Love and divorce in Cuba
Posted: 22 March 2009 10:27 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Sun Sentinel

Ray Sanchez: Wedding site and marriages deteriorate in Cuba

The extravagant home of a brother of the president who legalized divorce in Cuba nearly a century ago is now a ramshackle wedding palace.

In a country where 60 of every 100 marriages end in divorce, the dilapidated mansion stands high atop a rocky promontory as a monument to a long-suffering institution.

The grand halls on the upper floors no longer are open to the public because of falling ceilings. The terraced gardens, once the site of blissful receptions, are overrun with weeds.

Over the years, wedding guests have made off with some of the garish furnishings. Now, workers keep a close eye on the movement of guests.

The yellowish paint is faded and moldy. Some windowpanes are cracked. There is no cleaning staff. Even the director, who performs marriages, occasionally picks up a broom before a ceremony.

“The building is a beautiful thing, but it also can be quite depressing because of its bad condition,” said a longtime worker who asked not to be identified.

The same could be said about the institution of marriage on the island.

In 2007, the latest figures available, Cuba reported 56,781 marriages and 34,559 divorces — a yearly divorce rate of almost 61 percent. But the numbers don’t account for those married and divorced multiple times.

Natalia Bolivar, a noted Cuban anthropologist and scholar, said Cuba’s high divorce rate represents a global trend.

“Marriage is not what it was anywhere in the world,” she said. “There are many illusions in the beginning, but then real life sets in. There are food lines and having to prepare dinner after a long day and picking the kids up at school and caring for them.

“Cuban men like a lot of attention. They want things done for them and that’s impossible these days.”

Cuba was for decades officially atheist, and divorce does not carry the stigma it does in other Latin American countries.

The strains on relationships are many. A severe housing shortage forces many people to live with their in-laws and other relatives.

Economic hardship also creates tension that drives couples apart.

But getting unhitched in Cuba is a cheap and simple process because of liberal divorce laws. Battles over possessions are rare because most people have few belongings. “All these things wear down a marriage,” said Bolivar, who admitted being married multiple times and once shooting an ex-husband in the leg after he tried to move into her home with another woman.

“Cubans have lived through some very difficult times.”

Mario Garcia Menocal legalized divorce in Cuba in 1918.

Nowadays, his brother Fausto’s house sometimes handles up to 10 weddings a day. Ceremonies take about five minutes.

A marriage costs about $1; a divorce a couple of dollars more. (The palace also processes divorce papers.)

Maria Antonia Vilaplana, in her 50s, was getting married the other day, but had to wait in a Russian sedan outside because a leg injury prevented her from climbing the palace’s long stairs. The groom went up to get the lawyer to come to the car for the nuptials.

Asked if she was previously married, one of the guests blurted, “Six times.”

Everyone around her laughed.

“I’ve been married several times,” Vilaplana said. “Leave it at that. Hopefully this is the final time.”

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