Cuba: Love with Less Paperwork

August 22, 2013 | Print Print |

Fernando Ravsberg*

The number of marriages in Cuba dropped fourfold between 1992 and 2012 (Photo: Raquel Perez).

The number of marriages in Cuba dropped fourfold between 1992 and 2012 (Photo: Raquel Perez).

HAVANA TIMES — While nearly 200 thousand people got married in Cuba in 1992, the number barely exceeded 50 thousand in 2012. These figures appear to show that today’s generations of Cubans prefer common law partnerships over marriage.

Curiously enough, the country witnessed the largest number of weddings in the midst of its worst economic crisis ever, when no one knew exactly what was in store for a nation that had lost all of its trade partners and had been left without fuel, means of transportation, clothing and even food.

People’s reaction to the crisis might strike those unfamiliar with the cultural idiosyncrasies of Cubans as contradictory. However, it has a rather logical explanation: for the young Cubans of the time, getting married implied something of a break in the midst of their daily hardships.

In its attempts at making all Cubans equal, the government had gone as far as subsidizing and rationalizing Christmas traditions, to guarantee that all Cuban children received similar gifts. The same thing happened with marriages.

The State took it upon itself to guarantee that all couples had the absolute essentials to celebrate their wedding. Accordingly, it handed out coupons to buy the cake, several beer crates, other beverages and snacks at giveaway prices.

After tying the knot, all newly-weds, without exception, were entitled to 3 days in a major hotel. The rooms, as well as all food and drinks, were paid for in regular Cuban pesos.

No one passed up this honeymoon offer, as the hotel guaranteed the parity of the Cuban peso with the US dollar, despite the fact that, in the early 90s, people paid as much as 125 pesos for a single dollar on the black market.

I used to be surprised by the fact couples would choose a hotel located in the city where they lived, until I realized this was a way of keeping the party going. During the 3-day honeymoon, friends and relatives would go to this hotel to enjoy the pool, eat and drink…in Cuban pesos.

New generations of Cubans appear to prefer just living together as common law couples, a status that affords them the same rights as marriage with less paperwork (Photo: Raquel Perez).

New generations of Cubans appear to prefer just living together as common law couples, a status that affords them the same rights as marriage with less paperwork (Photo: Raquel Perez).

For decades, Cuba had next to no international tourism and hotels were destined chiefly to nationals. In the 90s, however, the government began to forbid Cubans from staying at these hotels, and getting married was the only way of enjoying these establishments.

In addition, there were special shops were newly-weds could purchase household items, such as pots, sheets, dishes, towels, mosquito nets, coffee pots and blenders. If memory serves me right, there was a shop of this kind in the San Rafael boulevard in Centro Habana.

Economic reforms have since done away with subsidies in practically every sector of the economy, including those that made weddings so attractive to Cubans. The party’s over; now anyone who wants a bit of cake or a honeymoon will have to pay for it…and in hard currency.

What statistics seem to be showing is that many Cubans have now decided that getting married is no longer worth their while, for, ultimately, people living together as common law couples, and their children, have exactly the same rights as those who contract matrimony.

What’s more, Cubans know that a marriage certificate is no guarantee of anything. For decades, the country has had one of the highest divorce rates in the region. Common law marriages spare them the red-tape involved in getting married and then divorced.

In fact, divorces are so common in Cuba that next to no one considers marriage a definitive step. Many young people get married out of true love but very few of them do so thinking only death or God will do them part.

To get a divorce, it suffices for one of the spouses to request it at a notary’s office or law practice. The procedure is one of the few bureaucratic processes which are quicker in Cuba than in the rest of the world: it takes only 20 days and costs a mere US $3.00.

Very few Cubans have any moral qualms about this. During his visit to the island, Pope John Paul II condemned extra-marital relations and thus surprised many around the country, who do not consider sex a diabolical temptation but a life-affirming miracle.
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(*) An authorized HT translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.


What's your opinion?

  • ac

    The main reason is that marriage is meaningless in a fairly secular society where virtually nobody cares about the sexual life of others. Not to mention that 3+ decades of intern high school without serious adult supervision puts virginity in the realm of child molestation.

    Add the rules of the code of family and gender equality before the law and for all practical purposes the marriage is meaningless as long as you don’t care abut the social recognition of their union (with the notable exception of either the bride or groom coming from a particularly religious family or if they plan to migrate legally).

    And good riddance to all that. People are supposed to be together because they love each other and want to be together, no because some weird obligation coming from antediluvian contract based in the flawed idea that woman is property makes divorce difficult and costly or because of the fear of becoming “damaged goods” to the eyes of society makes preferable to endure unhappiness and abuse.

