Latin Lotteries


ANYWHERE south of the Rio Grande one peso will buy a chance at a fortune. A slim chance to be sure, yet one that possibly twenty-five million Latin Americans, from Mexico down to the tip of Chile, buy at least once weekly and generally twice on fiestas, saints’ days, and special occasions.

Anywhere from 60 to 75 per cent of the pesos will be redistributed as prizes. From 5 to 10 per cent will be utilized for handling the complicated big business of the lottery. What is left will be used for every kind of public welfare project.

Once divided, not all this money may be spent wisely, either by the lucky number holders or the welfare agencies. But that the division will be conducted by the most modern, ingenuity-proof methods Latins have been able to devise, designed to ensure absolute fairness, is certain. No Latin government — and lotteries, while usually national, are also state, municipal, and private — has lasted long, once a hint of scandal has crept into the lottery.

Argentina’s last civilian president, Ramon S. Castillo, was able to brush off ballot-stufTing charges, utility-franchise steals, rubber-rationing frauds, tax thefts, and other juicy dippings into the public strongbox. But when an attempt to fix the loteria drawings was discovered, the ensuing scandal pushed the war news off the front pages of Buenos Aires dailies. And, as much as anything else, it weakened public confidence in Castillo’s administration, so that the militarists had little difficulty ousting him.

In some Central American republics unscrupulous politicos have been known to sabotage their opponents by bruiting it about that with Señor So-and-so in office, not even the lottery would be sacred. The effect was generally all they desired.

Latin America demands an honest lottery. Latin Americans refuse to regard lotteries as gambling and consider them as stable, omnipresent, and aloof from man’s despoiling. In many Latin countries the Church has a direct stake in the lottery since only charities it sponsors receive a share of the portion allotted to public welfare. And most of the winnersare automatically assessed by the padre for at least a 15 per cent contribution from their winnings. Generally this is offered in the name of the winner’s patron saint, who presumably influenced the lottery in his behalf, and is regarded as an essential gesture of gratitude though the rest of the money may be drunk, eaten, or stowed under the mattress.

Both the clerical link and the lottery itself are part of Latin America’s Spanish tradition. Charles III established Mexico’s national lottery in 1770. Peru’s is even older. While bound by traditional forms, today’s lottery is as modern as any other business enterprise.

Brazil not only has special ever rising quota assignments for its provincial sales managers but employs the closely controlled national radio as a sales stimulator. Mexico’s district-by-district selling organization is so complete — and efficient — that it serves as a kind of Gallup Poll in a country where such polls are unknown. The findings are not made public, but special research is undertaken on a fee basis. Manufacturers and advertising agencies have discovered that lottery salesmen’s reports on potential markets for razor blades or hair tonics are unusually reliable. Radio listening habits and motion picture acceptance have also been checked, all of this in addition to the primary job of selling tickets.

Chile closely limits the number of private organizations which are licensed to conduct annual public drawings. The competition, authorities assert, kills business. For the same reason, Latin police go after the quinela, the numbers-game operator, far more energetically than Philadelphia, Boston, or Baltimore bluecoats.

Argentina’s Federal government conducted a long feud with the country’s fourteen state or provincial lotteries, barring them from the lucrative business of the Federal capital of Buenos Aires because of a dispute over the percentage of prize money. The provincial governments, licensed special dealers who occupied two solid blocks of shops in industrial Avellenada, just outside the city limits. There the highly colored strips of lottery tickets from every part of the country were window-displayed for those who crossed the city line every payday.

The Mexican government went even further in eliminating competing lotteries. It abolished state lotteries several years ago, and did not legalize even the less competitive races until recently.

Shops are the principal ticket distributors in most countries and possibly account for half the total sales. Street vendors are more common in some sections, especially in Mexico, Central America, Bolivia, and Ecuador, poorest of South America’s west coast republics. Ancient crones, the blind and deformed, and barefoot kids, whose persistence cannot be imagined until it has been experienced, hawk tickets day and night.

Mexico even has a paralyzed cripple who rides, papoose fashion, on a runner — his hands free to pick up the pesos and hand over the tickets. In Venezuela, sellers shout their numbers in the early dawn, the theory being that in the morning customers think they have dreamed of a certain number and will hustle out to buy it.

Each vendor claims to impart a special good luck premium at no extra charge, but the power does not extend to their own earnings, which are pitifully small. They buy their supply of tickets at a 5 to 15 per cent discount and peddle them at face value. Some are self-employed. Others work for syndicates which also operate chains of shops. In many countries returns are permitted up to a few hours before drawing time. Elsewhere, there is no refund on tickets once purchased, a practice that assures the government of its share for administration and welfare distribution regardless of the fluctuating last-minute customer resistance.

