HAVANA — HAVANA -- The Palacio de los Matrimonios was once a casino, an elegant venue for the games of chance that made Havana fast and famous in the 1950s. The people in the palace are still gambling folk. They are brides and grooms.
Every 15 minutes, the wedding roulette spins.
Here are Lizette Dias and William Molinet -- she in chiffon, he in white linen -- waiting in the wedding queue. When their names are called, they ascend marble steps to pass Greco-Roman statuettes and a bouquet of plastic flowers.
Friends and family bustle behind them, shushing the chatty wedding party in the next room.
Ten minutes later, the newly married Molinet reflects on marriages in Cuba.
"Not many last long," he says, straightening his thin red tie.
"We won't get divorced," his 29-year-old bride promises as she is whisked down the stairs by her mother.
Their wedding is one of 200 a month at Old Havana's Palace of Matrimonies, the most popular of 14 civil wedding venues in the city. The conveyor-belt pace parallels a social phenomenon.
For despite economic hardships -- and, paradoxically, because of them -- weddings are a favorite pastime in Cuba, even if marriage is not.
"Weddings are a very pretty custom, and Cubans know how to keep it," says Coralia Tosar, a friend of Lizette's family. "They live in reduced circumstances, but they have one day of happiness, a day they dress beautifully.
"At least they have memories and photos."
Cuba's divorce rate is now about 50 percent, and many Cubans in their 30s have been married three times or more. The reasons include liberalized divorce laws, women's increased independence and the boredom created by unemployment.
As in many other Third World countries, the main factor in marriage and divorce may be poverty.
Farah Pacheco Alvarez worked for 23 years in a regional office of the state-run day-care centers and has watched many young couples split up. "There is a saying in Cuba, 'Love comes in by way of the kitchen,' " she says. "So when there is no food, the problems explode."
Her daughter, Yordanska, was married at 19 and divorced at 24. She lives at home with her 5-year-old son. She now is 27 and engaged again, but has postponed the wedding partly because of worries over money.
"I was very young," she says of her first marriage. "At that age we think we know everything, that we can have everything. But it's not like that."
But stresses on couples have become greater in the 1990s because of a deteriorating economy.
The fall of the Soviet Union marked the end of important subsidies, and the 35-year-old U.S. economic embargo has helped further maim an economy that is neither efficient nor self-sufficient. For a newly married couple, these problems translate quickly into trouble building a home.
Newly married couples often live with relatives, in part because new housing is scarce.
Jorge Cuevas and Marielys Gonzalez married two years ago and moved into a one-bedroom house, pending an inheritance from Cuevas' sick grandmother. The grandmother lives with his parents next door.
The young couple's kitchen is the size of a coffin. A 1958 Frigidaire is in the living room, the buzz filling the house. Fans keep mosquitoes away. When the electricity goes out -- a regular event -- the couple stays up nights fanning their fussy toddler.
This couple is lucky.
Most of their friends who married at the same time haven't lasted the two years.
"It is much better [for the couple] to live separate," says Gonzalez. "It's much worse to live with your mother or mother-in-law. Everyone has a different lifestyle."
She got a job at the local cigarette factory running the machines. She was trained to be a chemical engineer, but there's little call for her skills. Her husband is without a paid job and stays at home watching his son, who will soon be going to state day care. Jorge may go to work at the cigarette factory, but for now he devotes his time tending pigeons in a hut on the roof.
"Women are not dependent on the man economically like in other countries," Farah Pacheco says. "Elsewhere, divorce is harder to do and has a worse reputation. Here, it does not have the stigma of a failed marriage."
But many Cubans work hard to keep families together, especially those with children. And the government has long decried the high divorce rate.
Problems caused by divorce are the familiar ones: financial troubles for single parents and unstable homes for children.
But the problems are partly eased by extended families -- the aunts, cousins, grandparents and step-parents who pitch in.
Divorce doesn't create the same sense of alienation as in the United States because the institution of marriage itself has a spotty local history. Before 1959, common-law marriages in Cuba were the norm. People who could afford church weddings indulged in that luxury, but they were often a minority.
"People couldn't afford to pay the priest and government, so getting married was a goal that they saved up for and did after having several children," says Daisy Quarm, an associate professor of sociology and women's studies at the University of Cincinnati.
Organized religion was never a dominant force, so tenets discouraging divorce hold little sway. And the tradition of ornate church weddings mostly fled with exiled religious or business-oriented Cubans in the 1960s.
Cubans say boredom and frustration lead to changing liaisons. If nothing is going well at home or work, love itself is a diversion. There is also the underground industry of weddings to foreigners, which offers Cubans a way to leave the island.
Weddings, moreover, are a reason to celebrate in an otherwise boring existence. And they are part of Cuban social lore.
Cuba's government created the civil matrimony system in the mid-1960s to ensure that weddings were accessible at a token cost. Converting former houses of wealth into the "palacios" was part of the socialist ideal -- and not without a jab of irony.
A civic ceremony is easily affordable at 30 pesos, about $1.50. A cake costs from 70 cents to $10. A wedding gown can be rented for the day for $15 to $60.
But the no-frills approach is changing. More couples want more than the state allotment of cheap rum and yellowed, overused dresses.
Lizette Dias' gown, with its silky train and a puffy white veil, cost $30 to rent from a private person. Tosar, the family friend, whispered the price, indicating that it was more than the couple could afford.
But now the couple's 15 minutes are up.
It is time for another wedding.
Pub Date: 3/11/97