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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 August 2005, 10:34 GMT 11:34 UK
Husbands for sale in Cuba
Stephen Gibbs
By Stephen Gibbs
BBC News, Havana

A wedding is a big occasion in any society, but in Cuba it can also be big business. Many Cuban women see a foreign husband as a ticket out of the country - a passport, possibly, to new prosperity.

Cuba
The other day I bumped into a Cuban friend of mine in a shoe shop in Havana. She was buying a pair of white slippers.

"They're for my wedding," she told me. I was surprised. I had no idea that she had any wedding plans.

"Who are you getting married to?" I asked.

"A Mexican," she replied.

"When did you meet him?" I wondered.

"I haven't yet," she said.

It turned out my friend was taking part in what is a small, but booming market in Cuba - the purchase of foreign husbands. Usually arranged through intermediaries, many Cuban women consider it by far the best way to leave this country.

But it is not cheap. My friend paid $5,000 for her Mexican groom. That, I am told, is also the going rate for American, Canadian, and European husbands.

A Costa Rican man can apparently be persuaded to tie the knot for around $2,000. Peruvian men, for some reason, are currently particularly good value. Just $800 will secure one.

New purchase

A few days after meeting my friend, I went to her wedding. Often the line between what is real and what is not is somewhat blurred in Cuba, but this really was an extreme example.

The bride's family had showed up in force. And none seemed happier than her mother, decked out in an extravagant 1960s flowery outfit. Some children, from a previous marriage, were also there, along with aunts and uncles from all over Havana. All seemed delighted with their new purchase.

Pepe, the husband, whom they had only met a few hours before, was a jolly, retired engineer in his late fifties, who seemed quite prepared to go along with this theatre as far, and probably beyond, as was required.

You'll see queues of young, often beautiful, Cuban women, waiting to convince embassy staff that their acquaintances with tourists they recently met look set to be long term
A few bottles of Spanish cider were cracked open. A cake was cut and, some cigars lit up.

Before long the bride, her mother, the children, and Pepe were all dancing together. Everyone seemed to have forgotten that this was a sham.

And if you had not known, you would never have guessed. Maybe there were a few more giggles than there normally are when the groom had to kiss the bride.

I also noticed that the ring was only a very temporary loan from the bride's sister. But that aside, all was completely convincing.

Someone had brought along an old video camera. Another was taking endless photographs of the happy couple.

And that really was what this was all about. Recording on camera the wedding so that the evidence is there if ever officials at the Mexican embassy ask any difficult questions as to whether this marriage is genuine.

Many layers

Many Cubans do not have to go to these lengths, or expense, in order to leave this island on the arm of a lonely foreigner. Cuba, after all, was once likened by Graham Greene to a factory producing human beauty.

Outside the grand neoclassical villas which house many of the embassies here, you will see queues of young, often beautiful, Cuban women, waiting to convince embassy staff that their acquaintances with tourists they recently met look set to be long term. The queue beside the Italian Embassy is usually the longest.

Havana, Cuba
Officials in Havana are often aware of the practice

Plenty of these relationships do continue happily outside Cuba. But plenty do not.

In the British Consulate, there is an area where diplomats have pinned up e-mails from distraught British spouses as a warning to those that are about to take the plunge. There is the story of a woman who married a Cuban man, thinking it was for ever, only to find that forever did not last much beyond Heathrow airport.

Another reports that her apparently adoring husband left one night with only her credit card for company.

These tales of love and betrayal are the stuff of expat dinner parties in Havana. One favourite is the story about the American who had a yacht in the marina and fell in love with a Cuban girl 40 years younger than him.

After a divorce from his first wife which cost him $10m he discovered that his relationship with the Cuban was not, shall we say, exclusive

The best raconteur of all these tales used to be a gay French hotelier, who lived in Cuba for 10 years, and claimed that he had seen it all and knew all the tricks.

But even he did not.

I once went to a dinner he hosted. Sitting next to him was a Cuban man with whom he had lived for the last two years. On the other side of the table was a Cuban woman. Our host never knew that his boyfriend and the Cuban woman were in fact husband and wife.

People often say that Cuba has many layers. They are right.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 6 August, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Cuba
20 Jul 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Cuba
12 Jul 05 |  Country profiles


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