Rip-off and Scam Control, a New Work Option in Cuba

By Veronica Vega

Scams can be present wherever something is for sale. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES — In an otherwise anonymous dictionary entitled “On the Incredible”, I came across this quote: “In the fifteenth century, workers in the mills substituted grains of wheat with a an indigestible mineral dust and cartilage of dried cuttlefish and squid. This is one of the earliest known cases of adulteration. ”

Let me tell you, it came as quite a surprise because in our arrogance we have come to think Cuba has a monopoly in outright deception and thinking up scams, especially during the worst of the special period, when things got so bad they were putting condoms in the pizzas instead of cheese and when they were selling mince “meat” made from floor cloths.

Whatever. As Einstein once said, every crisis is a challenge that forces us to exploit our potential to the full, and since scammers and rip-off merchants are here to stay, it seems to me, we might as well create the job of “Scam Detector “, especially with the renewed enthusiasm there is today for self-employment.

I’m talking about someone you could consult at the crucial, delicate moment of making a purchase, someone tuned into the endless variety of the adulterations I see daily at food stands, in the fruit and vegetables markets, in just about everything that ends up on the market or in the shops with or without the sanction of the state.

Yes, state stores are also “infiltrated” by such products, and today authenticity has taken on a new meaning and there is no way of determining with any certainty the origins of many of these authentic inventions.

For example:

I know that pumpkin slices (cut not only to make it easier to weigh but to also raise customer confidence), are rubbed with sandpaper on the side to give them a shine and make them look a brighter yellow, so they don’t qualify as watery.

Going shopping in Cuba can leave a bad taste. Photo: Caridad

Some time ago I found out that butter “sold under the counter”, is mixed with water and margarine and churned in a washing machine, put in the freezer and then wrapped in bars of silver paper to take us all in. Just put it in a bowl and wait a few hours and you’ll see how much liquid and solid there is in the concoction.

And take those bars of ground peanuts that used to be delicious. Now they’re mixed with wheat flour to save on the precious peanut kernels, the same wheat flour they mix with the tomato puree to give it a deceiving thickness.
Rather ironic, don’t you think, after the great lengths our ancestors went to adulterate wheat now Cubans are using wheat to adulterate all sorts of other products.

And then there’s the common everyday tomato. Be warned, the “tomato” in many purees can be chili peppers, beetroot, or even carrots. Hence the variety of shades of color (and flavors).

Then there’s tamales. Mixed with processed cornmeal, they taste dry and they look dry. But then again, corn is also very expensive.

Even those sweet little baby coconut balls we love so much, are grated potato, it turns out, and to add insult to injury the bars are made of “guava”, God help us !, I wouldn’t like to inquire into what they are using to replace the traditional guava but the giveaway is that they are so hard and sticky it’s almost impossible now to cut off a strip with a knife.

A former neighbor of my mother used to send the boys in the building to bring her empty ice cream tubs, the kind people buy in the hard currency stores and then chuck them in the trash can or on the street.

She’d go and buy a tub of Guarina ice cream in the Alamar fun park, refill the tubs she got from the boys with her own recipe and with the help of a “contact”, slip them into the freezer of a foreign currency kiosk where the unwitting customers bought them for their brand names: Nestlé, Alondra, Varadero. At the same price of course as the originals.

More than one person has told me in disgust about buying a deodorant only to discover it “seems filled with water, there’s something wrong with it.” So scams and rip-offs are reaching top levels in the supply chain.

A friend told us of a family member of his who works in Coppelia, the ice-cream parlor, whose standard of living is visibly rising while the taste of the famous ice cream is visibly inconsistent and tasteless.

According to him, the problem can be traced to the same factory where they multiply the artificial thickeners to create this bubble of deception and disappointment they insist on calling ice cream.

Analyzing all this, I concluded that courses on “Scam Detectors.” are urgently needed. Maybe some expert can tell us why the bread we get with our ration book lacks substance and is so volatile it makes you think maybe some impressionist artist was at work on it.

But in this struggle for survival we’ve been engaged in since the beginning of the never-ending (post ’90s) special period economic crisis, the real challenge would be if these guardians of probity could not be bribed, like some inspectors and even social workers ended up succumbing to.

However before anyone comes up with a solution, they could make a start by printing “Anti Scam” booklets and sell them in the shops as part of the University for All Program.


2 thoughts on “Rip-off and Scam Control, a New Work Option in Cuba

  • Moses, scams can not be solved with free market and more completion as the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis showed.

  • This problem in Cuba, with which I have personal experience, is best resolved with more competition. If I buy Nestle Suprema ice cream for 2.50cuc and it does not meet my taste and quality expectations, my easiest and most logical response would be to buy another high-end ice cream the next time. The problem is that in Cuba there is no other choice. This strategy of competition works with rum in Cuba. As a result, Havana Club, in my experience is a very consistent product. Cubans are no craftier than any other people. The Cuban marketplace, due to the inanity of socialism in Cuba, is just more vulnerable.

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