Cuban divorce is easy, housing is harder
By WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press WriterSun Dec 30, 2:02 PM ET
After 21 years of marriage, Pedro Llera and his wife Maura decided to call it quits.
Their divorce took 20 minutes, but Llera compares what came next to "more than a year of open war in the house."
Sleeping in the same bed and sharing a single room with their 14-year-old daughter, they battled in Cuba's courts over who should stay in their second-floor, two-bedroom apartment in Havana's spiffy Vedado district.
Estranged Cuban couples sometimes remain under the same roof for years or even lifetimes, learning that while divorce on the island is easy, housing is not. The phenomenon is a testament not only to the communist-run island's severe housing shortage, but also to Cubans' ability to stay friendly — or at least civil — under the most awkward of circumstances.
"In a developed country, you get divorced and someone goes to a hotel and then to a new house," said Llera, a 60-year-old mechanic. "Here we had to keep living like a couple."
By law, Cubans cannot sell their homes and because the state controls almost all property, moves must be approved. Housing is so scarce, however, that often there is nowhere to go.
The government has long estimated an island-wide shortage of half a million homes. In 2006, officials reported construction of 110,000 houses, one of the largest single-year totals since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. But similar home-building initiatives this year were slowed by the rising costs of materials and Tropical Storm Noel's severe flooding of eastern Cuba.
Another Havana resident, 45-year-old Mirta, decided to divorce her husband of 18 years in 1997. The couple hired a lawyer and signed papers amicably.
But neither one could move out. A decade later, they still share the same two-bedroom apartment off the famed Malecon seaside promenade with their sons, now 18 and 20.
"We use the same kitchen, same bathroom. We have separate bedrooms, but the electricity, the telephone, the refrigerator — there's only one," Mirta said. "If you're going to get dressed, you have to hide in the bathroom or in the bedroom. There's no privacy."
She said she and her ex-husband clash over utility bills and race home from work for first use of the stove at dinner time.
"He's had other women but he always comes home to the same house," said Mirta, who asked that her full name and profession not be published because she did not want to be identified publicly as complaining about Cuba's housing crunch. "You want to be independent and open the door to your room, but with other women there, it is very uncomfortable."
The shortage is exacerbated by failed marriages. In 2006, the latest figures available, Cuba reported 56,377 marriages and 35,837 divorces. That's a yearly divorce rate of nearly 64 percent, though it does not account for those married and divorced multiple times.
Breakups are so common that Cubans joke that anyone whose parents stay together needs a lifetime of therapy.
"On some days there aren't weddings without at least one person who has been divorced," said civil registrar Patria Olano, who officiates up to 15 weddings a day at a "Marriage Palace," or government-run wedding hall, in Old Havana. "It's happy anyway because it's always a new beginning."
Couples pay $1.05 for the 5-minute legal transaction, sealed with a kiss. Olano reads a dense paragraph of regulations, then asks: "Are you sure you still want to get married?" Couples sometimes simply nod. A sign nearby reads "To get married, dress correctly. No shorts, tank tops or flip flops, please."
On a recent Friday, Pedro Angel Leon wore a sport coat to tie the knot with his girlfriend of nearly two years, Barbara Mendez. It was his third marriage, her second.
"The first marriage is for photos and parties," said Leon, a 52-year-old volleyball referee. "This time everything is more calm."
Leon moved in with his new bride and her parents before the wedding. "Finding a house is the hardest thing," he said.
Divorces are handled by notary publics and cost about the same as getting married. By law, there is no alimony unless either husband or wife is unemployed, and the communist system usually lends itself to austere lifestyles devoid of expensive possessions to fight over.
Cuba was for decades officially atheist and divorce does not carry the stigma it does in other countries. Many divorcees head back to their parents' homes, but problems arise if their former rooms have since been occupied by siblings' spouses and offspring.
Some divorced couples keep living together but throw up extra walls of plywood: One side is his, the other hers and only the children move back and forth freely.
Given ownership restrictions, a thriving black market exists for home-swapping. Every day, men and women gather along a Havana boulevard, offering trades. Some bring cardboard signs reading 1 x 2, meaning they want to swap one large apartment for two smaller ones — often because of divorce.
"Marriages end like everything else," said a man named Luis, who was hoping to trade his small apartment for a larger one. "But the house where you live, that stays with you."
Llera, the mechanic, claimed his home belonged to his 83-year-old father, who occupied the second bedroom. But his former wife said she had lived there long enough to stay put.
A court ruled in Llera's favor but the decision was overturned on appeal. As the legal battle dragged on, Llera demanded that his ex-wife sleep on the living room couch, and even called the police to make her comply.
A higher court eventually sided with him and his ex-wife moved in with relatives, leaving most of her clothes behind in protest. The failed marriage was Llera's second, and though he now lives with another woman, he doesn't plan to propose matrimony.
"It was such an ugly split," he said. "I don't want it to happen again."