Starting Dialogue, Ending AIDS

by Christopher Hucks-Ortiz

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Photo by Sean Black
Photo by Sean Black

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] think that when I first talked with Phill Wilson, of the Black AIDS Institute, about this, it was sometime in the Spring of 2015. “I’d like to lead a group of Black gay men on a trip to Cuba,” he had said. “Perhaps I can sponsor the trip through the Black AIDS Institute. Would you have any interest in going?” Would I? Are you kidding? Of course!

I should frame this by saying that I am definitely a child of the sixties and seventies. As I was growing up, common notions of Cuba were about Socialism (bad), Castro (bad), and Russian missiles (very bad). When it came to Cuba, all that I recall hearing about were flotillas, airlifts of children, and the possibility of nuclear war some ninety miles away from the United States. And yet, at the same time, there was also something more. I had heard about the Cuban culture, sampled Cuban food, and danced to the tunes of Cuban artists such as Celia Cruz. Something told me that there was more to the story about Cuba and I had always dreamed about someday actually getting to visit the island nation to see it for myself.

But it wasn’t until sometime in September that I actually committed to making the trip. I was out of town at a meeting on the East Coast when my phone rang and it was Phill again. “We still have space for additional people for the trip, but if you are interested in going, I will need to know in the next day or so.” Well, in my mind, for the trip of a lifetime, you want to choose carefully who you may be travelling with, so I immediately contacted my good friend, Craig, and said that we should do this. Are you in? He said yes, and so we said yes. And with that, we began to plan for our trip to Cuba.

For me, the idea of travelling to Cuba was a little unnerving. At the time that all of this began, the United States government had not yet announced interest in normalizing relations between the two countries and getting rid of the embargo. We were told that we would have to be affiliated with an educational or health exchange group (which we were through our affiliation with the Black AIDS Institute), and we planned to include some specific HIV/AIDS-related programming during the trip so that we would have the opportunity to talk with Cuban HIV advocates and to hopefully exchange knowledge in a bidirectional manner.

As a Black man, I was interested in learning more about how Cuba addresses race/ethnicity given our shared histories with the slave trade as part of the African diaspora. But also, as an HIV researcher whose work focuses on both HIV prevention and linkage to care, I was also interested in learning more about the different approaches that may have been used in Cuba with regard to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Are there different models, approaches, or strategies that the Cuban government has utilized in order to address their local HIV epidemic among the Cuban people? If so, might there be some best practices that we as Americans can bring back home to utilize in our own domestic epidemic? Perhaps through our knowledge exchange, we can all move closer toward the UNAIDS goal of ending AIDS?

There were fifteen of us on the trip, most of whom were Black gay men; many of whom are warriors in the fight against HIV. We had the opportunity to interact with the Cuban people, both in the urban center of Havana, but also in rural Vinales, and also in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Trinidad de Cuba.

At every encounter, what I learned was that the Cuban people were both beautiful and also really amazing! They have learned to navigate multiple economies in order to survive and were quite welcoming to this delegation of Black Gay men from the United States.

We were also afforded the opportunity to meet with HIV advocates and activists, LGBT advocates, and Afro-Cuban activists who are all working to improve Cuba with regard to discrimination and stigma related to HIV status, LGBT status, and race/ethnicity. With regard to HIV services, it was amazing to be in a place with socialized medicine where every citizen has an equal level of access to medical care, but they were still able to articulate some challenges about the availability of ART treatment, particularly for Cubans outside of the urban areas.

Overall, I had an amazing time in Cuba and honestly am eagerly looking forward to being able to return. As neighbors in this part of the Americas, the Unites States and Cuba both have many lessons to share with one another. I for one am looking forward to the opportunity for more open and free exchange if it helps both countries to get closer to ending AIDS as we know it. We will all benefit from the sharing of HIV prevention models, linkage to care strategies, and retention in care strategies which may have developed in “silos.”

To my travel companions, I say, thank you for an adventurous trip. And to the people of Cuba, I say, “Thank you, and I hope to see you again soon.” “Gracias, y espero verte pronto otra vez.”


 

Christopher Hucks-Ortiz is an Evaluation Specialist for the JWCH Institute in Los Angeles, California, a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), and the current Chair of the HIV Prevention Trials Network (HPTN) Black Caucus.