Rip-off and Scam Control, a New Work Option in Cuba
October 2, 2012
By Veronica Vega
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
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.
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
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
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
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.