For many in Cuba, marriage is for the birds

I wrote this feature for the Dallas Morning News. It was published on July 4, 2004.

When Yanet Vázquez finally decided to end her marriage, she and her soon-to-be ex-husband strolled into a notary public’s office, plunked down $4 and were blissfully divorced in 20 minutes.
“It was quick and easy,” said Ms. Vázquez, 31, a cashier.
Indeed, getting unhitched in Cuba is about as cheap and effortless as it gets, experts say. The country’s liberal divorce laws also fuel one of the world’s highest divorce rates.
“For every 100 marriages in Cuba, there are almost 70 divorces. It’s alarming,” said María Benítez, a demographics specialist and author of the 2003 book The Cuban Family.
The island’s severe housing shortage forces many people to live with their in-laws and other relatives, straining even the best of marriages. Economic conditions also create tension that drives many couples apart, Ms. Benítez said.
Some Cubans change spouses every few years.
“I’ve split up three times already,” said José Rivero, 40, a musician. “I spent seven years with the first woman, five with the second and eight with the third.”
Pope John Paul II, during his 1998 visit to Cuba, criticized the high number of divorces there. Church officials continue to worry about the problem and declared this the “Year of the Family.” They’re planning a national meeting at the end of 2004 to discuss ways to address divorce and other societal maladies.
“Divorce is a great ill,” Jaime Ortega, the church’s cardinal in Havana, told followers at a Sunday Mass.
Symbol of a system?
Some critics say the divorce rate, which is slightly lower than that of the United States, is a symptom of a failed social and economic system. Others say divorces have skyrocketed everywhere, including in the United States.
Despite it all, the Cuban family is strong and united, said Patria Olano Navarrete, who has officiated at thousands of Cuban weddings over more than 30 years.
132-DSC09236“The tradition of getting married is the same as always,” said Ms. Olano, director of the Palace of Marriages in Havana, where hundreds of couples get married every year.
“Parents bring their children here to get married,” Ms. Olano said. “Some tell me, ‘Remember us? We were married here 20 years ago.'”
As she spoke, a bride in a white dress swept by, her would-be husband not far behind.
In Cuba, girls can get married at 14 and boys at 16 with their parents’ consent. Those who marry young are particularly vulnerable to marital problems, Ms. Benítez said.
Usually simple
“We have First World health and schooling levels but 17th- and 18th-century marriage habits,” she said.
Divorce is usually a simple process, and battles over possessions aren’t common because most people have few belongings.
“There isn’t much property to divide,” said Orlando Ramos, 42, an economist who said he worried about his son’s welfare – and not material goods – when he was divorced.
To be sure, many Cuban divorces are remarkably civilized.
Maricel Acebo, 39, and her ex-husband, Wilfrido, live under the same roof despite their divorce less than a year ago.
“I’m not going to tell him, ‘I want you living out on the street,'” she said. “That wouldn’t be fair.”
Still single, she does have complaints about men. Too many care only about money, she said.
“The men say, ‘What do you do?’ And if you say you’re a housewife, they shrink back and won’t talk to you. But if you say you work for a good company, then it’s, ‘Yeah, that’s the woman I want,'” said Ms. Acebo, a night security guard who earns $7.69 per month in a country where the average monthly salary is $12.
8c1Another Cuban woman who lived with her ex-husband after a divorce was Elizabet Brotens. She and Juan Miguel González not only lived in the same house, they slept in the same bed. She wanted a child even after their divorce. Mr. González complied, and little Elián was born. He is the grade-schooler who survived a deadly voyage to Florida that killed his mother in November 1999. After a nasty international custody battle, the boy returned to Cuba, where he now lives with his father.
Cuba legalized divorce in 1869 and introduced divorces by notary public in 1994.
Mutual consent
“No other country in the world has this kind of divorce,” said Ayiadna María Verrier, a notary public in Old Havana.
Only those who are splitting up by mutual consent qualify. Divorces involving disputes over money, property or children are handled in Cuban courts and usually take several months.
Some Cuban lawyers question notary divorces, saying they may not always fully protect spouses and their children.
“But I see more advantages in these divorces than disadvantages,” said Ms. Verrier.
Still, although it’s easy to split up, it’s never much fun, said Lenia Gamonal, 42, a hydraulic engineer who is divorced.
“Divorce is disastrous. It shatters the harmony of the family.”