MADRID — They stand on street corners, recognizable by their white canes and the lottery tickets looped around their necks. In the 50 years since they started, they have become as much a national figure in Spain as bullfighters.
They are members of the National Organization of Blind Spaniards, formed during the Spanish Civil War to find jobs for the indigent blind.
In the last few years, the organization has become an economic powerhouse, fueled by revenues from the lottery tickets that its members sell in the streets.
It is more commonly known as ONCE, the acronym derived from its name in Spanish and, by coincidence, the Spanish word for "11." It was the brainchild of a group of blind civilians who found the Spaniards' passion for gambling a way to give jobs, training and dignity to the blind in the bitter winter of 1938.
But ONCE's skyrocketing fortunes over the last four years have surpassed even the most optimistic hopes of its pioneers.
"In the long run, the idea of the lottery was to provide funds to train the blind," said Francisco Gutierrez, 76, a founder and the organization's first national director. "We set up the lottery as an attempt to eliminate the factors that made it necessary."
But while ONCE has succeeded in educating Spain's blind and changed public stereotypes about them, it has by no means phased itself out of existence.
20% Hike Sought
The organization spent the equivalent of $4.5 million this fall on an advertising campaign aimed at increasing by 20% the $1.5 billion that the lottery earned in 1986. It offered a weekly grand prize of 100 million pesetas ($880,000) in addition to the daily prizes of up to $80,000 in pesetas--far in excess of the 2.5 pesetas it offered as the prize in 1938.
ONCE's 18,500 ticket sellers--13,000 of them blind and the rest physically handicapped--earn an average monthly salary of $1,100, which is well above the government-decreed $415 national monthly minimum wage.
According to Gutierrez, a retired physical therapist who was left sightless by a childhood eye infection, the change since Dec. 13, 1938, when ONCE began the lottery, has been enormous.
"In those days, if you didn't have a family with money you had to beg in the streets," he said. "Around 90% of the blind population was illiterate then."
The organization's recent economic leap from earnings of $348 million in 1982 to $1.4 billion four years later was engineered by a group of young, blind professionals who swept aside the old guard and transformed ONCE from a modest institution into a major political and economic force.
"The takeoff was logical," Juan Gonzalez, a ONCE spokesman, said. "The group elected in 1982 was younger and more dynamic with lots of new ideas. Before then, ONCE was run by very conservative, very elderly gentlemen."
Said founder Gutierrez, who is now involved in the fight for better pensions for ONCE's 12,000 retirees: "The boys who run the organization today were educated in our schools. They are the new blind who don't have to go around playing music in the streets."
ONCE's success is due in large part to gambling being a way of life in Spain even before 1763, when the Marquis of Esquilache, King Carlos III's economy minister, introduced the state-run lottery.
$20 Billion for Gambling
According to government figures, Spaniards spent $20 billion on legal gambling last year. Spain trails only the United States and the Philippines for the distinction of the world's top gambling countries.
Slot machines alone, legalized in 1977 after a 53-year ban and now found in nearly every Spanish bar, earned $9.9 billion last year, followed by the state-run lotteries, bingo parlors and the ONCE lottery.
The new directors fought to strengthen ONCE in 1984 against its recently legalized competitors by combining its then-regional lotteries to offer larger prizes.
As they planned this fall to launch the cuponazo, as the new weekly grand prize is known, they began pressuring the government to crack down on 35 illegal lotteries. The government itself runs three lotteries and controls ONCE's earnings.
'Big Ticket' Approved
In return for the government action against the country's largest illegal lottery--which employed physically handicapped salespeople--ONCE agreed to hire 5,000 to 7,000 of the handicapped.
It also won government approval for the cuponazo, which means "big ticket" in Spanish, as a part of the deal.
ONCE's public relations director, Enrique Sanz, acknowledges that the cuponazo may cut into government lottery earnings. But he says that the state cannot afford to hurt the organization, which has eliminated the need for social security aid to the blind.