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Julio Capo Jr.: Haiti and the AIDS stigmata

— According to the late gay activist Randy Shilts, TV personality Bill Kurtis received a few laughs in the early 1980s for a “joke” he made about the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic. “What’s the hardest part about having AIDS?” he asked. The punch line: “Trying to convince your wife that you’re Haitian.” This might make little sense today, but 30 years ago it dominated discussions at the doctor’s office, water cooler, blood banks and schools.

In March 1983, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control listed Haitians as one of the four “high-risk” groups for what today we call HIV. The federal designation sparked a new wave of discriminatory policies aimed at Haitians and Haitian-Americans. Reports flooded the press and courts as Haitians — or suspected Haitians — were terminated or denied employment, housing and admission to school. It was the price they paid for being listed as one of the notorious members of the so-called “4-H” club, alongside homosexuals, heroin users and hemophiliacs.

While initial reports of the disease noted a “rare cancer” found in homosexuals, it soon became clear that they were not alone. In a July 1982 report, the CDC revealed that from April 1, 1980, through June 20, 1982, 20 Haitians residing in Miami had shown evidence of the deadly disease. The CDC warned: “Physicians who care for Haitian patients should be aware that opportunistic infections may occur in this population.” By the following year, new data indicated that although Haitians constituted 2 percent of Miami’s population, the city’s Haitian community represented 60 percent of the HIV/AIDS cases in the area.

With over 1,200 cases of the disease reported in the United States, the CDC made new official recommendations on March 4, 1983, in which Haitians were singled out as the only ethnic group susceptible to the disease.

Aware of the potential risks of reporting a broad, blanket categorization, the CDC offered a caveat: “However, each group contains many persons who probably have little risk of acquiring AIDS.” This opened the door for discriminatory policies. Within days of the announcement, the American Red Cross acted on recommendations by the Public Health Service to prohibit those in “high-risk” groups from donating blood. A few days later, the Canadian Red Cross followed suit.

A massive wave of resistance and protests soon emerged. Indeed, new political alliances and groups such as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP stepped in to respond to the deadly disease. They ran to the victims’ bedsides in the wake of the federal government’s painfully sluggish response to the crisis.

Immigrants played a central role in this movement. A few months after the CDC report, a physician in Miami’s Little Haiti tried to redirect the focus to poverty, malnutrition and discrimination in the Haitian community. “The number one disease in this neighborhood is 54 percent unemployment,” he claimed.

A similar defense emanated on the other side of the Florida Straits.

The Haitian periodical Le Nouvelliste urged Haitians in June 1983 to “focus on the situation of our compatriots abroad, following the false assertion that they are the origin of the notorious and terrifying AIDS.” The New York community was particularly vocal. Four months after the CDC made its recommendation, Haitians were removed from the city’s list of high-risk groups. This declassification followed charges of racism, premature conclusions and pseudo-science. The momentum ultimately manifested in a major rally on April 20, 1990. Some estimated that 80,000 people marched across the Brooklyn Bridge and into Manhattan to protest the Food and Drug Administration recommendation that those from Haiti and sub-Saharan Africa be barred from donating blood.

Since its 1804 independence, Haiti has long been the source of “mystery.” Nineteenth-century Westerners pondered the role of black magic when rebel slaves defeated Napoleon’s army and overcame colonial invasions from Britain and France. The first Black Republic would later be fodder for other “inexplicable” phenomena — whether voodoo, zombies, AIDS, or anti-immigrant attacks. In the early 1990s, for example, the U.S. maintained a policy of quarantining Haitian migrants — many of whom were infected with HIV — in the Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba. For many, those caged spaces became their gravesites.

Thirty years later, Haiti remains the victim of such attacks. Following the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated southern Haiti in 2010, televangelist Pat Robertson claimed the country remains “cursed” because it once “swore a pact to the devil.” Back in the United States, the residual prejudice of this era can be found in the escalating HIV/AIDS infection rates among minorities. Today, as new reports hail the successful case of a “functionally cured” toddler infected with HIV, we must remember that this is a global crisis and a critical opportunity for the United States to take a very different path from what medical anthropologist Paul Farmer has called the “geography of blame.”

Julio Capó Jr. is an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he specializes in LGBT and Caribbean history, and a former broadcast news writer and producer in Miami.

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