For those on the outside, it’s hard to understand the punk mentality. That’s sort of the point. Being ‘punk’ is about shocking your parents, rebelling against norms and creating a counterculture wholly separate from stifling mainstream conformity. However, sometimes that devil-may-care attitude goes too far – this was certainly the case for the Cuban punks who injected themselves with HIV-infected blood in the early 1990s. As foolish as it seems now, for the small group of dissident rockers and punks living in the confines of the tiny island nation, self-administering one of the deadliest diseases in the world was a way to escape on their own terms from a harshly oppressive regime that sought to eliminate their existence.
This tragic story of misspent youth started on Christmas Day, 1991. The Hammer and Sickle flag was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time and along with other Soviet satellites around the world, Cuba was cut loose and left to fend for itself. For the Cuban people, who were already amid an economic crisis, this was disastrous. The Cuban economy up until that point was floated primarily by Soviet support. Harsh trade restrictions imposed by the United States meant that the socialist republic relied on the Russians for about 80 per cent of its imports and exports. This was the beginning of a time Fidel Castro euphemistically referred to as the “special period”.
It’s not unusual for leaders of faltering states to tighten the screws and crackdown on dissident behaviour. And for a young punk who idolised a distinctly westernised brand of rebellion, the ‘special period’ was tough. If you were the sort of kid who grew a Mohawk, pierced any available surface and rocked out to the Ramones, you were likely to find yourself in direct conflict with the National Revolutionary Police Force — or worse — the army, who routinely beat, incarcerated and forced any young punks who dared stand up to the authority of the state into labour camps.
As more rebellious kids caught wind of what was going on, the more HIV spread to bolster the Frikis’ ranks.
What’s a nonconformist to do when the beatings get too much and forced labour is in direct contradiction to everything they stand for? The solution for a tribe of punks and rockers who called themselves Los Frikis was to intentionally contract HIV. Sounds crazy, which it was, but there was a rationale behind this seemingly pointless act of self-destruction. “We gave ourselves AIDS to liberate ourselves from society and these laws about obligatory work, and to live in our own world,” said Luis Enrique Delgado, a Friki who was interviewed by Newsweek magazine in 1994.
But rebellion wasn’t the only thing on their minds. Being HIV positive was a ticket to special sanitariums set up to quarantine infected individuals. Outside of the military’s control, the institutions were run by progressive public health officials who gave the patients access to food, medicine, and other comforts such as air-conditioning, that were scarce in Cuba. And perhaps more importantly, Los Frikis were allowed to be themselves.
The sanitariums became hubs of creativity. Gay men lived together, art classes and theatre troupes formed and loud heavy rock music blasted from the inhabitants’ dorms — it was an oasis of alternative culture in an otherwise inhospitable nation. As more rebellious kids caught wind of what was going on, the more HIV spread to bolster the Frikis’ ranks.
Juan Carlos Quintana, another young Friki who was interviewed by Newsweek, injected himself when he was 17 because he had fallen in love with an HIV-infected girl. They were married in the sanitarium, but by the time the interview took place, his wife had already succumbed to the disease. Juan Carlos, like most of the other Frikis, eventually died in a similar fashion. It’s hard to know if in those early days of the AIDS crisis they truly appreciated that a cure wasn’t coming or that adequate treatment would still be decades away from being perfected.
Was it worth it? In their defiance, they ended up hurting only themselves, so it would seem not. At least they got a little taste of freedom, even if for only a short while.