The Cuban Plot Behind the Murder of American Art Dealer Brent Sikkema

American art dealer Brent Sikkema. (Flickr/Cámara de Comercio de Bogotá)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, January 24, 2024 — The life of 75-year-old American gallery owner Brent Sikkema, who  was murdered on Sunday, January 14, in Rio de Janeiro led him time and again to Cuba. His trips to Havana and his relationships with those active in the city’s art scene and nightlife raise many questions about his death, allegedly at the hands of a 30-year-old Cuban named Alejandro Triana Prévez.

Sikkema’s final visit to Cuba lasted just a few days, from September 16 to 23, 2023. Unlike on previous occasions, he did not stay at the apartment he once shared with his former Cuban partner, Daniel G., to whom he had been married and with whom he was going through a messy divorce. Instead, he chose to stay at the high-end Elvira Mi Amor Hotel on Campostela Street in Old Havana.

He decided to stay there rather than at the house he had bought years earlier in Kohly, an area in the Havana suburb of Playa. Because foreigners are legally prohibited from owning property in Cuba, he decided to register the home under name of his partner.* Subsequent litigation between the two, and the large sums of money that Daniel G. was demanding in the U.S. courts as part of a divorce settlement, led Sikemma to avoid the home that held so many memories.

The last time Sikkema visited Cuba, he only stayed for a few days, between September 16 and 23 of last year 

The plastic artist José Gabriel Capaz received him at the Elvira Mi Amor Hotel shortly after Sikkema landed on the Island. The luxurious home, which included a stately bathtub and a crystal chandelier, served as the backdrop for his last visit. His friends had no idea that, after saying goodbye to him at the airport on Saturday, they would never see him again.

Sikkema, an Illinois native, managed the gallery Sikkema Jenkins & Co., which he founded in New York’s Chelsea district in 1991. Its roster included high-profile artists such as Vik Muniz, Kara Walker and Venezuela’s Arturo Herrera. In Cuba, he also had a wide network of friends and acquaintances in the art world as well as in the hospitality sector and among foreign investors.

“They attacked him while he was sleeping. They stabbed him eighteen times,” says  a female friend who lives in Havana and who learned of his murder through a former partner of Sikkema. “He was a good man. He really liked to give and to help others. He had made Cuba his second home,” says the woman, who asks to be referred to as Isolda to protect her privacy.

“He was a very trusting man. I always told him, that he should keep an eye out because there were people who approached him with good intentions and others with evil intentions,” she says. Among those she claims took advantage of Sikkema’s kindness and status as a non-resident foreigner was a female cousin of Daniel G. “What that woman did was robbery. No matter how you put it, it was a robbery.”

Isolda is referring to Belkis Z., a university professor with an important position in Cuba’s National Assembly

Isolda is referring to Belkis Z., a university professor with an important position in Cuba’s National Assembly, who served as a frontwoman for Daniel G. and Sikkema’s purchase of a penthouse apartment atop an imposing building on Avenue of the Presidents between 19th and 21st streets, in Havana’s Vedado district. The building is located a few yards from the Polish Embassy.

Belkis Z. was supposed to be the only person with legal possession of the apartment. Daniel G. already had another house and in Cuba an individual is not allowed to own more than one property. Her mission, according to several sources close to the couple, was to look after the apartment and disappear once the property could pass into the hands of the real owner — the couple’s now 12-year-old son, L. Sikkema — when he was of legal age.

According to friends and acquaintances, undergirding all these plans was Sikkema’s dream that Cuba would open up politically and economically, allowing him to move freely and legally between his homes in New York and Havana. The diplomatic thaw that occured during the Obama administration had especially excited him and his real estate investments on the island were made during that period of rapprochement between the two sides.

The house on Avenue of the Presidents, also known as G Street, seemed like a good idea. “He thought of it as a longterm investment and as a gift to his son, who was what mattered most to him,” says Isolda. “Between the house in Kohly, the penthouse apartment on G Street, a white Audi with a black top, and the costs for remodeling and decorating the two houses, Sikkema spent a million and a half dollars in Cuba.”

Alejandro Triana Prévez. (Facebook/Alejandro Triana)
Alejandro Triana Prévez. (Facebook/Alejandro Triana)

A photo on social media shows a smiling Belkis Z. posing on the rooftop of the building with the Havana skyline behind her. Soon thereafter, she would betray the American art dealer. “As soon as she found out about the divorce proceedings between Brent and Daniel G., she took over the apartment, changed the locks and, since it was in her name, there was nothing to stop her,” laments Isolda.

Later, Belkis Z. showed friends a threatening text message that she received from a Brazilian telephone number and to which 14ymedio gained access. The message talked of killing her if she did not hand over the apartment within a month. It was accompanied by a photo, taken from the street, in which she could be seen looking out of the penthouse. Despite the warning, she was not dissuaded.

“That really depressed Brent, who was already going through a bad period. He felt swindled and didn’t think he could find justice in Cuba, where he was a nobody,” says Isolda. “Daniel G. was asking the New York courts for a multi-million dollar figure. He had control of the properties in Cuba that Brent paid for out of his own pocket. But the biggest blow that that he was using their son against him.”

