Historical essay
“The Club of the Four Hs”: HIV/AIDS, Race, and Neoliberalism in Argentina

“The Club of the Four Hs”: HIV/AIDS, Race, and Neoliberalism in Argentina

Patricio Simonetto

During my childhood in Buenos Aires, adults usually told us to be careful while using telephones and cinema seats because people diagnosed with HIV could hide infected syringes in these “dark spots” to spread the virus. Generally portraying people with HIV as resentful and dangerous, popular representations activated historical racial and sexual boundaries that legitimated discriminatory practices against gay men and sex workers. Along with this, the lack of public strategy related to the virus until the mid-1990s reinforced the scarce access to healthcare, which sent thousands to cruel deaths.

After the bloodiest dictatorship of Argentine history (1976–83), the emerging democracy that followed was marked by the sexualization of public life and an increase in heterosexual sexual freedom, a trend scholars have called Destape. Nonetheless, the first diagnoses of HIV in 1983 resulted in a public backlash that spread fears about gay men’s moral behavior. Journalists defined people living with HIV/AIDS as members of the “club of the four Hs: Homosexuals, Hemophiliacs, Heroin Users, and Haitians,” an expression also popular in the United States.[1] The Argentine media used phrases such as the “soft boys’ pneumonia,” “gay cancer,” and “the pink plague” to describe an infection imagined as, in the words of one journalist, “a UFO invasion that has awakened a sexual racism against all logic.”[2] This essay aims to understand how the first popular representations of HIV/AIDS in the media reshaped how Argentines understood themselves as a nation through racialized sexual metaphors.

The Argentine populace associated the geography of the virus with a Latin America of color from which Argentina historically has tried to differentiate itself. Journalists described the alleged route of the pandemic: from Africa to Haiti, then to the US, Brazil, Uruguay, and finally Argentina.[3] The syndrome narrative, representing a foreign disruption that gay men imported into Argentina, drew upon the historical-cultural roots of Argentine nationalism.

Argentina experienced a complex process of racialization built from a large wave of European migration beginning in the late nineteenth century. These immigration trends reinforced a long whitening process of the indigenous and Afro-Argentine populations since the late eighteenth century, populations dominant discourses considered “extinct” by the early twentieth century. As a result, Argentines represented themselves as a white nation. Since the early twentieth century, the state and elites portrayed Argentina as a nation without racial conflicts synthesized in the state-sponsored narrative of the “racial melting pot” that defined a supposed racial democracy based on the racial mixing with a hierarchy in which whiteness was superior and thus prevailed.

Magazine cover
Cover of Sodoma, issue 2. (Sodoma, № 2/ Buenos Aires, Archivo Desviado.)

The persistence of popular racial slang that included sexual metaphors reinforced racial distinction by defining the alleged sexual immorality of darker Argentines. For example, middle-class porteños (from the capital city of Buenos Aires) racialized and thus denigrated internal migrants from the provinces, regions that porteños generally associated with larger indigenous populations. During the twentieth century, the stigmatized representation of certain characters collaborated with the racialization of a national sexuality. In the context of the crisis of the agro-exportator model of the 1930s, the elite’s distrust in the modernizing role of some Europeans deepened. The early twentieth-century global narrative of “white slavery” became a powerful discursive platform that associated organized sex trafficking with the Polish and Jewish community. Moreover, nationalistic discourses portrayed Jewish and Eastern European prostitutes as vectors of venereal diseases that threatened male national health. In the 1940s, the urban elite and middle classes used the term cabecitas negras (little black-heads) – the name of a local bird – to confront working-class migrants from other provinces associated with Juan Domingo Perón’s labor movement (1945–55). This concept linked the darker skin of the inhabitants of northern provinces with the supposed lack of civilization of its indigenous and working-class heritage, which threatened Argentina’s fate as a European South American nation.

At the end of the century, the neoliberal project promoted by the dictatorship (1976–83) and later by President Carlos Menem (1989–99) linked national whitening with a right to the consumption of first-world products for a small group based on the broader social exclusion created by deindustrialization. Menem advocated for the global representation of Argentina as a white nation in relation to its neighbors, as he stated in the 1990s while visiting Howard University: “there are no blacks in Argentina, that is a Brazilian problem.” Furthermore, as during the mid-twentieth century, when elites and the middle classes used cabecitas negras to reject those who they imagined as enemies of modernization, the expression negro de mierda (shit black-man) became a popular insult to describe the habitants of the growing city slums, a metaphor that did not necessarly match with people’s skin color.

In this context, representations of HIV/AIDS activated anxieties of an external menace to Argentina’s destiny as a first-world country by associating the infection with the underdevelopment of racialized countries such as Haiti. After the arrival of HIV/AIDS, the presumed but blatantly false link between African primates and HIV was popularized in racists jokes – many of which I heard at primary school during the 1990s – that reinforced the dehumanization of LGBT individuals and people of color.

