CÁRDENAS, Cuba - At the start of 2017, parts of a woman’s body began to appear in various places in this town. It was a young woman with black skin. First it was her arms and hands, in a stadium, on a mountain. Then authorities found her legs, feet and torso.
They found everything except her head.
Her destroyed head would not be found until weeks later, while a number of theories made their way through town as people sought to explain the mysterious crime.
The story was not reported by the press, not state nor independent nor opposition. In Cuba, due to the influence of the state's information policies, crime coverage is often considered sensationalist and, therefore, access to official information is tightly restricted. Such news is shunned on the island as much as – or maybe even more than – coverage of entertainment gossip.
Only in extreme cases will state media publish one or two official articles about a crime. Even then, the reporting is limited to short articles about arrests and sentences. In most femicides, there is no journalistic record. No one has access to facts beyond those working on the case. Whatever stories circulate are based solely on rumors.
A town in shock
In Cárdenas, a municipality in the province of Matanzas, home to about 147,000 people, the story of the dismemberment entered the public domain in a matter of days. Across Cuba, everyone was focused on then-U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to eliminate the "wet-foot, dry-foot” immigration policy at the end of his second term. But in Cárdenas, the crime provoked horror and obsession.
Marielys Pérez, a waitress in a private restaurant located in front of José Antonio Echeverría Park, says people were afraid to leave home “because they did not know what was going on or why.” In the absence of answers, speculation spread.
Yadián Rodríguez, Marielys' co-worker, said the fear was so strong that "there were nights when almost everyone here went to bed early and you did not see anyone on the street." It was only after news emerged – through the grapevine – that the police had captured the alleged murderer that Cárdenas regained a sense of security.
Still, the unofficial version took on a life of its own. Anyone could contribute by adding, suppressing, exaggerating or making up facts. Several versions emerged. There was no consensus as to the motive of the crime.
But everyone agreed on one point: police had detained the victim’s husband, who was also the father of her youngest son.
Among the rumors: He killed her because she was unfaithful with a neighbor, because she left him to start another relationship with that neighbor, because he could not bear to see her with the neighbor. Or he forced her to be a prostitute and kept the money, and then, when she did not earn enough, he hit her and ended up beating her to death. Or, he stabbed her to death as part of a religious sacrifice, offering the head to his deity. There was no limit to the creativity in the story-telling.
The woman's name was Taimara Gómez Macías
Taimara was the mother of two children, Christopher and Christian, daughter of Tamara, granddaughter of Mercedes, sister of Dagmara. Before her death, she had lived her 29 years in Cárdenas. And, like so many other women, she had been the victim of domestic violence for many years, verified by plenty of witnesses. Her death should have been avoided.
This murder fits the definition of femicide, the act of murdering a woman because of her socio-historical status as a woman.
In Cuba, that violence is tolerated. There is no category for this crime in the country.
Cuban journalist and feminist Sandra Abd'Allah-Alvarez Ramírez, author of the blog Negra cubana tenía que ser (“She had to be a black Cuban woman”), says the social, political, cultural, legal and economic structures of the country feed into violence against women.
She points out as evidence the fact that the penal code does not criminalize violence against women. It is only an aggravated crime when the victim suffers at the hands of her husband. Also, there are very few centers for women victims of rape, the blogger notes.
Almost two months after the incident, there are few clear facts about Taimara’s death. Reinier Demarco, a teacher, believes "that kind of news should come out on the TV.”
“Those things should be cleared up," he says.
However, what worries him most now is a potentially light sentence for the husband of the victim if he is found guilty.
Despite the brutal nature of the case, 57-year-old Alicia Rodríguez, a graduate in economics who worked most of her life as a professor at the University of Matanzas, warns that this is not the first time something like this has happened in Cárdenas. She has lived her whole life in the town and recalls several episodes of violence against women, including murder.
She remembers the girl who worked in the ice cream parlor next to her house. She was the daughter of a doctor and almost died from stab wounds from an attack by her ex-boyfriend. She survived because her mother stepped in and sacrificed her own life to protect her. She also recounts how her cousin's sister died at the age of 18 because her husband kicked her in the liver. She tells the story of a man she knew personally, who was "well-behaved," who had even reached middle management positions in some companies. But one day his partner asked him to leave for a while because her children were due to visit from the United States and she did not want them to know she was with a black man. He could not bear the rejection and stabbed her.
Changing a 'culture of tolerance'
While every crime committed against a woman provokes repudiation and shock, the fact is that daily manifestations of violence against women are effectively tolerated by those who witness them. In Cuba, there is an unwritten law to justify the lack of action: "Between husband and wife, no one should get involved."
Rodríguez herself recognizes that she has been in public places where suddenly a man begins to beat the woman he is with him and nobody intervenes. There may be some people who call out for the man to stop, and sometimes the police are even notified. Rodríguez said that she once called the police to report a boy hitting a girl outside her home. But police told her there was not enough gasoline to send a patrol car.
In part, society assumes that a woman who has a relationship with a man who strikes her may deserves the blows she receives, Rodríguez says.
Although the Cuban government's efforts to reduce violence against women and girls has intensified since 1997, much work remains in order to overcome the prevailing patriarchal culture.
According to a 2015 report on the legal-penal problem of trafficking in persons and other crimes related to exploitation or sexual abuse in Cuba, there are 173 women and family counseling centers in operation in Cuba. Many of the abused women go to these centers. Community groups, educational institutions and health services also work to address the problem.
But because of Cuba’s focus on equality among all citizens before the law, homicides are judged equally, regardless of the gender and motive.
Abd'Allah-Alvarez Ramírez is lobbying for the criminalization of femicide in the Criminal Code.
She argues that the law should “consider that there are situations in which women are at a disadvantage, such as in situations of violence.”
Ultimately, the culture of tolerance causes every femicide, she says. The doctor's daughter was systematically harassed, to the point of having to leave work, before she suffered her final deadly attack. Similarly, in another case, the victim often showed marks on her body. Eventually, a kick in her stomach burst her liver.
Death, in most cases, is the outcome of a long history of violence, in which the perpetrator, encouraged by the impunity of his actions, increasingly transgresses worse and worse limits.