In Times of Crisis Scams Multiply
“It was sugar water,” says a young man from Havana as he shows a container of bath gel he bought on the black market. “I contacted the seller by Telegram, we met at a corner and he showed me the merchandise of various types, with extract of melon, avocado and roses, but later the one I took was a fake.”
As the shortage runs through the state-owned store network, many products plunge into the informal market, where they are not rationed but can cost more and the customer is at risk of being scammed. These commercial operations, which are carried out illegally, are propitious terrain to deceive and cheat consumers.
It would turn around, a novelty: Since the arrival of Covid-19 on the island, the authorities have tightened controls against informal trade, which for decades has been a vital ally for the subsistence of many families. Every night the Cuban Television Primetime Newscast highlights exemplary court rulings to dissuade anyone and broadcasts images of surprise raids captured by hidden cameras that show sellers and buyers in some clandestine operation.
Sellers have found in instant messaging services a refuge from which they can establish initial contact, from WhatsApp and Telegram to the armored Signal, for the most cautious. But for customers, this pathway limits their ability to see, test, and evaluate merchandise, increasing the risk.
“Pork leg at 55 pesos a pound,” Randy read in a classified ad that referred to a Telegram account. Once in contact with the seller through that app, they agreed that the delivery of the product would be made on Saturday morning. “I don’t go into houses or climb stairs,” the merchant told him, and at the right time he would show up with two other men in an old Chevrolet car.
“The whole operation was done from inside the car and with a weight that he brought, but when I got home I realized that between the two legs I bought I had been cheated by like ten pounds,” says Randy. In other words, I lost more than 500 pesos and it did not even occur to me to take a picture of the license plate, not to mention that if I denounce him I might be the one who ends up in jail.”
According to the Penal Code, the crime of “reception” is committed by a person who buys property that “evidently or rationally suggests that it comes from a crime.” The contemplated sanction is “deprivation of liberty for three months to one year or a fine of one hundred to three hundred ’shares’* or both.” In times of crisis, authorities are much less tolerant of the black market, and the penalties for buying on the black market are multiplied by increased vigilance.
“I was on my motorcycle and a police patrol stopped me,” a young resident in the Havana municipality of Diez de Octubre tells this newspaper, preferring anonymity. “In the backpack I had a quarter of a bag of corn feed for the chickens that my mother raises in the yard. As I had bought it from a guajiro and had no papers, they took it from me and fined me.”
“I spent the whole night in a dungeon for a few pounds of animal food,” he explains. “Now I have to look for the product again, although I will have to hide it better to take it home.” His idea is to wait for a friend who has a vehicle with an official plate and who is moving personnel for the battle against the Covid-19 to transfer the feed in the trunk.
“But I have to have eyes in the back of my head because it’s not just the police, I already lost money a few weeks ago on feed that was sold to me and it was mixed with sand,” he explains. “People with a knife between their teeth cheating to get a few pesos from anywhere. When I got home and saw that, I wanted to go back and complain, but I didn’t even know what the seller was called.”
In the 1990s, the economic crisis of the Special Period not only sparked creativity to invent culinary recipes, but it was the scene of some scams that became true urban legends. Replace the tomato sauce fwithr a beet-based one, soak old blankets used to clean the floor for days in order to pass them off as breaded pork steak, and even the legendary cheese on a pizza that was actually a melted condom.
How many of those scams were real and which are the result of the imagination it is difficult to know, but the current circumstances that the Island is going through seem to be awakening some ghosts. Many adulterations are even carried out using state industry’s own infrastructure.
Among the most counterfeited products in the last half century in Cuba have been rum, cigars and tobaccos, beers — for which there are small, totally clandestine mini-industries — cleaning products such as detergent, tomato sauces and cold meats from private sellers. Among the latter, fillings with plantain or sweet potato are very frequent.
In December 2017, the authorities dismantled a network of adulterated medicines for child consumption. The counterfeit product was marketed in the island’s pharmacies under the brand name Ritalin to treat ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Several BioCubaFarma employees replaced the active substance, methylphenidate, with a placebo substance that is used to clean the machines after each production has been completed.
“They sent me to take antibiotics for several days so that I could get a tooth removed and I could only find the pills with a vendor that a friend recommended,” says Viviana, a Havana woman who got tired of asking the pharmacies for the arrival of the drug. “I paid for it and left for the house as excited as it was, but after three days the swelling and pain wouldn’t go away.”
Viviana decided to disassemble the capsules of the supposed antibiotic and inside what she found was baking soda. “Almost 20 CUC spent on bicarbonate and now I am left without money and in pain,” she complains. But she continues to look for a “good contact that sells medicines because that risk is preferable to doing nothing and waiting for the infection to go away on its own.”
At their home in Santiago de las Vegas, the García family — a fictitious name for this report — prepares a aromatic to clean bathrooms. The extract of the product is taken out of the factory where he works by the father, and once home they prepare it by adding large amounts of water and packing it. “The trick is to apply a little of the pure product to the mouth of the bottle before closing the lid, so when the client opens it to smell it, it feels pure.”
Beyond the initial scent, when the buyer starts using the scent, he will realize that it is “more water than anything else” and that the scent it leaves in the bathrooms is very faint and does not last long. “But when he figures that out, we will not be around because we are careful not to give out any data, phone numbers or names.” The family sells on the street and each day chooses a different neighborhood.
“Yesterday we were on El Canal in Cerro and we already know that we won’t be back there for a long time,” says the García’s father. “It is not that we are cheating, it is that even with a low quality product we are selling cheaper than the State does and we deliver it to the door of the house.”
*Translator’s note: The Cuban penal code does not set specific fines, it sets a number of ’shares’. In this way the amounts of the fines can be raised throughout the penal code simply be redefining the value of one share.