Murdered in Havana

Two years ago a 47-year-old United States citizen named George Zirwas was murdered in his apartment in Havana. The death -- in a nation still legally off-limits to most Americans -- made for tantalizing news, and Zirwas's past as a Roman Catholic priest only complicated the mystery. Cuba-obsessed South Floridians were especially curious after it turned out Zirwas had lived for a time in Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach.

Beyond the initial reports, though, almost no accurate information about the man or the circumstances of his demise (even the cause of death) emerged publicly. In Cuba, where murders are rare and almost never mentioned in the state-run media, only those with access to street gossip had heard about the potentially politically sensitive incident.

But Zirwas never became a public-relations problem for either Cuba or the U.S. In fact everyone from the State Department in Washington to his devastated family in Pennsylvania seemed to want the whole ghastly matter, and all questions about Zirwas and his life in Cuba, out of the way -- quickly and quietly.

Three months after the murder a Havana man was tried, convicted, and sentenced to die by firing squad. News of the trial and later appeals never made it to the U.S. Thus few people are aware of the unusual way George Zirwas died, or of the two similar murders his killer confessed to, or that the killer's death sentence was later commuted in virtual secrecy.

It's as though Zirwas vanished into the crumbling corridors of old Havana, leaving behind only enigmatic traces. His friends relate half-truths about him, making it all the more difficult to know him or to make sense of his untimely and undeserved passing. Yet Zirwas, who prized irony and absurdity, would probably prefer to rest in eternal ambiguity. Even if his family and closest colleagues in the church had been willing to talk about him for this article (they weren't), they couldn't explain him, for Zirwas never fully revealed himself either to his family or his church, the two institutions that formed him and which he loved faithfully, even while deceiving them.

Zirwas probably loved his Cuban boyfriend, Ulises, too. He left him a substantial amount of money in his will, a small fortune by Cuban standards. Ulises describes a fun, affectionate life with Zirwas, but he carefully omits facts that would blur the idyllic picture, thus reinforcing the perception that little in this strange story is as it first appears.

Ulises Sierra Tabares, a nurse on the psychiatric ward at Manuel Fajardo Hospital in Havana, finished his overnight shift at seven o'clock on the dewy, cloudy morning of May 27, 2001. As usual Ulises headed home to the apartment in Centro Habana he shared with George Zirwas. It was Sunday, and later in the day, in what over the previous three years had become a weekly ritual, the pair would enjoy an afternoon feast -- roast pork, yuca, congri, fried plantains -- in the tiny apartment where Ulises's family lived in the nearby Vedado neighborhood. Zirwas raved about the platos tipicos Ulises's mother loved to cook for him.

A coal miner's son from Washington County, Pennsylvania, Zirwas had appeared on Havana's robust gay scene in late 1997, still proud of his conservative American roots. But he rarely disclosed exactly how far from Pennsylvania he had come. For fifteen years, until 1996, he was a Roman Catholic priest. Then, after being linked inconclusively to a sex scandal, he was stripped of his priestly duties.

In Havana this bespectacled former cleric created for himself a flamboyant life that little in his past could have foreshadowed. Like other foreigners living comfortably, even luxuriously, amid the poverty and civil constraints of Cuban society, Zirwas was freer to remake himself than he ever could have been in the United States. But he wasn't simply escaping a troubled past. Even before he met Ulises Sierra, Zirwas had fallen in love with Cuba and its proud, predatory, and relentlessly resourceful people.

Zirwas's fascination with Cuba also owed to the unknowable nature of the island, where appearances often deceive and extravagant beauty can blind. Wonderland was one of the several names Zirwas bestowed on the island. He was enchanted by the surrealities and contradictions with which Cubans live and play, and which they always turn to their advantage. Cuba is, after all, a place where people use the verb inventar (invent) to describe how they go about their daily lives.

For close to three years Zirwas and Ulises lived in a modestly furnished apartment on Calle Mazón near its intersection with Calle San Rafael, just east of the University of Havana. The neighborhood, straddling the boundary of Vedado and Centro Habana, is well-maintained and lively. In late afternoons Zirwas was in the habit of walking his pet Chihuahuas, Taco and Tico, a half-dozen blocks northwest to little Colina Park, next door to the lovely Colina Hotel. The brick-paved park is a natural rest stop close to hotels and restaurants, media offices, and university buildings. Zirwas would claim his favorite iron bench (facing south, nearest the sidewalk) and survey the striving, sweating Havana street scene.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.