Choosing To Die

BY THE TIME HE WAS 20, LUIS ENRIQUE Delgado was fed up. The police had been harassing him for five years over his long hair, his crucifix earring and his contempt for the rules and rituals of Cuban society: military service, work brigades, May Day parades. He just wanted to listen to the heavy-metal band Metallica, hang out with his girlfriend and be left alone. Only one place in Cuba seemed to offer what he was looking for. So, he says, he left his farm town in 1990 to visit a friend at an AIDS sanitarium near Havana and had the friend extract some blood with a syringe. Another patient then injected the diseased blood into Delgado's vein, he says. Now starting to waste away, Delgado explains: "We gave ourselves AIDS to liberate ourselves from society and those laws about obligatory work, and live in our own world,"

Delgado is one of a dozen young heavy-metal fans known as frikis ("freaks") or "rockers"-who claim to have shot up infected blood. He and three others spoke to NEWSWEEK last month in Pinar del Rio, 125 miles west of Havana. Six other patients at a sanitarium there appear with Delgado on a video recently smuggled out of Cuba, saying that they, too, voluntarily received the AIDS virus. Vladimir Ceballos, one of two young film students now in Miami who shot the video for a documentary, says he has the names of 25 young people from Pinar del Rio who injected HIV and knows of some 55 more from there, all now dead. According to those and other accounts widely known in Havana for four years, the self-injecting took place in 1989-91.

Could the frikis have concocted their stories to try to make the government look bad? Perhaps. Plenty of Cubans get AIDS without trying. The country's Public Health Ministry reports 1,007 HIV-positive people for a country of 10.8 million, with 80 percent of the cases originating on the island, A former Cuban AIDS health worker says some of the frikis could have contracted AIDS from drug injections. But he points to the rapid onset of full-blown AIDS among many of them as evidence that they're telling the truth: "There is no other explanation for someone dying in two years but a direct blood-to-blood injection." Mainliners may also have been injecting hepatitis or other infections, which would contribute to speeding up illness and death. The government does not deny the accounts. "There was anguish and desperation throughout the society in 1989-90: suicides, divorces," said a Havana official. "Radio Marti [a U.S. government broadcast] was saying that people would be eating in soup kitchens-but that only party members would be admitted." During the same period, Fidel Castro came up with a new slogan: "Socialism or death!"

Sanitarium life offers far more comforts than most Cubans ever see: three full meals a day, air conditioning, no power outages. The frikis also appreciate the absence of police. Juan Carlos Quintana, a curly-haired 21-year-old, says be gave himself his shot at 17, in October 1990, because he fell in love with an HIV-positive girl. A now modified policy confined everyone who tested positive to a sanitarium. "I wanted it to happen fast," Quintana says. Once he got the result he wanted, the couple got married in the sanitarium. Quintana's wife died last Nov. 6. So have the frikis' dreams that the syringe was a gateway to freedom. "We're locked up," says Juan Luis Perez, 18, who says he injected HIV at 15. "They've got us under control." They lived as rebels, malcontents and outcasts. And that's how they'll die.