Murdered in Havana

After the Catholic Church banished him, Cuba welcomed him. But the vibrant new life George Zirwas created for himself soon ended in tragic death.

Bemused neighbors looked on as the genial American gushed over Taco and Tico, pampered his handsome young boyfriend, and daily played his favorite Supremes hits and show tunes from Evita, Phantom of the Opera, and Cats. Once they got past the mariconería (the gay stuff), the residents of Calle Mazón grew impressed by Zirwas' openness and generosity. He supplied the sound system and CDs for the wedding of his landlady's son; he bought medicine and clothes for the old and infirm; on holidays he handed out 10- and 20- dollar bills. Every morning the santera (Santería practitioner) who lived down the street would arrive with a bunch of flowers, her small gift in exchange for the American's five-dollar donation. He always asked the santera to pray for his mother, though he scorned that pagan-Catholic hybrid religion.

Members of Zirwas' social circle ranged from academics and artists to pingueros (young male prostitutes) and other interesados -- opportunists attracted by his dollars. Internet contacts from all over the globe visited him on Calle Mazón and wound up his fast friends. Some, like Andree Kahl, would actually stay at the apartment, renting the back bedroom.

"You could not not like him," Kahl commented by e-mail. "As he dominated the Green Screen, he was also the central personality of this circle of people who gathered around him... George had a bitchy side. But even then he would make people laugh. His favorite word was camp, which means something is ironic. It was a gay phrase he picked up in F[ort] Lauderdale. He loved irony so much. George was interested in people. Whenever people had problems they would go to George and he was always keenly interested."

Polly Becker
Left: Zirwas as the Green Screen's El Juez found Cuba wanting, but fascinating. Right: An atypical Cuban family: Ulises, Zirwas, Taco, and Tico
Left: Zirwas as the Green Screen's El Juez found Cuba wanting, but fascinating. Right: An atypical Cuban family: Ulises, Zirwas, Taco, and Tico

As the months progressed, some in his group became uneasy with Zirwas' congeniality, believing he should be more circumspect with strangers. "I was his first friend in Cuba," explains Ricardo, an artist who wants only his first name used. Zirwas first telephoned Ricardo from Costa Rica, seeking advice before his initial visit to Havana. "He was a good person, and he really loved Cuba. He made a lot of friends. But he was what we call ingenuo -- naive in some ways. I used to tell him: 'George, you're too open. You trust people too much.' After a while I withdrew from that group. I just wasn't comfortable."

Ulises never absorbed enough English or Catholicism to appreciate all the nuances of Zirwas' elaborate realm, though he was happy to join in the pageantry. "George used to say we were kings in our past lives," he relates. "You know how people like to read magazines about movie stars and singers? George read magazines with pictures of the royal families. He loved royal weddings. He would say, 'Someday we're going to be in a royal wedding.'"

Ever since the two men met, Zirwas had been trying -- or talking about trying -- to plant Ulises on U.S. soil, though the legal options were negligible. "George would always say, 'I've got to find a way to bring you to the United States with me,'" Ulises recounts. "He told me about his condo in Florida and how beautiful it is there. He'd always say, 'Ulises, if something happens to me, who will take care of you?'"

That caregiver might well be the same Cuban man with whom Ulises was romantically involved while living with Zirwas. The existence of this other man, alluded to by some friends of the couple, has not been confirmed by Ulises and could be mere gossip or fabrication. But given the open, uncomplicated promiscuity of Cuban society in general and gay Cuban society in particular, it would be surprising if both Ulises and Zirwas had not taken other lovers.

In fact Zirwas was open about his sexuality and promiscuity, at least while he was in Havana. "George was unabashedly slutty, but who am I to judge," remarks a good friend, a foreigner who travels regularly to Cuba. "I just don't think a man who leaves the priesthood because he really enjoys gay sex is bad." Despite his brush with pedophile scandal in the past, and claims by some Cubans, there's no proof Zirwas pursued underage boys. "He was more into Lothario hairdresser types," an American friend points out, "and twentysomething college gay boys."

Defenders and detractors alike do agree Zirwas' lauded munificence didn't extend to paid sex. "When I was in Cuba last summer," an American friend writes in an e-mail, "some of the men spoke of [Zirwas' murder] as if the man who was killed was not very 'generous monetarily' to his tricks. The word in the streets was that it took place because of this fact. That is a possible motive for some infuriated homicidal hustler. He gave [to his "rent boys"] T-shirts and stuff, but he had a bad rep anyway. It was just the cheapskate game he played."

The motive for the senseless killing of Zirwas remains uncertain even after the trial and convictions of Abel Medina and Armando Vicente Alfonso. Since neither U.S. nor Cuban authorities responded to inquiries about the arrest and trial of the half-brothers, all information in this article about the legal case against Medina and Alfonso comes from accounts of people who spoke with police and attended the trial, which lasted three days in August 2001. None of Zirwas' immediate family attended, nor did the defendants' mother.

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