Hands fly over the table. So fast you can only see the slipstream of the fingers and the brilliance of a golden ring. You can divine — at least the first time — under which container is the small wad of paper. It’s just for you, you’re the prey, the only audience for the spectacle. You’re in that room in a dark tenement to buy a pair of shoes more cheaply than in the stores. But when you get into the maze-like hallway the youngster who suggested those great prices vanishes. So you remain standing there, a few yards from two men who play as if you weren’t there, but at the same time direct their gestures to your eyes. In a few minutes they suggest you bet and you believe you can discover where the slippery little ball is. In less than an hour you will have lost all the capital you had on you.
So far, a succinct narration of one of the most common scams in our country and in the world. A brilliant swindle which, despite its simplicity and repetition, hasn’t stopped working. In Cuba new methods have recently arisen to separate people from their money. There’s everything. One peso bills with crudely drawn zeros to “pass them off” as if they were hundreds. Bags with jeans sold from a doorway, but when you get them home they just contain on old sack of harvested potatoes. Even “boat trips to Florida” that end with the takers eaten by mosquitoes, never with the appearance of a boat. I repeat, there’s everything. Although recently there is a new type of theft that almost always involves a supposed foreigner.
Even the technique is sympathetic, if it weren’t for its effect on the wallet. Someone, with an Argentine or French accent, rents a taxi. He offers the driver an amount of money to hire him for the whole day. With the car in motion the foreigner, upset, begins to talk about all the problems he has with his Cuban wife, while also describing a profitable business he’s setting up on the Island. The itinerary always includes going to a hotel, going by a hospital, picking up some suitcases at the home of some “friend” and even having a beer in a bar. When the driver has already struck up a certain friendship with his client, the latter asks for some money to pay for some transaction, with the excuse that they don’t accept hundred peso bills or all he has is euros. “Lend it to me for a couple minutes and then we’ll go to the bank to change the money and I’ll pay you back.” And the tourist in his hat and flowered shirt gets out of the car. After waiting for more than an hour, the taxi driver begins to get suspicious, but the scammer is already a long way from there.
If the trick with the little ball under a cup appeals to our ego, making us believe that our eyes are faster than the player’s hands, the trick of “the tourist who asks for money” is based on the widespread belief that foreigners “can never be more cunning than we are.” So taking advantage of this false stereotype, the Havana scammers are making a killing. By training their hands, or waiting for their “prey” to enter a dilapidated room looking for a pair of shoes, or deciding whether sounding like Buenos Aires or Quebec will lead to a greater gain. A certain smell of sunscreen, dark glasses, bermuda shorts, and curious looks toward the buildings seen through a taxi window… just that and the scam is on the point of making off with the contents of your pocket.