A famous inscription above the main door to Havana's Colón Cemetery reads in Latin, Janua Sum Pacis — “I am the door to peace.”
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But peace and quiet for the people buried there is not what Cuban-American investor José Valdés-Fauli found when he visited the tomb of his maternal grandfather, Jacinto Pedroso, one of the most important Cuban businessmen in the first half of the 20th century and founder of the Pedroso Bank.
Valdés-Fauli, a Coral Gables resident, traveled to the island in May to participate in the XII Havana Biennial and while there paid his respects — as he had done in previous visits — at the tombs of Pedroso, who died in 1955, and his paternal family, the Valdés-Fauli.
The first thing that Valdés-Fauli noticed was that the name of Pedroso had been erased from the marble in a clumsy and rushed manner. A statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the mausoleum, which his grandfather had built for himself and other family members, had been replaced by a virgin. He learned later that the virgin had been put there by the mausoleum's new owner.
Not only had Pedroso's mausoleum been sold, but his remains had been thrown into a mass grave, Valdés-Fauli learned from one of the cemetery's caretakers.
“When I gave the caretaker some money, he gave me the information. He told me that he himself had done the work, erasing the name and removing the remains,” Valdés-Fauli said after he returned to Miami.
That was a surprise to the investor. Although his relatives had carried out some repairs on the tomb of his paternal family, which was indeed in a poor state, they never had to repair Pedrosos's mausoleum, which had been in perfect condition.
Valdés-Fauli said that members of his family who live in the United States have been visiting the island as well as Pedroso's tomb since 1997. The investor himself had been there in 1998 and the most recent visit of one of his parents was in 2013. And they never had any difficulty finding the mausoleum — on C Street, on the right side of the cemetery's Principal Avenue.
“When you went to the registry and asked for the tomb of Pedroso you always got (the same) directions,” said Valdés-Fauli, adding that the mausoleum only held the remains of his grandfather, who died at the age of 72.
Pedroso descended from a prominent banking family that arrived in Cuba in the late 1500s. In 1913 it founded Pedroso y Cia., a banking and development house that financed the sugar industry and later became the Banco Pedroso. He served as president of the Cuban Banks Association and head of the Havana Yacht Club, which brought together Havana's high society, from 1928 to 1930.
“They took everything from us, and now they are going to take away our dead,” said Valdés-Fauli, adding that he was outraged by the reply from a Cuban official when he asked how a mausoleum that was owned by the Pedroso family could have been sold.
“On Monday, May 25, I met with Maricela de las Nieves Ramos Diaz, director of the National Register of Cultural Properties,” Valdés-Fauli said in an email sent to El Nuevo Herald.
“She told me that ownership of the tomb had been acquired in 1993 through a court ruling,” he wrote, and that the current owner, a woman, in turn had bought it from the unidentified person who acquired it in 1993. Ramos did not reply to several El Nuevo Herald efforts to contact her by phone and email.
“What's happened since 1993? Everyone was told that Jacinto Pedroso's tomb was there and now they say that it was sold. I believe that someone obtained the ownership fraudulently. The only ones who have rights are the heirs of Jacinto Pedroso,” said Valdés-Faulí, adding that all the heirs live in the United States.
The investor said Ramos also told him that the tomb had been sold under a legal precept known as usucapion.
The term, from Roman law and part of the legal code of Cuba and many other countries, stipulates “that a person can acquire the property of another if the person has been using it — and I stress the word ‘using’ it, as an owner, for a period of time without disturbance or interruption,” said María Elena Cobas Cobiella, a law expert and professor at the University of Valencia in Spain since 2004.
“This period of time in the Cuban legal code is five years,” said Cobas Cobiella, who also taught at the University of Havana from 1983 to 1999.
The legal expert added that if the owners of the mausoleum had been visiting, cleaning and putting flowers on it, the Colón Cemetery should not have sold it because it had a known owner. She also noted that the cemetery had been declared a World Cultural and Natural Heritage list. “I don't know how they have been able to do this, because they need authorizations for that,” she added.
Valdés-Fauli said his family will study all the legal remedies that may be available. In a letter to Eusebio Leal, City of Havana historian, he wrote, “Numerous members of the family have gone there to pay our respect to our grandfather in the last 17 years, and now we learn of this (the sale) because of the tomb's desecration.”