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 Sample ImageTranscript of Cuba Aids Project Interview:
Nebraska Public Television, 3/26/2003)

[Bill Kelly, Reporting] The Monserette Church does not stand out in Central Havana. Mass on weekday evenings draws a modest sized group of the faithful...mostly women...mostly older. No sooner has mass ended then the cooking begins. Twice a week the Church ministers to a younger group. Many are not Catholic. All are HIV positive, or accompany a family member who is.

[Luis Ernesto, HIV+ Cuban] Every week I look forward to Wednesdays like they are a gift. Luis Ernesto, 35, married, finds support, and understanding and laughter at least once a week here at the Monserette Church.

[Luis] Here I can get away from the reality, and talk to people suffering the same way I do. Luis found a safe harbor in a country which… like the United States… struggles to understand this disease and the people it attacks.

[Bill Kelly] Father Fernando de la Vega has become the unlikely host to Havana's only support group for Cubans facing life with AIDS. This aging cleric still marvels at the calling God has provided his church.

[Fr. Fernando de la Vega, Cuban AIDS Project] I'm not so much surprised as I am gratified.

[Bill Kelly] The phone calls never end from those seeking advice and comfort. It is a Catholic ministry that serves all denominations for anyone facing AIDS, often fearful and hopeless.

[Fr. Fernando] There are those who are ill and dying who choose suicide. Others seek redemption. When the final time is coming, my personal experience is, a lot of them choose Christ.

[Dr. Byron Barksdale, Cuban AIDS Project] What Father Fernando does there is provide a sense of community to the out patient HIV/AIDS patients in Havana.

[Bill Kelly] The Father's unlikely partner is known only as Dr. Byron. He lives a place most Cubans would be hard pressed to find on a map: North Platte, Nebraska. From here he serves as director of the Cuban AIDS Project.

[Barksdale] Well it wasn't by choice initially. I was just on the advisory council and the founding member unfortunately passed away and so it fell into my lap. I don't think people in the Midwest are fearful of a difficult task. If the Project was easy, it probably wouldn't be quite as challenging.

[Bill Kelly] Sixteen hundred miles from Havana, Dr. Byron Barksdale manages western Nebraska's biggest pathology lab. He grew up in Florida, fascinated with Cuba, just across the water. His work with The Cuban AIDS project started as a favor and evolved into a second job once he'd met Father Fernando.

[Barksdale] Father Fernando has brought in people who are homeless, hungry, sick and suffering from despair and given them an opportunity to relate to one another. He feeds them and provides them with educational materials and support.

[Bill Kelly] Dr. Barksdale provided an American connection that the cleric in Havana knew was invaluable.

[Fr. Fernando] Four years after the group started we received a visit from Dr. Byron. He explained he could help with setting up a web site in the United States to promote us. Soon every time people came to Cuba they would bring a small bag of medicine or personal items for our group.

[Bill Kelly] It is against the law for Americans to travel to Cuba as tourists. They can get permission from the U.S. government if they are on a humanitarian mission. The AIDS Project makes sure the proper forms and permits were filed. The night we visited a diamond wholesaler from Fort Myers, Florida who stopped by Monserette Church with a delivery of supplies.

[Hogan] Everybody needs Santa Claus and without Santa Claus there is no hope. And in this day and time when Americans are looked down on, it could be Cuba it could be anywhere, I'm just doing my part. Because everyone needs a little help now and then.

[Bill Kelly] At the same time, the second support group of the week gathers. These gay men of Havana struggle with a disease and a lifestyle not always accepted or understood in a macho, Latin culture.

[Fr. Fernando] The congregation of the Church did not understand the people with AIDS and did not want them. Neither did the people in the neighborhood. There is a horrible lack of understanding about AIDS in Cuba.

[Bill Kelly] Some of the regulars were given recently donated asthma inhalers. Magazines were given out as door prizes. A questionnaire helped sort out self-esteem issues.

[Bill Kelly] More than anything, it was just nice to be in a place where no one judged you or feared your disease.

[Fr. Fernando] They have understood that they are in the same boat. The HIV positive diagnosis is not the last of life. They must make the most of their lives.

[Bill Kelly] The Cuba AIDS support groups put a revealing face on the nature of the disease on the island.

[Barksdale] The majority of HIV/AIDS in Cuba is homosexual or heterosexual transmitted. It's a sexual disease in Cuba. It is not an IV drug abuse disease or a blood products’ disease as HIV/AIDS is in other parts of the world.

[Bill Kelly] This is a passionate and sexually open culture. If the gay community has been driven underground by Castro's regime, heterosexuals are open, flirtatious, even boastful. Luis spoke openly about how both his wife and his girlfriends deal with his diagnosis.

[Luis Ernesto] My wife, she is healthy. She helps me and supports me with how I am now. After I got out of the sanitarium, all of the girls I hooked up with were healthy. These girls ask you: Do you have condoms?, and if you do, they go to bed with you. That depends on the personal attitudes of the person.

[Bill Kelly] Condoms are readily available and government campaigns urge couple to use them. They are even made available by Father Fernando.

[Barksdale] Father Fernando recognizes the importance of sexual transmission of AIDS in Cuba so he allows the group to have access to condoms, which, in general, the Catholic Church frowns upon.

[Fr. Fernando] We need more Spanish language literature about the need to use condoms, but also the message must be that sex needs to be something that happens for love and not just for pleasure.

[Bill Kelly] The Cuban government also gets good marks for the health care it provides those with AIDS, even if the approach seems radical in America. The health officials established Sanitariums---isolation wards for those who have AIDS. The medications that are available are free and the treatment mostly compassionate.

[Barksdale] I think Cuba recognized earlier than the United States that there was more to controlling HIV/AIDS than prevention. Cuba actively intervened therapeutically as well as Cuba could. Cuba understood the social support structures better than the United States. Cuba provided people with food, housing, and clothing. Cuba basically gave its HIV/AIDS patients hope sooner and showed people cared.

[Bill Kelly] Still, those diagnosed with AIDS discover that the stigma of this disease is strong. The same government that provided Luis with decent medical care also will turn him away for a job.

[Luis Ernesto] I eliminate myself from the job when they ask me for medical tests. I say I won't pass the test anyway, so I don't try.

[Bill Kelly] The government won't hire you if you have HIV?

[Luis] Yes, it does, but you must be tricky.

[Bill Kelly] At the Monserette Church, a virus in the blood stream is no reason to turn you away.

[Fr. Fernando] The only difference between them and us is that they are in a searching calculation of the meaning of the last years of their lives. And the rest of us are not.

[Bill Kelly] The strangers who arrive at the Church's back door to help bolster Father Fernando's faith. He remembers the first... the one he calls the wingless angel.

[Fr. Fernando] When I was alone in the Church one evening I came down here to this place in the dark. I say to Him "you are the owner of this business and I am only your employee. If you don't place your hand on this business there is no way to pay the electric bill." Then a wingless angel appears at the door. She says here is 20 American Dollars for you. So we can pay the electricity. I am a very faithful man.

[Barksdale] I've learned there are people better than myself in this World and that Father Fernando is someone whom I can aspire to emulate as far as altruism towards Mankind.

[Bill Kelly] So a soft-spoken doctor from Nebraska says he learned about the very essence of compassion and decency on an island considered to be a political enemy of the United States.

Reporting from Havana, Cuba, I'm Bill Kelly for STATEWIDE on NETV.

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