L. Sikkema* — the biological son of Daniel G. but legally the son of both men — was Brent Sikkema’s great concern during the bitter conflict that arose during the separation process. He feared losing the boy and petitioned for shared custody in court. According to Isolda, his former partner, who was living in New York, cut off all lines of communication between the gallery owner and the boy. “That really destroyed him. He seemed like a different person,” she says.

Sikkema and Daniel G. had met overseas when the latter, who had lived in Spain, was living in New York. “They had an open relationship but Daniel was very possessive. He didn’t like Brent talking to other men and they had almost no shared interests outside their love for their son,” says Fabio, a friend of the art dealer.

Fabio is more vague when it comes to Sikkema’s relationship with Alejandro Triana Prévez. “They met here in Havana in 2020 or 2021 but they weren’t friends or anything like that. He managed the surveillance cameras at the Kohly house. I think when they met for the first time it was after Daniel G. had already hired him,” says Fabio. “He never talked about him. I never even heard [Brent] mention him.”

Once the country’s borders were open again after the pandemic, Alejandro Triana left Cuba. He arrived in Brazil in 2022, requested asylum and began offering parcel delivery services to the island through his Facebook account

Confident and very sociable, “[Brent] always surrounded himself with young Cubans with whom he went out and had a good time, but Triana was never one of them,” says Fabio. “He was very active sexually — he had an open relationship with Daniel — and he liked to go looking for young men in the Central Park area and around 25th and 0 streets in Vedado.”

Once the pandemic was over and the country’s borders were open again, Alejandro Triana left Cuba. He arrived in Brazil in 2022 and requested asylum. Using his Facebook account, he offered parcel delivery services to the island and helped Cubans with their visa applications for travel to Brazil. He alternated these posts with others in which he sought out women for a night of passion.

Once out of Cuba, he self-published a 92-page book entitled Gray Reflections on Love. In this memoir, he provides emotional tools that readers might use “with what is on hand.” His recommendations could not have been more prescient: “Quite simply, I hope you feel every word in your heart even if you tell the world they are not there.”

In his social media posts, Triana never mentions his connection to Sikkema. According to information provided by Brazilian police, the alleged killer travelled from São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro, then to the wealthy neighborhood of Jardín Botánico, in the southern part of city, where he committed the crime. All indications are that he staked out the Sikkema’s residence for fourteen hours before entering.

It was in that house that Sikkema was murdered. Several friends tell 14ymedio that the art dealer had also bought a second home in Brazil, a country to which he traveled as many as three times a year. The money that was stolen after he was killed was intended partly to furnish that property. “He never talked about Alejandro Triana. He was not someone of importance in the family. He was just a grunt,” says Isolda.

The Brazilian police arrested Triana in the neighboring state of Minas Gerais, where he was carrying jewelry and the equivalent of more than $36,000 in cash

The newspaper O Globo and the New York Post both report that investigators now want to speak with Daniel G.

“Given that the suspect in detention is Cuban, a new phase of the investigation will begin to verify if the ex-husband had any relationship with the accused,” said Rio police spokesman Alexandre Herdy at a press conference last Friday.

“We have no doubt that this crime was premeditated,” said Herdy. “What we don’t know is the motive, if it was a robbery or something else. We know the suspect was very careful and left the air conditioning on in the bedroom so as not to arouse suspicion. He also left an expensive mobile phone near the corpse, something we don’t understand.” Sikkema’s body was found on Monday by his lawyer, who had  keys to his house.

Questions by Brazilian police echo those of Sikkema’s friends. These are people who were aware of the conflicts that the couple was experiencing and the pressure being exerted by Daniel G., who would not agree to a divorce without a multi-million dollar settlement. Text messages fly quickly between those closest to the American art dealer and speculation grows.

One of those friends is Cucú Diamante, the Cuban-American singer who has become a very prominent figure due to the diplomatic and cultural rapprochement between the United States and Cuba. “This issue has affected her deeply and she does not want to talk to anyone about it but, based on messages that have been exchanged so far, she has the same suspicions as everyone else and those doubts point to New York,” says Fabio.

One of those friends is Cucú Diamante, the Cuban-American singer who has become a very prominent figure due to the diplomatic and cultural rapprochement between the United States and Cuba

Security camera footage taken outside Sikkema’s house in Rio shows Alejandro Triana entering the property on Sunday, January 14, between three and four in the morning and hurriedly leaving fourteen minutes later. The next image the public sees of him is that of a man handcuffed and looking surprised.

What led the “grunt” to target the art dealer? How much do Sikkema’s friends know but are not saying because they do not want to get involved or to expose a network that benefited from the American’s generosity? How much is being hushed up so that the scandal does not spill over into the Cuban arts and business network that depends on wealthy foreigners enthralled with the island?

Quite possibly, the public will get a clearer picture after Alejandro is interrogated in Brazil, but many other answers can only be found in Havana and New York.

*Translator’s note: The New York Post has identified Sikkema’s husband as 53-year-old Daniel Garcia Carrera Sikkema and their son as Lucas Sikkema.


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