Neither social workers nor inquisitive newsmen have been able to determine what percentage of the average Latin family’s income goes into the lottery. Being ihe operators and the beneficiaries, Latin governments don’t welcome such research into national habits, despite the scientific ends to be served. There is no doubt, however, that many a poor family, which can hardly make ends meet, manages to put something aside for the weekly ticket though it may mean going without food.

Even Latins who don’t like to think about the amount of money thus employed have pointed out that, were there no lottery, the gambling impulse would find outlet somewhere. Under government supervision, they add, gambling is at least fair. The lottery is the only hope of economic security many have, and its sustaining value to the spirit is held to be as important to them as bread.

Social welfare organizations also confess they have no desire to upset the system, especially since they don’t know where they might get funds if the lottery were stopped.

In order to keep hope alive and sales steady, lotteries in every country emphasize smaller prizes in addition to the major attraction of the grand premio. At a typical special drawing in Mexico, for instance, 5700 prizes are distributed.

1,300,000 pesos, about $266,000 at current exchange, although variations between United States and Mexican cost and wage scales make it worth more. The lowest main prize is $32,000. Consolation prizes for all tickets ending in the same digit as the grand prize run into the hundreds.

Argentina’s Christmas gordo distributes 6,000,000 pesos, or about $1,500,000. This is larger than the so-called “mother lottery" in Madrid, for which many tickets are sold throughout Latin America. Although Argentina’s population is less than fourteen millions to Mexico’s twenty or Brazil’s forty-eight, income and living standards are higher and the amount spent on tickets is greater than in those countries. This fact refutes the contention of sociologists that the lottery is essentially a poor man’s sport.

But even in Argentina it is rare for an individual to hold an entire ticket on the extraordinary drawings. Since such tickets average 225 pesos — about $55 — a group of neighbors, an office staff, a department in a big plant., or a number of farmers will get together and take tenths or twentieths.

A good many who live in the capital cities usually more than can crowd into the always ornate lottery headquarters — watch the drawings, which are Friday morning or pre-holiday affairs in most places. In Mexico and Central America the drawings are made three evenings each week. Showmanship and considerable attention to demonstrating that there are no tricks up the sleeve mark the draw.

Mexico’s drawing is typical. Preparing the mechanical selectors and testing them thoroughly takes two hours of operations—all performed in full view of the never bored audience. Then a huge wire sphere, filled wilh thousands of tiny numbered balls, is spun. On the other side of the crowded stage is another ballfilled sphere. Each of these is marked with a prize figure. Niños cantores, singing boys, pick up the mechanically selected balls with long tongs designed to prevent any palming substitutions. They yell out the numbers and then post and lock them in a big frame.

Everybody checks everybody else — and where cases of collusion have been discovered, official connivance has always been proved and the most severe repercussions inevit a bly followed.

Only when holiday prizes are announced do Latin newspapers and the public pay any attention to the winners. Then stories of the kind which appear here at Irish Sweepstakes drawing lime are published. Lucky holders are depicted in the midst of a shoving. grinning crowd, often at the neighborhood hairdressing establishment or tobacco shop where the ticket was bought.

No record of the purchaser is kept by the ticket seller. The buyers either see their numbers in the extract printed in most papers after each drawing or run a practiced eye down the big billboard-size listings furiously peddled around to each licensed sales point after the drawings.

Since tickets are payable anywhere from six months to a year after the draw, winners can and frequently do remain hidden long enough to escape the inevitable horde of salesmen, agents, income tax collectors, and chiselers. Less than 5 per cent of the prizes are unclaimed when the time limit expires.

What happens to the share designated for public welfare is carefully documented. Mexico’s lottery turns the entire 20 per cent “profit,” which amounts to 17,000,000 pesos annually, over to the Ministry of Public Assistance. To this is added 12,000,000 pesos raised by direct taxation.

The 30,000,000 pesos is then doled out to state and municipal organizations which, as in the United Suites, must raise an equal amount locally. In Mexico City, thirtysix agencies — mothers’ homes, maternity anti children’s hospitals, clinics, and dormitories for the homeless — are supported by lottery funds.

In Argentina much of the profits from the Federal lottery returns go to the Sociedad de Benefieencia, a semi-public organization much patronized by estanciaowning dowagers, It works with the Church in maintaining a score of hospitals and home relief, medical, and nursing services.

Similar arrangements exist in other Latin republics; consequently, outright charity campaigns, community chest drives, and the like have a difficult time. When some special group needs funds, it usually puts on a lottery of its own. Homes, cars, and trips are offered in addition to handsome cash prizes. Rarely does the public fail to respond. Of course it is helping the cause — and besides, this might be the lucky time.