Tuesday, January 17, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Youths In Cuba Self-Inject Aids Virus -- Filmmaker Says They Did It As Act Of Political Protest


PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Desperate to bring attention to a government that wouldn't even let them listen to rock music, a band of young Cubans plunged needles filled with the AIDS virus into their bodies during the 1980s.

Many of the "roqueros," or rockers, are now dead of AIDS. But filmmaker Vladimir Ceballos, who once considered injecting himself, wants to tell their stories.

Ceballos was granted asylum in the United States last year and is working on a documentary at Brown University titled "Cursed Be Your Name, Liberty." It contains interviews with eight rockers, two of whom have died from AIDS.

"Those who chose to die saw no other exit," said Ceballos, 29, who was a rocker in Pinar del Rio, about 60 miles east of Havana.

Officials at the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington did not return telephone messages for comment on the rockers and their actions.

Deadly political statement

Rockers first appeared in Havana and Pinar Del Rio around 1982. They listened to hard rock and dressed like the long-haired musicians they saw on album covers. Such actions quickly brought beatings, fines and imprisonment.

Ceballos estimated 100 rockers injected themselves with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, since 1988. Many did it to make a political statement about conditions in Cuba, while also avoiding persecution, he said.

The country puts those with HIV and AIDS in sanitariums, where they are allowed to dress as they wish, given good food, provided air conditioning and television, and allowed to discuss issues - like AIDS - that are forbidden elsewhere.

They also may skip compulsory military service and put off entering the work force, he said.

These cases of self-injection usually are not included in Cuba's statistics on AIDS, said Dr. Diana Martinez, an American who worked with AIDS patients during her fourth year of medical school.

She treated one woman who contracted AIDS in order to be with her rocker boyfriend, Martinez said in a story published late last year in The New York Times Magazine.

Ceballos, the son of prominent Cuban militants, was a rocker who had thought about injecting himself. Instead, he became interested in filmmaking and decided to tell the rockers' stories.

But when he presented his idea for the documentary to his professors, they told him he would be expelled if he made it.

Along came Bobby Rabyd, the pen name of an adjunct lecturer at Brown's Center for Modern Culture and Media. He met Ceballos during a visit to the University of Havana in 1993 and invited him to a conference at Brown.

There, Ceballos and Carlos Zequeira, who was helping him secretly film the documentary, read from a manuscript about the rockers who had injected themselves with HIV. Both decided that night to ask for political asylum, and Zequeira has since moved to Miami.

"The oath"

Rabyd traveled to Cuba after Ceballos requested asylum and secretly finished filming the documentary.

He said there there is no formal ceremony for the injection, called "la vola," or "the oath." Those receiving the injection often would drink liquor, listen to rock music and inject themselves.

"The impression I had . . . is the rockers are very well-educated and very articulate," Rabyd said. "They don't cut the appearance of what we might think as being some foolhardy youth group that did some childish and absurd act. In fact, they understand the political implications of what they've done."

Ceballos plans to finish editing the documentary this month and will try to market it.

He says it's now permissible in Cuba to listen to rock music in public and dress like rock stars. The government even allows occasional concerts. But Ceballos said he may never return to Cuba because he could face 10 years in prison for making the documentary.

He said the rocker subculture has faded, but some people, many of them young, still inject themselves with HIV-tainted blood.

"These people say to themselves, `I am 14 or 15. I inject myself (and) I can live in a sanatorium and maybe doctors find a cure," Ceballos said.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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