“Death is a door”: HIV/AIDS, Freedom, & the Cuban Punk Rock Scene
by Megan Bridges
The following article was also featured in The Spectrum as the fourth installment of a five-part series, titled Spotlight on Cuba.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall collapsed, signaling the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This momentous event had major implications for Cuba, whose economy was largely supported by Russian agricultural subsidies. A food scarcity in Cuba ensued, and once-strong men began to wither, dropping to under 100 pounds because of malnutrition. The food rations that Cubans were entitled to were cut, and it became commonplace to wait in long breadlines. Furthermore, Fidel Castro perceived the demise of the Soviet Union as a threat to socialism domestically, and he took to the airwaves to passionately state, “Socialismo or muerte” (translation: socialism or death). When presented with this choice, some citizens chose death.
Among them were members of the Cuban punk rock community, called los frikis (translation: the freaks). The name began as a pejorative term, but it was quickly embraced by punk rockers as it took on unspoken meaning. That is, to be a friki meant to be an individual in a collectivist society. Assuming this alternative lifestyle, however, made them targets for police brutality and discrimination. The long hair and American band tee shirts that characterized them also put them in danger. Young men with long hair were beaten, and some were arrested and sent to cut sugarcane in the Cuban hinterlands. Furthermore, they were perceived as threats to society, and they were often charged with public endangerment. Such a charge could send defendants to prison for as many as four years.
Despite facing extreme marginalization, rock music united the frikis under a sort of “religious brotherhood.” The sense of community they gained from their involvement in the punk rock scene was desperately needed, especially in cases where teenagers were estranged from their parents. One such teen was the legendary Papo la Bala (translation: Papo the Bullet), who was also called the “Kurt Cobain of the Frikis.” Papo’s father was an alcoholic, and his mother abandoned him as a child. By age fourteen, he was homeless. Despite his unfortunate circumstances, he was charismatic, and he was known to defiantly wear the American flag around his neck. He found a home among the other punk rockers, who he would join as they sat on rooftops to listen to Florida stations through their Russian FM radios. They were seduced by the sounds of the Rolling Stones, Led Zepplin, and Barry Manilow, even though it was illegal to listen to American and British music in Cuba at the time.
Papo desired freedom, and in the early 1990s he devised a way to escape the oppressive Castro regime. His plan: infect himself with HIV, knowing full well the mortal consequences of his actions. Papo associated with several HIV-positive rockers, who had contracted the disease after it was introduced to Cuba in 1985 by soldiers returning home from military service in southern Africa. He confided in a fellow friki, “When you don’t have any more doors to open, death is a door.” As a manifestation of political protest, Papo took a syringe with contaminated blood he had withdrawn from an HIV-positive rocker and jabbed his vein with the needle. Papo had contracted the virus and, by doing so, sentenced himself to death.
Papo was among the first wave of self-injectors. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, about a dozen punk rockers infected themselves with HIV. By the end of the decade, however, that number had climbed to the hundreds. The Cuban government does not have any official statistics on this phenomenon, but many estimate that approximately 200 people–mostly men–had infected themselves with the deadly virus. Unlike Papo, the men that followed poorly understood the dangers of HIV/AIDS or its modes of transmission. Not realizing it spread through sexual contact, many of their girlfriends also suffered from the consequences of their actions.
The reasons the frikis chose to self-inject were varied. For Papo, it was a gesture of political defiance. For others, however, HIV/AIDS offered its victims a chance at a better life. To explicate, members of high-risk groups, such as pregnant women, health workers, and blood donors, were forcibly tested by health officials at their homes, places of work, and schools. By 1988, for instance, 25% of sexually active Cubans had been tested, and nearly 4% turned up positive test results. Individuals who were part of this unlucky percentage were transported in police cars to sanitariums, or quarantine facilities initially run by the military. At first, patients were unable to leave the sanitariums, which prompted several of them to escape using ropes made from bed sheets. Leadership shifted in 1989, however, from the military to the Ministry of Health, and former restrictions on patients were eased. Under the new leadership, patients were allowed to leave the facility every 21 days for unescorted day trips.
Despite the prison-like conditions of life in the sanitariums, the frikis found freedom there. Liberal doctors allowed them to listen to rock artists like Nirvana and AC/DC; punk rock bands formed across the sanitariums who used speakers made from cardboard, electric guitars from East Berlin with strings made from telephone wires, and drum kits made from the materials found in x-rays. Most enticingly, patients were guaranteed three free meals per day that included milk, eggs, meat, and ice cream. The facilities also had air conditioning and colored TV. During the 1990s, living in one of the fourteen sanitariums meant a higher quality of life than those living outside their walls.
Although the frikis viewed the sanitariums as a “head bangers’ ball,” other patients viewed it as an extension of prison. For Yohandra, HIV ruined her life. She was diagnosed with the virus before her eighteenth birthday after having been infected by an ex-boyfriend who injected himself with HIV. To make matters worse, she was married to another man and pregnant with their baby. The Director of Hygiene who had diagnosed Yohandra ordered doctors to abort the fetus, and he also accused her of “Propagation of the Epidemic” since her husband was healthy but risked contracting the virus. She was therefore sentenced to three years in prison. Upon her release was sent to the sanitarium where she lives today. Like Yohandra, patients who had self-injected also faced the cruel realities of their disease. Many frikis began to regret their decisions when the first patients began to die, forcing them to realize that a cure for AIDS would not be developed in their lifetimes. For example, in the sanitarium in Pinar del Rio, home to Papo and Yohandra, all but five of the original 60 frikis sent there had died by the year 2000. This was due to the latent response of the Cuban health care system in providing expensive anti-retroviral treatments for its patients. It was only in 1998 that the first generic drugs were developed and widely administered.