Fernando Ravsberg*

A friend’s story reminded me of Doña Flor, the character from Jorge Amado’s well-known novel. Photo: Raque Perez
A friend’s story reminded me of Doña Flor, the character from Jorge Amado’s well-known novel. Photo: Raque Perez

HAVANA TIMES — Not much has changed in Cuba since filmmaker Tomas Gutierrez Alea directed “Death of a Bureaucrat” (1966), a humorous depiction of the interminable and absurd red tape to which citizens are subjected by the island’s public administration.

Gutierrez’ film came to mind on hearing the story of a friend who married a man from Valencia, Spain, legalized her marriage at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry and the Spanish Embassy and moved to the “Motherland”, where she had a beautiful daughter.

Ten years passed and the couple sought a divorce, only to find out they had never actually been married: the international notary’ office in Cuba had never registered the marriage (even though they had charged the couple around US $700).

This, which amounted to good news for my Cuban friend (as it meant one less bureaucratic hurdle in her way), proved traumatic for the husband. He is from a conservative Catholic family, which was rather shaken up on hearing the child had been worn outside wedlock.

This week, another good friend of mine – I will call her “Doña Flor” – told me she has been away from work for days because, on setting a legal procedure in motion, she discovered she is still married to her first husband, even though she contracted matrimony with another man 6 years ago.

The unwitting bigamist tried to rectify the mistake, but the public officials smilingly explained to her that “wasn’t so easy.” They enumerated all of the steps she needed to take, explaining to her how long she would have to wait between each.

It’s not that she cares too much about the “sin” or crime of having two husbands. She simply needs to attend to some other legal business and the authorities require a document which more or less coherently describes her marital history.

Flor’s Pilgrimage

“I had to go see the judge in the neighborhood I used to live in. She told me I had to wait a few weeks because that matter could only be handled at the Palacio de los Matrimonios (Civil Registry) in Centro Habana,” the surprised Flor told me.

Paying US $700 to get married and discovering one was never legally wed ten years later is a story worthy of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.
Paying US $700 to get married and discovering one was never legally wed ten years later is a story worthy of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. Photo: Raquel Perez

After the judge confirmed that the divorcees were actually divorced, things got even more complicated. The lack of a computer network makes it impossible for legal documents to be sent via email. To make matters worse, the interested party is also not authorized to submit such documents in person.

The document in question must be sent to the Civil Registry where Flor contracted matrimony for the first time via an official, judicial “courier” system. The problem is that there is no fuel for the cars, or the fuel is used for other things, and it can be months before such certificates are actually picked up.

The one option one has is to try and “convince” the public official at the registry where the divorce was certified to let you take the certificate, and then try and “convince” the other official to accept it.

Once these hurdles have been negotiated (using this or that pole vault), the same process must be repeated to submit the document to the Birth Registry, so that the official record will show that Flor had already divorced her first husband when she married her second.

This second step is very important, because it also legalizes her current marriage, of which there is a record at the court but which never made it to the Civil Registry – an institution which, despite its name, apparently “registers” very little.

They asked her to take hard-currency revenue stamps because her ex-husband currently lives in the United States. After she had bought them, a different official refused to accept them because Doña Flor is a Cuban resident and must pay using Cuban peso stamps.

Flor told us she started “in October and has still not concluded the process. I have to take many days off work to be able to see the different officials.” She adds that every new step entails more spending, because she has to give people “gifts” to get things moving.

The computerization of society has yet to arrive. Most public documents are still paper files.
The computerization of society has yet to arrive. Most public documents are still paper files. Photo: Raquel Perez

No Way Out for Doña Flor

Many Cubans avoid the traps of bureaucracy opting for common-law marriages, a relationship that does not require any paperwork. But they will invariably be caught by the net if they need to legalize ownership over a household, receive an inheritance or certify a document.

On the radio, I heard the dramatic story of a man who has been trying to legalize an inheritance for 6 months. Every time, he is sent to a different office, where they ask him for different documents. Once, he put together all of the needed documents but they sent him away because the first he had secured had already expired.

It may sound funny, but the people of Cuba waste many entire days of their lives going from one office to the next and bribing officials to process documents which it is their duty to attend to.

It is not merely a question of inefficiency. It has also become something of a standard procedure. “That’s very complicated, I’m putting my job at risk if I don’t do things by the book,” public officials tell us to ask for the money that will magically clear the obstacles in our way.

This week, I heard high-ranking officials from the Ministry of Justice declare over the radio that they are improving the quality of services and that they have streamlined and simplified many legal mechanisms. I guess they and Doña Flor live in two different countries.
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(*) An HT translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.


One thought on “Cuba: Flor and Her Two Husbands

  • Fernando, you hit the nail on the head. To this day I do not know why for my marriage I had to buy stamps in each of the two currencies from two different banks. In Jorge Amado’s novel the first husband is a benign ghost. The story is humorous and enjoyable. The Cuban red tape is a nightmare. That is why the film of Thomas Gutierrez Alea ends tragically. Ironically I bought my copy of the novel by Amado in the German Democratic Republic a year before everything changed. We will see if this means hope or despair for the Cuban people.

    Gutierrez Alea

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