'Freak': meet Cuba's last self-infected HIV punk rebel
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 -
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
"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
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
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
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."
Source: 'Freak': meet Cuba's last self-infected HIV punk rebel -