Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Stories of Con Games and the Conned

Stories of Con Games and the Conned
May 29, 2012
Tourist Tales from Cuba

HAVANA TIMES – Here are some stories of scams in the only country in the
world with a dual currency.

From among many memories and anecdotes I have compiled, I can't forget
that man who was sitting in the park, which I cut through every day so
that I could arrive early to work and the day's first obligations.

It was evident that he urgently desired to speak with someone. You could
see it in his eyes and in the anxiety of his gesture as he interrupted
my hurried passing and asked me haltingly, "Do you speak English?" to
which I responded with an emphatic, "Yes, I do!"

We quickly covered the routine questions about his country and city –
the remote Vancouver, far from Havana – to arrive rapidly at the reason
for his urgency: it was a Cuban bill of the type known as "Convertible
Pesos," which at that time had a one-to-one equivalency with the U.S.

Since I, too have suffered at being swindled, I quickly read in his face
that insecurity you feel when something isn't quite right, and you
realize that you may have just done something you shouldn't. For a
Cuban, one look at the bill revealed that it was a fraud, since someone
had very clearly written "One Hundred" where it previously said "One".

If you observed the front of the bill, the lack of grammatical agreement
was also evident: it spoke of "a peso", and you couldn't add the phrase
"convertible pesos" since the reference appears first in the singular
and then changes to plural. This detail plainly reinforced the notion
of a falsification.

The Canadian looked at me with expectation, and I, having noted the
details above, struggled to find a way of confronting the consummated
facts. At last I found the courage to tell him that, unfortunately, he
had been swindled.

In my best English I tried to explain the issue to him, although by now
there was no possible solution. We could only determine exactly what had
happened and come to some conclusions. This last process is like
scratching a wound, but the man lived up to the reputation of his fellow
citizens and accepted the challenge.

It turned out that one of those people of very poor scruples underneath
what may be an acceptable appearance offered him "the advantage" of a
"one to one" exchange between Canadian dollars and Cuban convertible
currency. If he had gone to an official money-changing site, known in
Cuba by the acronym CADECA, the exchange rate would have been thirty
percent less.

Speaking in the lingo of the police, the modus operandi of the con-man
was the classic "bait" offered before the swindle. It's necessary to
make the victim believe in the real possibility of obtaining a
substantial advantage as a result of the proposed transaction.

We parted ways: the tourist heading back to his hotel with only one
convertible peso, instead of the hundred that he had hoped to obtain,
not to mention the day ruined; me with the hope of restoring a bit the
bad image of our beautiful country that my fellow countryman had left
him with.

The next morning, he answered my telephone call from his hotel room with
an occasional excuse and the affirmation that he was headed for
Varadero, a paradise of white sand beside the ocean, far from Cubans and
double currencies. This time my persuasion didn't register. The Canadian
was very irritated.

"Time passed and passed, like an eagle by the sea," as go the poetic
words of José Martí, the Apostle of our Independence, whose image graces
our national money.

This time it was a young Portuguese couple, appearing to be people of
modest income. Their faces were two poems, but of a different nature:
that of the woman, an epic; that of the man, a tragedy. The woman, I
must add, was almost certain that her husband had made a mistake, while
he was still doubtful.

I was leaving the church when they approached me. The Portuguese woman
asked me to help her husband resolve his doubt, apparently dismissing
the events themselves as water down the drain. Once again I took a bill
in my hands and again the fraud was clear, but this time it was
"technically different" as we would say in police lingo.

There were two fifty peso bills, but of the denomination "National
Money;" in which each twenty-five is equal to ONE Cuban Convertible
Peso, which I mentioned in the previous story.

Once again, the use of language is curious, taking advantage of
ambiguity and lack of precision to promote the following scheme:

As it happens, even today as I write this, years after it happened,
bills circulate with a curious inscription, completely archaic and I
believe copied from the United States dollar bill.

I hold in my hands a bill from the year 1991, series CA 80, number
411344 and here is an exact copy of the text that appears in small boxes
in the part below, just before and after the monetary sign:

"Integrally guaranteed with gold, foreign exchange convertible in gold,
and other active shares of the National Bank of Cuba. This bill
constitutes an obligation assumed by the Cuban State."

"This bill has unlimited legal course and liberating force, in
accordance with the law, for the payment of any obligation contracted or
to be completed in national territory."

The con man reads these texts to the victim with great emphasis,
assuring them that these are "Convertible Pesos", and thus implementing
the fraud.

At any rate, tourists should change their money in a bank, which abound
in Havana and the rest of Cuba, or in the Money-Changing Houses, CADECA,
as I repeat.

Nonetheless, for these visitors from Portugal, the story had a happy
ending. The meager Hundred Pesos in national money were at least enough
to reach their hotel. The couple reconciled, and on the morning of the
new day we saw each other walking down the Havana streets.

For my part, I alleviated my distress over the sin that another had
committed, by explaining to them all the beauty of my country, while I
listened enchanted to their descriptions of the excellent smoked meats
produced there in Braganza, near the Galicia of my grandparents.

I could mention the names of the people involved in both stories, but
since those who perpetrate such swindles generally disappear without a
trace, it's better to just hold on to the experience.

In addition to providing a necessary caution for any visitors, I learned
that even in the worst circumstances you can make friends.


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