The Cuban marriage that lasted only one week by Denis Dextraze
Marriage is normally a life changing event. It is doubly life changing if it lasted only a week.
“I would like you to go to Camagüey and buy for me a nice small house with lots of garden space in the backyard so that I can grow bananas and sell them on the street”. This is the phone order I got in September of 1999 from my best friend, Yves Rondeau, who had invited me to join him in Cuba two years earlier. Yves did not need to sell bananas to retire comfortably after a successful career as a dyehouse manager in the Canadian textile industry. His plan was to buy a house in Cuba, get married on the last day of year 1999 celebrating the turn of the century and retire sometime later depending on how much notice he would have to give to the owner of the company, his boss of twenty five years. He had been coming regularly to Cuba to visit his sweetheart in Camagüey. She was a tall, pretty light-skinned Métis in her late twenties with a young son. Another objective he gave me was to be alert when I visited Camagüey about who she was hanging around with. Not only was I now in the real estate business but also had become a boyfriend`s spy.
So, for the next three months, I drove to Camagüey many times visiting houses and reporting to Yves about my findings. Every time, I would come unannounced and show up at his girlfriend’s house in early evening. Every time, I found her alone in her small apartment with her young son who was not of schooling age yet. I did not really involve her in the house search because I knew Yves tastes. Yves knew that, as a tourist, even if he was married, his name would never appear on the notary’s paperwork. That is probably why he wanted me to ascertain his girlfriend’s fidelity. To help me with my search, I used Elsida’s service.
Elsida was THE businesswoman in town. She was short, a bit budgie with grey curly hair, but wore her sixties really well. She was very pleasant and social and knew everybody, every illegal deal, every grapevine, and probably all the influential political Party Members. She told me stories of her many businesses past and present. She told me that at one time she started making homemade pies to sell on the street. The State shut her down and fined her because they suspected that she was using stolen flour from the State run bakery. She confided in me that, although she never admitted it, the authorities were right because, most of the time, the State run store selling in Cuban pesos did not have any flour.
Her husband, Pedro, of the same age as her was short and in very good shape since he spent his time on a farm running after stray cows. He was missing a tooth on his left lower jaw which became the perfect place to plant his cachimba, a homemade pipe that never left him in which he smoked short hand rolled puros (cigars). They had only one daughter, Alice who was married to a milk truck driver. He would leave very early in the morning for his first milk pick-up run, come back home for lunch and a nap with Alice and leave again in late afternoon for his second pick-up run. Sometimes, I could detect sadness in Alice’s eyes. That is when I knew that her husband did not come home for lunch and was probably napping with someone else.
Pedro was the manager of a very large State finca, a cow farm, out in the open range where he spent most of his week with his younger girlfriend whom Elsida was aware of but did not worry about. She was a pragmatic woman and, at her age, probably not interested in bedroom action any more. This was Cuba where machismo ruled and every man worth his salt had a girlfriend on the side. Beside, Pedro and Elsida had a joint complementary illegal business together.
Pedro had modified the back undercarriage of his old Chevy `52 by adding a secret compartment where he could hide fresh milk, cheese, and butter produced at the farm which Elsida sold on the black market. Every now and then, Pedro reported to the authorities that a cow had been stolen. Every cow in Cuba belonged to the State and was inventoried. A report had to be made each time one died or got lost. Two policemen would show up at the farm, file a report and, instead of distributing the meat to the starving population, they would burn the cow on the spot. Incredibly, the Cuban population did not have access to beef or lobster. Those luxuries were reserved exclusively for the tourist hotels or for exportation and for the high level militaries and communist heads. Heavy fines were levied if Cuban nationals were found with beef or lobster in their refrigerator. At first, I thought that it was a joke but it turned out to be true that the jail sentence for killing a cow was stiffer than for killing a man. The chances of Pedro going to jail though were probably very slim because, as a good businessman, he made sure that the lost cow events were never investigated by the crooked police. They would get their cut as usual. Pedro kept the illegal meat out of the house in a second old refrigerator hidden way in the back of his garage.
