I shot this photo essay while in Cuba this spring. The unique display—half art show, half AIDS-awareness demonstration—was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Local artists were asked to depict their representation of AIDS and prevention using pieces of clothing. The pieces were then hung on a clothesline while condoms were passed out to everyone—including kids.
Half the crowd was made up of kids, and everyone seemed to be having a great time. There was AIDS ribbon face paint, condom balloons and chalk for drawing on the sidewalk. Although I doubt many of the kids knew exactly what AIDS is, it was striking to me how open Cuban society is to talking about it.
That openness could be one of the reasons the country has one of the lowest rates of infection in the world. According to UNICEF, only about 6,200 people have HIV in Cuba out of a population of nearly 11,500,000. That means only .1% of the population is infected.
This could be because sex education is such a given in Cuba. Condoms are sold everywhere and are cheap, if not free.
The low birthrate might seem confusing at first, since Cuba seems to be such a sexual society. Sexual activity starts young on the island. A 2004 University of Alabama at Birmingham study conducted in Cuba found that the average age for losing your virginity is just 13.
“Here in Cuba, sex isn’t a problem for anyone,” said Jose Gabriel Capaz, a 21-year-old artist who took part in the AIDS awareness event. “It’s a topic that everyone talks about in school from a young age. Also in school they talk about health, protection, and how to be a prepared society when it comes to sex.”
While kids handing out and playing with condoms might be shocking even to the most liberal American, maybe Cuba’s on to something. Reversing the stigmas that come with AIDS and contraception is not easy, but some good art and a couple of condom balloons can help.