Why a Community of Punks Chose to Infect Themselves with HIV in Castro's Cuba
To escape persecution, Los Frikis chose to give themselves HIV for a chance at life in a Cuban AIDS sanitarium.
Generally speaking, punk rock is a tool wielded by those on the lowest rungs of society to express dissent—and nowhere was dissent more reactionary than in Fidel Castro's Cuba.
Socialism breeds homogeneity, and in a socialist nation, punks can't help but become unmistakably conspicuous. But more than conspicuous, Los Frikis—a community of Cuban punks who came together throughout the late 1980s and 90s, resembling punks of freer nations in style and taste—came to be viewed as pariahs by everyone but their own.
At the time, Castro's government attempted to maintain order by force, and police cracked down on vagrants and social outliers. The Frikis were one such target, because they looked different, shirked the norms of life under Castro socialism, and spent much of their time on the streets in run-down areas. They were often harassed, arrested, imprisoned, or forced to do manual labor. And as a result, some Frikis took up a form of protest that still manages to shock: They infected themselves with HIV, by injecting blood from their HIV-positive Friki friends into their own veins.
It's a mind-boggling act to consider today, but a number of factors aligned to create the social conditions that drove those Frikis to self-infect. The Soviet Union long supported Cuba's economy, but as the world power spun toward dissolution at the end of the 1980s, that support dried up, and Cuba was left to fend for itself. Castro called what followed the "Special Period," an ironic euphemism for massive food and fuel shortages and a rationing so drastic that it physically altered the Cuban people forever.
Around the same time, the AIDS crisis began to worsen, and nations around the world scrambled to control the virus's spread. Cuba's controversial approach involved aggressively testing its sexually active adult population and sending HIV-infected people to live in quarantined sanitariums. In that policy, some Frikis saw an escape from a society trying to squeeze out dissidents like them.
"He knew that by infecting himself he would be sent to the sanitarium," Niurka Fuentes told me about her late husband, a Friki named Papo La Bala (or Papo the Bullet). "He knew that he would meet other people like him in there, the police would leave him alone, and he would be able to live his life in peace."
Rather than continue living on the streets and in areas where they would be harassed and persecuted, these self-infected Frikis found a place where they would be provided with food, shelter, and medicine. And once enough of them were sent to the sanitariums, they knew the sanitariums, in turn, would become a punk haven.
"You could hear rock 'n' roll and heavy metal coming from every house," said Yoandra Cardoso, a longtime Friki who continues to live on the grounds of a former sanitarium. "When the sanatorium first opened, it was 100 percent Frikis... we were all here together."
In 1989, the military handed over control of the sanitariums to the Ministry of Public Health, and under their progressive methodology, patients were allowed to listen to and play music, dress how they choose, and socialize with others both in and out of the sanitarium. They were far better accommodations than an average Cuban could afford at the time, let alone a Friki. "We created our own world in there," Fuentes told me.
A sanitarium in Pinar del Rio, where both Fuentes and Cardoso were housed as patients since the early 90s, closed in 2006. Today, all but one of Cuba's sanitariums are closed, with the last, in Santiago de Las Vegas, now operating as an outpatient facility. Though many of its original patients have been lost to the virus—Cardoso told me only three from her sanitarium are still alive—survivors are kept alive by domestically produced antiretroviral drugs that are distributed through its socialized healthcare program. Cuba still boasts one of the lowest HIV-prevalence rates in the world, and was even celebrated for eliminating mother-to-child transmission last year (though HIV-infection rates in the country have also been rising over the past decade).
The Frikis, suffice it to say, found themselves in a compromising position for a punk community. Though even grave hardship wouldn't seem to justify their acts of self-infection, at that particular moment in history, in a place where punk ideology was grounds for persecution, the Frikis still found themselves choosing to commit an otherwise unspeakable act.
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