandestine
boxing. But the star of Cuban gambling is the bolita, a local version of
Hundreds of thousands of people play it, from people with bulging
pockets to pensioners who earn nothing. For every peso bet, the bank
pays between 80 or 90 pesos to a winning number, or up to a 1,000 for a
combination of numbers. The numbers range from one to 100, and every
number has one or more meanings. The results come from the lottery in
Miami, and there are two rounds of bets.
The frenzy for soccer also has generated clubs that make discreet bets.
In the absence of a betting community, people take notes for the weekend
matches in the European leagues.
"There are those who gamble $5, but there are also bets of $500 and
more. It depends on the importance of the match. In the Madrid-Barcelona
match, there's money flying around. People even bet even on what player
will score," says Roman, who takes soccer bets.
The advent of new technologies have brought other forms of gambling.
"There are groups, especially of young people, who gamble in illegal
video-game networks and make big bets. Some people also have five or six
computers with video-games and rent them at $1 an hour," says Ángel, who
has set up an illegal business of video-games.
The owners of the burles earn 10 percent of the bets in every game.
Films of car races, like Fast and Furious, sparked car and motorcycle
racing on Cuban roads. People race old American cars built in Detroit 70
years ago, and some upgraded cars from the Soviet era. In the rural
areas, people also race horse carts.
"In the car races, bets can be up to $3,000 or $4,000. They always
choose the best stretch of the road. And every police patrol car is paid
$20 to ensure security for the area," says an organizer of car races.
Gambling is an old passion in Cuba.
Before the Revolution, the average Cuban played the lottery and the
bolita, and used to bet on cock fights, baseball games, or a match of
A wealthy class used to attend the casinos in Havana to play roulette,
cards or roll the dice, or they went to the racetrack to bet on horses.
After Fidel Castro came down from the Sierra Maestra and took power,
gambling was prohibited. Some supporters used baseball bats and meat
cleavers to destroy slot machines and roulette tables in the casinos.
Source: Illegal gambling flourishes in Cuba despite potential stiff
punishment | In Cuba Today -