Alchemy and Lies / Yoani Sanchez

“The Alchemist” – Oil by Mattheus van Hellemont

We live in a society of alchemists. They don’t turn iron into gold, but they are skilled at replacing ingredients and adulterating almost everything. Their goal is to cheat every client or to steal from the State itself. To achieve this they use even Mendeleev’s periodic table in search of elements that can be replaced by cheaper ones.

Some of these ingenious formulas deserve an Anti-Nobel in Chemistry, especially for their negative effects on human health. Such is the case with a lengthy recipe for tomato sauce that includes beets, boiled sweet potatoes, spices, cornstarch and red hair dye. When a curious observer asks, “And the tomato?” the inventors respond, almost scolding, “No, there’s no tomato.”

So the streets are full of glue sticks that when you press them only contain air. Bottles of shampoo mixed with clothes-washing detergent. Soap with plastic shavings added by the employees at the factory who resell the raw materials. Bottles of rum that come off clandestine production lines with hospital alcohol and burned sugar to simulate aging. Bottled water, refilled from some tap and offered for sale on the shelves of many markets.

Needless to say the imitations of Cohiba cigars and other brands are sold to naive tourists as if they were authentic. Nothing is what it seems. A good part of the population accepts these deceptions and feels a certain solidarity with the cheaters. “People have to live somehow,” they justify, with even the most injured treating it like a joke.

Within the long list of what is falsified, rationed bread occupies first place. This is the most adulterated product in our basic food basket, its formula lost decades ago due to standardization and the diversion of resources.

In the bakeries, the “alchemists” have reached the heights of true genius. They add huge amounts of yeast to the dough to make it rise so much that we get “air bread,” which leaves us with sore gums and unfilled stomachs. And don’t even mention the substitution of baking flour for other uses in the making of pasta and noodles. With this process we end up with something in our mouths that is hard, dry and flavorless. Best not to look before you eat, because the appearance is worse than the taste.

If Paracelsus were resurrected, he would have to come to this Island. He would learn so much!

8 January 2014