    • Griffin

      Marriage has existed for centuries in every human society on earth. There must be a very good reason for it. To toss out the institution without understanding what it really is and what we are losing is dangerous step to take.

      • ac

        I do understand the historic reasons for it, the question is: do you? Marriage is primarily a social contract to establish monopoly over a person sexuality in order to guarantee the paternity of the offspring. There may be additional rules depending on the society, of course, but in the end thats the core of the issue.

        I’m not tossing out the institution and I’m not opposed to the right of people to have a civil union, I’m simply stating that it is useless in a society where gender equality that guarantee the children rights in the sense that it doesn’t provide any noticeable legal advantage over cohabitation.

        We all agree that a plead of eternal love is romantic, but quoting Oscar Wilde “The only difference between a caprice and a lifelong passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer”, and IMHO is not worth a live of suffering, unhappiness and often violence.

        • Griffin

          There is no evidence that unmarried relationships are less violent than married couples, on the contrary, short-term co-habitants are more likely to experience domestic violence. Furthermore, the evidence is clear that married people are happier and healthier than the unmarried. Children raised in stable families are also much happier and mentally healthier than those raised in unstable environments. Gender equality of child welfare laws do not a loving family make.

          I appreciate Mr. Wilde’s wit, but I wouldn’t take advice from him on how to manage relationships: he died in exile, alone and broken. Romantic love is nice, but it’s not the essential element of a good marriage. Companionship, friendship, loyalty, trust, and respect are much more important and last much longer. It is telling that the idea of marriage fills you with feeling of contempt, fear, suffering, unhappiness and violence.

          Short-term cohabiting relationships, in which neither person feels any obligation to stay should any caprice strike him or her to leave, lack the quality of abiding trust that comes from secure human bonds. The unhappy, rootless citizens of such an atomized society will find solace in the firm grip of the totalitarian state.

          Marriage is an institution which forms the bond of the most basic unit of society: the family. Of course, the totalitarian state would like very much to weaken the family as a rival to their absolute power, not only over reproduction, but every other human activity.

          • Moses Patterson

            Putting the religious aspects of marriage aside, the institution has also served as a legal acknowledgement of shared ownership of property, namely homes, between spouses. In a society, like Cuba, where citizens are loosely defined as property owners, the ‘contract’ that legal marriage offers is less valuable and more problematic. On the contrary, marriage in Cuba has diminished, in part, because of the fact that homes held in grandma’s name could be lost to an ex-spouse through divorce. To avoid this mess, many couples choose to live together without the legal complications.

          • ac

            Of course there is evidence, is just that you didn’t bother to look. And look at actual research results, not your favorite ideologue site.

            Besides, you are missing the point. The problem is not the violence per se, is that you don’t have to endure said violence, you simply break with your partner right away, end of the story.

            Marriage only means commitment to a long term relationship, it doesn’t mean love, companionship, trust loyalty or anything of the sort. Those are things you should have earned in your relationship BEFORE marriage and none of that is exclusive of married couples. The only real difference is that cohabiting couples have more time to know each other better over long periods of time and they are free to reconsider the situation at any time and without pressures, reducing considerably the potential effects of a bad decision.

            Also, notice that people happily cohabiting together after a few years end marrying anyways (usually when they decide to have children or are comfortably enough with each other) and the KNOW they can live happily together so is unlikely that they end divorcing after a few months.

            If you know a little bit of Spanish, you should listen to Silvio’s “the family, the private property and the love” (La familia, la propiedad privada y el amor) a very nice song on the subject that probably has influenced more Cubans on this subject that all the things mentioned in the article.

          • Griffin

            Why do you say I got my data from my “prefered ideologue site”? Go ahead and google up “married people are healthier” and you will find dozens of articles, from the popular press to scholarly publications, all supporting the conclusions. Here’s just one: http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mens_Health_Watch/2010/July/marriage-and-mens-health

            I can also tell you that cohabiting couples have a higher “divorce” rate than married couples. This remains true even if the cohabiting couple decides to get married. In fact, the tendency to get married at a later date is often a last minute attempt to save an already failing relationship. I’ve seen this happen among friends of mine.

            The reason for this is very simple: people who make a commitment to marriage are joined by bonds stronger than the cohabiting couple who leave the emotional backdoor open to split when the going gets tough.

            Love, companionship, trust, loyalty and so on, are earned when people make a firm commitment to each other. If you know your partner is prepared to leave on a caprice, then you will have no trust in her nor she in you.

            The essay above, which cites the high divorce rate in Cuba, describes very well the sort of atomized, low-trust society that results from the devaluation of marriage. This sad state of affairs suits the totalitarian state just fine.