Elsida`s other illegal business was in real estate. How can you be in real estate in a communist country where individual ownership is illegal and the State owns everything? In Cuba, just like with everything else in that country, property occupation was not clear cut and black and white. There were many shades of grey. Families were growing and needed larger living area and, as they were getting older, senior people wanted smaller places easier to maintain. So, a system was in place to swap legally from one living area to another. The swap was notarized so that your legal domiciliary address was recorded. Needless to say that some swaps were totally out of proportion in size and location and, although there were complicated rules of how much upgrade were allowed per transaction, the rules were thrown overboard as soon as some money was put on the table in plain sight of the State notary who was getting a cut of the bribe. The notary was in fact the witness to an illegal transaction since he or she was counting the money and taking it from the hands of the buyer before the signature and, after the transfer papers were signed, handing it to the seller. In a way, although you were not buying a house, you were buying the right to live in that specific address and location. The whole system of so called communist equality was a joke. Money was what mattered.
In those types of transaction, Elsida was the intermediary putting the buyer and the sellers together and facilitating the sale for a small commission from the seller. Good business. Over the three visits I made to Camagüey, she arranged for me to look at about twenty houses. I visited many old houses that would have been my choice. I remember one in the downtown area that was built following the old Spanish design with an open inner court and a well, similar to the Antique Roman atriums, surrounded by rooms. It must have been one hundred and fifty years old. It had a fifteen foot ceiling, tile roof, twelve foot high doors and windows. It had at least six bedrooms, a large kitchen, a dining area and a large smoking room in the entrance hall. This was the perfect set-up for a bed and breakfast once Cuba really opened to foreign tourism. However, I knew the extent of Yves handy man skills and the extensive repairs that a house like that required would have been too much for him. He basically owned no more than ten tools i.e. a hammer, a pair of pliers and a few screwdrivers which he probably rarely used. After consulting Yves, the choice came down to a nice and orderly two bedroom bungalow with a small front porch, a huge back terrace and a one hundred and fifty feet deep garden in the back. It was located on Calle Betancourt in Puerto Principe, a nice suburb close to the airport.
The next step was to proceed with the transfer paperwork at the State notary but one important detail was missing, the money. Indeed, I did not have enough cash on hand to handle this deal and using credit cards was out of the question since this transaction was illegal and under the table. Yves had a good friend, André Phénix, who worked for the Royal Bank of Canada in Nassau, The Bahamas. He transferred money to Phénix and I had to fly into Nassau to pick it up. It was a quick trip. Indeed, when asked by the immigration officer how long I had been in the Bahamas, I said one hour. That was the time it took for Phénix and I to count the money in the airport bathroom and check back into the same Cubana de Aviacion plane that flew me in. In retrospective, I was taking a high risk if the authorities both in The Bahamas and Cuba would have discovered the cash. This quick round trip could have been seen as a drug transaction.
Within a few days, I was back in Camagüey to finalize the deal. Because I was leery and did not personally approve of this transaction, I called Yves one last time to have a final confirmation just before meeting with the State notary and parting with the money.
Since there was no direct flight to Camagüey from Montreal, Yves flew into Havana in late afternoon, spent the night with us and flew to Camagüey the next day. He had many suitcases full of personal items which he intended to leave in Cuba. He was starting to move out of Canada into his new house in Cuba.
During the Christmas season, Alain Loyer, a French friend who had participated in the Transat des Alizés, a race across the Altantic with my previous boat, La Vita Bruta, and his Spanish wife, Rita came to visit. Naturally, they were invited to the wedding and the party of the century. We drove to Camagüey a day earlier to help with the logistics and the preparation of a huge fiesta with a parilla, a pig BBQ Cuban style. Of course, being a close friend, I attended the legal ceremony as a witness and offered my service as the driver of my Mercedes for the official picture sessions (see picture).
