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Sunday 3 December 2023 Dublin: 0°C
Vice/YouTube Yohandra Corvoso and her husband Gerson Govea in a Vice documentary about their situation.

'Los Frikis': The Cuban punks who deliberately infected themselves with HIV

One of the men, Gerson Govea, talks about his experiences.

LIKE MANY YOUNG punks, Gerson Govea saw himself as a misfit. But few embraced the role as self-destructively as this Cuban rocker: he deliberately infected himself with HIV.

He is considered the last of the most hardcore members of the “frikis,” or “freaks,” as the communist island’s unique breed of hippy-punk dropouts is known.

Beyond the rum, free love and forbidden rock ‘n’ roll music, they took their rebellion a stage further: infecting themselves in order to get into the relative safety and comfort of a state AIDS clinic.

“I found a friend who gave me his (infected) blood,” recalls Govea, a long-haired 42-year-old with earrings and tattoos.

I extracted it myself and injected it into me.

That was 17 years ago. He has since seen friends die of AIDs and his wife Yohandra Cardoso, 44, lose both her legs to the disease.

Meanwhile Govea, still standing but in fragile health, is rocking his way into middle age.

Best of worlds

VICE / YouTube

Sleeping in parks, listening to music and taking drugs, the “frikis” would not have been such an unusual sight in many world cities.

But their lifestyle was a particularly bold statement in communist Cuba, where rock music was outlawed during the Cold War and drug-taking severely policed.

“They shared everything: women, men, food and pills,” said Jorge Perez, a doctor and the former director of an AIDS sanatorium in Havana.

Cuba plunged into poverty after the allied regime in the Soviet Union fell in 1989, and as the AIDS pandemic unfolded.

Amid such misery, a state-run AIDS clinic was a haven.

“It was the best of all possible worlds for them,” says Maria Gattorno, director of the Cuban Rock Agency, a state music promotion body.

They had everything guaranteed there: they had medicine and great food and were looked after.

Govea says he infected himself so that he could get in a clinic and avoid the police harassment he suffered for being a “friki.”

Others infected themselves “so that they could be with the person they liked” who already had the disease, he says.

AIDS in Cuba

Cuba’s first case of AIDS was in a soldier returning from Africa, where the country supported various sides in proxy conflicts during the Cold War.

Just over 3,800 people died of AIDS in Cuba between 1986 and 2015, according to the government. Some 20,000 were living with HIV at the last count.

It is not known how many “frikis” the island has had, nor how many of them willingly got infected.

Gattorno reckons those who infected themselves “miscalculated,” thinking a cure for AIDS would quickly arrive.

“They went to live in the sanatoriums, but naturally a lot of them died very quickly.”

Gattorno has mentored frikis, helping them find rehearsal space and arranging gigs in sanatoriums.

Govea himself set up a band in the clinic. But their illness prevented them from playing in public.

“When one of us felt alright, another would be in bed sick,” he said. “When they were, it meant they were dying.”

Gettin’ freaky

Antiretroviral drugs slowed down the killer impact of AIDS. Cuba’s internment clinics closed in 1994.

But Govea and Cardoso in her wheelchair still live in the west of the island in the house that once was the Pinar del Rio sanatorium, where they met in 2000.

On top of a small state allowance, Govea earns a living selling manicure products.

When they have time, the couple go out and “get freaky,” singing and headbanging with other young rockers near their home.

The house is filled with posters of punk bands such as the Sex Pistols and The Ramones.

The state let them keep the place and continues to give them their medicine for free.

“They lived better in the sanatorium” than outside it, says Perez, who wrote a book about his work.

“What’s more, they were scared to leave.”

- © AFP, 2017

Read: ‘It’s an epidemic’: Activists use World Aids Day to warn that the disease continues to spread>

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