Europe
5:49 am
Sun December 18, 2011

'Accessible To All': Spain Puts Hope In Holiday Lottery

Originally published on Sun December 18, 2011 12:04 pm

Despite the cold and the rain, about 1,000 people stand in line outside a lottery kiosk in Spain. Pawn brokers walk up and down, offering cash for gold.

Among those in the long line is Bartolo Rivas. In this dismal economy, he says he doesn't have a job, but he does have the "help." The "help" is about $520 a month in unemployment, part of which he's spending on lottery tickets.

Christmas wouldn't be Christmas in Spain without El Gordo, but "The Fat One" isn't Santa Claus. It's the state lottery, the biggest of the year. Tickets sell for nearly $300, yet more than 95 percent of Spaniards buy them — or at least a share in one.

Spain has the eurozone's highest jobless rate, at more than 21 percent, and double that for 20-somethings like Rivas. But practically everyone scrounges up cash for El Gordo.

Behind Rivas in line is Jose Usaro, who drove all the way from Andalucia to buy tickets at this particular kiosk. In the past, it has sold winning tickets.

"This is a special tradition in my family. Every year I come here and buy three or four tickets, and I hope I have luck," he says.

So does everyone else you meet on the street. El Gordo ticket sales are up 15 percent this year.

"I have a ticket," says economist Javier Diaz-Gimenez of the IESE Business School. "It makes no sense. I'm an economist. I know that the chances that this is going to win is nothing."

Still, he'll tune in to the five-hour televised drawing this Thursday.

Traditionally, orphan children sing the winning numbers. People stay home from work and school to watch it. Diaz-Gimenez remembers doing this as a child.

"You see, there's a long-standing tradition. I guess that was the only way to riches, when we were a poor country, during Franco's times," he says. "Accessible to all. I mean, you put in a little bit of money. Maybe we're just dreamers."

Dreams will come true Thursday for more than 1 million ticket holders, who'll win prizes ranging from about $20 to $5 million. The Spanish government is also dreaming about El Gordo. In 2010, the lottery raised $3.5 billion — money Spain desperately needs now.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Spain also faces a year of austerity. Still, it's holiday time and Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without El Gordo, the Fat One. It's not Santa Claus - it's the big state lottery. Tickets go for nearly 300 euros, yet just about every Spaniard buys at least a share in one. So did reporter Lauren Frayer in Madrid and she sent us this report.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: It's cold and it's raining and yet there are about a thousand people in line outside this lottery kiosk. Pawnbrokers walk up and down offering cash for gold.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken)

FRAYER: It's a long wait, so I start chatting with the guy standing next to me, Bartolo Rivas. And as is the case these days, talk turns to the dismal economy. Do you have a job?

BARTOLO RIVAS: At the moment, no. Yeah, I have the help, the 400 euros.

FRAYER: That help is about $520 a month in unemployment, part of which he's spending on lottery tickets. Spain has the eurozone's highest jobless rate, at more than 21 percent, and double that for 20-somethings like Rivas. But practically everyone scrounges up cash for El Gordo. Behind us in line, Jose Usaro drove all the way from Andalucia to this particular kiosk. In the past, it sold winning tickets.

JOSE USARO: It's a special tradition my family. Every year, I come here and buy three or four tickets, and I hope I have luck.

FRAYER: Well, so does everyone else you meet here on the street. El Gordo ticket sales are up 15 percent this year. I asked an ivory tower economist to explain this, Javier Diaz-Gimenez, a professor at the IESE Business School.

JAVIER DIAZ-GIMENEZ: It makes no sense, by the way. But somewhere here, I just saw - but I have at ticket, you see. And it makes no sense. You know, I'm an economist. I know that the chances that this is going to win is nothing.

FRAYER: But he'll tune in to the five-hour televised drawing this Thursday. Traditionally, orphan children sing the winning numbers.

CHILDREN: (Singing in Spanish)

FRAYER: People stay home from work and school to watch it. Diaz-Gimenez, the economist, remembers doing this as a kid.

DIAZ-GIMENEZ: You see, there's a long-standing tradition. I guess that was the only way to riches when we were a poor country during Franco's times. Accessible to all. I mean, you put in a little bit of money. Maybe we're just dreamers.

FRAYER: Dreams will come true Thursday for more than a million ticket holders. They'll win prizes ranging from about $20 to $5 million. The Spanish government is also dreaming about El Gordo. Last year, the lottery brought in $3.5 billion, money Spain desperately needs now. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED BAND: (Singing) (unintelligible) Life is just a gamble, gamble if you want to win.

CORNISH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.