A parilla or spit roast is a big social and rallying event, the perfect excuse for a fiesta in Cuba. During the holiday season, some towns and neighborhoods allow citizens living in close quarters to build a fire right in the middle of the street. The job of performing this important ritual was given to experts in the matter, Pedro and Elsida. Therefore, early on the morning of the wedding, they arrived accompanied by Jorge and Fernando, two guaïros, the farmers who worked at the finca, the State farm which Pedro managed. They were well prepared and brought with them a huge pig, four six foot long posts, firewood, a huge cast iron cauldron, ropes and freshly cut branches from guava trees. As the butcher, Jorge`s job was to kill, eviscerate, scold with boiling water, clean and split the pig in half. Fernando got busy digging a pit, starting the charcoal production, digging hole to plant the four posts, making a platform with guava branches and hanging it on the post from each corner. By midday, there were enough coals to start cooking the split pig on one side. It would be turned over regularly during the slow cooking process.
I have witnessed three methods of cooking a pig on a spit in Cuba.
- The traditional method is where the pig is impaled with a spike thru the mouth suspended over the coals and turned slowly by an attendant fueled every now and then by a shot of rum straight from the bottle. By a strange coincidence, the pig is cooked when the bottle is empty.
- The swing method is where the pig is opened up and is laid on a platform which is swung back and forth by the attendant pulling on a rope tied to it and fueled every now and then by a shot of rum straight from the bottle. Here also by a strange coincidence just like in the traditional method, the pig is cooked when the bottle is empty.
- The raised platform is where the platform does not move but is set above the coal at a high elevation on the onset. The pig is turned over regularly and lowered slowly closer and closer to the coal. This method which Pedro had chosen requires less constant expanses of energy by the attendant but he is fueled anyway every now and then by shot of rum straight from the bottle as well.
The ceremony went smoothly and the party was a great success with lots of eating, drinking and dancing, a typical Cuban parilla party. It lasted through the wee hours of the morning with the midnight interruption for a ritual of African origin which I had witnessed in other countries of Latin America, the midnight floor cleaning where the dirty water is solemnly thrown out the door to start the New Year with a clean slate. This closing ceremony, which was called the party of the Century because it happened on December 31, 1999 was followed by loud cheers and friendly embraces. They were the only midnight turn-of-the-century events, contrary to all the doom’s day rumours that had circulated worldwide.
Early in the morning, while Alain and I were having a night cap back at our rented house, we were informed by Rita and Jacky of disturbing news. Since their Spanish was much better than Alain and I, they had overheard that Yves wife had invited her current Cuban boyfriend to the wedding. Should we tell Yves? After a debate, we decided not to do anything. It was too late anyway. His three days honeymoon was already planned and paid for in Cayo Coco, a foreign tourist resort on a secluded island. I could not help though being upset with myself for not having been a better spy while I was visiting Camagüey to find the house.
For his return to Montreal, Yves had to go through Havana and again he could not do it on the same day. When I went to pick him up at the airport, I was amazed that he was bringing back ALL the suitcases that he had brought in as a partial move into Cuba. On the drive home, we stayed silent for a good part of the way. He knew that I had taken notice of the many suitcases. Finally, I asked simply “What happened?” His answer was “I am divorced”. Wow! His marriage had lasted about a week. It was a really expensive affair on a per diem basis. He explained to me that upon their return from their honeymoon, his wife’s mood changed entirely. She would now sleep with her son because he was used to it. Being a patient man, he waited a few days hoping that this mood swing was part of her monthly cycle. Finally, he confronted her and the answer he got was “The honeymoon is over”.
The next day, he was out of the house for most of day. When he finally came back, his wife asked him where he had been. He answered casually that he was out to get that paper and served her the registered divorce papers which he had obtained instantly at great cost from a lawyer in Ciego-de-Avila, the capital of the province. In Cuba, if you pay more legal fees, you can get a divorce without the other party’s consent.
I was proud of my friend’s quick and decisive action.
This short lived and expensive marriage changed Yves life since he abandoned his retirement plans and went back to work for another two years to make up for his loses.
Ps: Short lasting marriage was nothing new in the caiman shaped island. Indeed, during the hay days of communism in Cuba when the Russians were financing Fidel Castro’s extravaganzas, young couples would get married for only a few weeks just to get the free cases of Bucanero beer and rum for the celebration and a free week honeymoon vacation at a beach resort. Upon return, most couples would get divorced and get ready in turn to attend their friend’s free wedding party.