How far would you go to protest your government? What drastic measures would you take if it meant that you could escape starvation and police brutality? For "los frikis," (pronounced "freakies"), a group of Cuban punks, the answer to that question was that they would intentionally infect themselves with HIV.
This might seem shocking, short-sighted, or just plain absurd. In many ways, it was. In the late '80s and early '90s, HIV was poorly understood and poorly controlled, and it nearly always led to a slow, painful death from AIDS. But the frikis were living through one of the lowest points in Cuban history. There wasn't enough food, so people stood on long lines for minimal rations. They were beaten and arrested for wearing the "wrong" clothes or listening to the "wrong" music.
Then the Cuban government started doing rigorous HIV tests on its citizens. AIDS had stirred up the world in the 1980s and Cuba took it upon itself to rigorously ferret out causation and solutions. One way they did this was to purposefully infect citizens with HIV and quarantine them in sanatoriums. But the sanatoriums were relatively safe and progressive, so for many frikis, an HIV diagnosis became a way out of the brutality of everyday life - a ticket to life in a sanitarium, where they would be safe from cops and fed regularly.
Was los frikis' rebellion sad and stupid, or was it brave and totally punk?
Cuba is known for having some of the most aggressive anti-HIV policies in the world. In the late '80s and early '90s, after communism fell in Europe, the Cuban government did rigorous testing in people's workplaces, in their schools, and forcibly quarantined anyone who tested positive. According to Vice:
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.
Whether or not these policies were effective has been hotly debated. Their methods appeared to be working at the time - by 2004, 0.2% of the population was infected with HIV, which is far less than most other Caribbean nations, which have a 1-3% infection rate. Unfortunately, the rates increased by almost 90% between 2010 and 2015. Could this be because Cuba is no longer quarantining its HIV patients? Perhaps - but it could also be true that those methods never worked in the first place. Then, there's the question of whether or not it's ethical to imprison people for the rest of their lives for the crime of harboring a virus.
Regardless of the policy's controversial nature, these sanitariums were extremely attractive to young Cuban punks, and their existence directly contributed to their choice to infect themselves with HIV.
Papo la Bala (Papo the Bullet) was the first person to inject himself with HIV. He was an intimidating figure who was often called the Kurt Cobain of the frikis movement. He was known for riding down the street wearing an American flag on his head, in blatant defiance of the Cuba government.
Papo la Bala infected himself with HIV using blood he obtained at a concert. He claimed that he did it because the Cuban government wouldn't let him live his life on his own terms, so he was going to fight back however he could. He said that he understood the consequences of his actions, and his friend Vladimir Ceballos believes that this is true, but the same can't be said for everyone who copied him.
As word spread about Papo la Bala's shocking decision, others followed suit, starting a movement that quickly ballooned into the hundreds. Papo didn't live to see the end of the movement - he died of AIDS. He never regretted his decision, though - when he made his decision, he said that “when you don’t have any more doors to open, death is a door" and he believed that until the end.
What started off as a small movement quickly picked up steam. While the early frikis were motivated by the desire to protest or to improve their increasingly bleak lives, as the movement progressed a new motivation emerged. HIV was seen as a status symbol, or a marker that one was truly punk rock. This perception led some people who otherwise would not have injected themselves to do so.
Unfortunately, the harsh policies and subsequent sanitarium havens also affected the virus, and not in a good way. According to the New York Times, "[R]esearchers believe Cuba’s 11 unique recombinant H.I.V. strains emerged from intra-sanitarium sex."
At first, the term "los frikis" referred to any disaffected punk-loving youth in Cuba during the early 1980s and late '90s. These were teenagers and young adults who grew their hair long, wore hardcore clothes, and listened to American rock, punk, or metal - bands like Nirvana, Metallica, and Led Zeppelin were popular at the time.
When the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 caused the communist Cuban government to tighten its grip on its citizens, promoting a stringent socialist society, where freedom, expression, and US-related materials alike were forbidden. With that, what it was to be a friki changed. The friki lifestyle attracted police brutality and abuse, and those who stuck with it did so knowing that. It was the price they paid for their own freedom, and it became an intentional group with unintentional political consequences.