22

In the 1959 film version of Our Man in Havana, the streets of Havana are littered in signs with 4- and 5-digit numbers on them.

Here's an example:

Alec Guinness and Burl Ives talking at a bar in Our Man in Havana

Notice the "00260", "19072", and "42857" left of center, "33004" and "23584" in center-frame, and a "200?" at the right edge of the frame.

The signs are assembled in tall stacks on telephone poles, the sides of buildings, people carry them and even wear them.

What are they? Is it an accurate depiction of pre-revolution Cuba? If so, what were they for? Is it there as a foil to the numeric codenames?

  • 3
    I think you mean pre-revolution Cuba. – Stefan Jun 17 at 4:45
  • I didn't know there was a film, and it's one of my favourite short stories. Is it worth a watch and does it stay true to the book? – Aaron F Jun 17 at 12:37
  • @Stefan You're right -- I do mean pre-revolution! – Tom Jun 17 at 15:46
  • 3
    @AaronF It's a good movie. I never read the book, so can't comment on the adaptation. – Tom Jun 17 at 15:47
24

These are lottery numbers.

The location above is, as per Graham Greene's novel:

“…the square at the top of Lamparilla Street… swallowed up among the pimps and lottery sellers of the Havana noon.”

Unlike modern lotteries which are computerised (and often allow multiple 'winners' through duplication), the Cuban lottery took a form where sellers would buy specific numbers, and then re-sell them. Obviously, certain combinations were supposedly more valuable than others, particularly if they were a buyers lucky number. Furthermore, vendors would try and convince buyers that their numbers were lucky, by whatever means possible.

Green considered the lottery a blight on Cuba, and as per the extract below from his journals, considered the lottery to be profiteering from desperate superstition;

While the story was emerging I set about curing a little of my ignorance. I made Cuban friends, I took a car and traveled with a driver around the country. He was a superstitious man and my education began on the first day, when he ran over and killed a chicken. It was then he initiated me into the symbols of the lottery — we had killed a chicken, we must buy such and such a number. This was the substitute for hope in hopeless Cuba.

  • 5
    So are the signs advertising particular lottery numbers that are for sale (presumably by someone sat under/near the sign in question), or are the signs trying to make certain numbers seem more attractive by "raising the public's consciousness" of them? – TripeHound Jun 17 at 11:21

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