In the late 1980s, young punk rockers in Cuba, known as “los frikis,” were so fed-up with the stifling life of the communist regime that they chose to inject themselves with the AIDS virus so they could live in a sanitarium and be free from constant police-state harassment. And today, two survivors still live in the now-abandoned facility.
That's the gist of a crazy, true story coproduced by Radio Ambulante and Radiolab. The documentary tells the story from the perspective of Gerson and Yohandra, who contracted the virus around the same time and remember how it all went down.
Cuban punks in the ’80s weren't a popular bunch. Sometimes rejected by family and often jailed or fined by the government, there weren't many places to feel accepted. Around this time, AIDS was spreading around the globe, and the Cuban government took harsh measures to prevent a deadly epidemic on the island and placed anyone infected with the virus in quarantine.
But life in quarantine didn't sound so bad compared with regular, everyday life on the island.
“At the sanatorium, you would eat three times a day, with a menu that included meat and ice cream. Some rooms had air conditioning,” says producer Luis Trelles, who narrates the documentary.
Adds Gerson: “People preferred [this] over living in the streets, being sick and come here, to have it all, and free which was a big influence, that it was free, a gift.”
In 1994, Newsweek documented the phenomenon as it was happening.
"We gave ourselves AIDS to liberate ourselves from society and those laws about obligatory work, and live in our own world," Luis Enrique Delgado, a friki, told the magazine.
And many people – possibly 200, although hard numbers aren't available – injected themselves with AIDS-infected blood in what was considered something of a political statement: the rejection of everyday life in Cuba for a freer, shorter life in a sanatorium.
People in the sanatorium played instruments and, apparently, ate well. A big difference, according to RadioLab producer Jad Abumrad, was that the government wasn't really running the place.
“[The sanatorium was run] by the ministry of health, I believe, which was staffed by a bunch of progressive doctors,” Abumrad tells Remezcla. “And so, they were living in this weird little utopian bubble where they could have all the medicine and food they wanted and listen to all the music they wanted, and I don’t think the communist government knew about them.”
Nowadays, Yohandra and Gerson still live in the now-abandoned sanatorium, as squatters – still living a punk-rock life and defying the odds by just being alive.
Listen to the story below and read the interview with one of the producers here.