Like Menem, national newspapers focused their fears on Brazil. Usually represented as a tropical paradise for sexual freedom illustrated with images of nudity during carnival, queer young Argentine people traveled there to avoid the sexual repression that continued for the gay community under the destape. Argentine journalists depicted Brazil, a country with a large African population and indigenous presence, as a contagious menace. Dozens of articles highlighted the rapid spread of the virus in Brazilian cities as a “homosexual evil” that could “infect all of South America.”[4] Journalists insisted on theories about how the infection moved from Africa to the US and then to Brazil. Besides reports of alleged illegal trafficking of Haitian blood in California as a cause of the infection, some journalists remarked that the problem was the Argentine white gay desire for black men. As one wrote: “Homosexuals are known to be attracted to black men, and often pay for them to have sex.”[5]

While reading these narratives about Argentine white gay men’s supposed “weakness” for black masculinity, I couldn’t avoid thinking about the key cultural figure of Argentine nation-building: “La cautiva” (The Captive Woman). First popularized in Estaban Echeverría’s 1837 poem, the story tells the saga of a white Argentine woman, symbolizing the nation, who is captured by the Malón (an indigenous group). Echeverría’s poem was later reshaped in multiple artistic representations. In the story, the male hero’s saving of the woman becomes a metaphor for the challenges of a newly independent republic trapped by non-white aggressors, enemies of national modernization. The text embodied early nineteenth-century elite anxieties about defining the limits of a nation considered empty – usually represented as a desert even if it was populated by native communities – that needed to be civilized with European descendants. The body of the captive was always at risk of pollution from an uncivilized indigenous sexuality. In the late twentieth century, gay men’s bodies became the captives, trapped by a desire that polluted their blood and one that threatened middle-class and elite dreams of belonging to the (white) first-world. Paradoxically, as with the indigenous bodies in the nineteenth century, the bodies of the infected were also objects of a conservative desire of extermination.

During the first years of the epidemic, gay men’s movements avoided the issue for fear of stigmatization, choosing instead to confront police violence and social discrimination. After 1987, in a context of rapidly rising infection rates, the Argentine Homosexual Community (CHA) organized fundraisers, promoted the use of condoms, and demanded public policy. Roberto Jáuregui, a journalist and the brother of Carlos Jáuregui, CHA’s president, developed a strong activist presence in the public media. One of Roberto Jáuregui’s most famous actions was to hug well-known conservative journalist Mario Grondona on prime-time TV to challenge prejudices on how the virus was transmitted.

the open anus of an Argentine gay male is surrounded by figures associated with Brazilian tropicalism, such as flamingos and snakes, and missiles associated with the US, and Mexican/Aztec symbols linked with Latin American indigenity
Marcelo Pombo’s 1985 satiric drawing. (Sodoma, № 2. Buenos Aires. p. 26 / Archivo Desviado)

The movement didn’t explicitly critique the foundational racialization of HIV/AIDS, possibly because almost all political movements of the time excluded an antiracist agenda. However, some artistic and activist expression directly contrasted with the nationalistic moral panic. Marcelo Pombo’s 1985 satiric drawing published in Sodoma, the GAG (Gay Action Group) magazine, critically addressed this moral racial crusade. In his piece, the open anus of an Argentine gay male is surrounded by figures associated with Brazilian tropicalism, such as flamingos and snakes, and missiles associated with the US, and Mexican/Aztec symbols linked with Latin American indigenity. While all symbolized the alleged threats to the nation that gays were supposedly carrying in their anuses, the image celebrated a queer stigmatized pleasure that challenged the mainstream narrative of fear that reshaped the Argentine whitening of sexuality in neoliberal times.

Forty years after the first infections, Argentine response to HIV/AIDS is still deficient. Two directors of the HIV response office resigned in the last three years due to the lack of antiretroviral medication. Social movements are proposing a new law focused on rights for people living with HIV. While it is still a popular belief that racism is not an issue for the country and the media has abandoned the use of racial metaphors to talk about HIV, the imaginaries founded in 1983 still beat in the heart of a nation obsessed with whitening. In a series of interviews on HIV-based discrimination organized by journalist Franco Torccia, David, a young Venezuelan migrant, claimed that he was fired from a restaurant because of his HIV-positive status. After several humiliations, his boss told David that as a migrant he would not be able to claim for any labor rights, a belief based on the fact that in Argentina Latin Americans are usually imagined as racialized others. HIV/AIDS-based discrimination affects all those who live with the virus. However, its intersections with xenophobia show how the politics of fear surrounding the virus constantly reassembles itself to shape boundaries of expulsion.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie-Sklodowka Curie grant number 886496.


    1. “La peste rosa cobró dos vidas en el país,” Crítica, June 5, 1983, 23.
    2. “Como homosexual siento temor,” Ahora, August 19,1986, 4.
    3. “Nueva teoría sobre la peste rosa,” Crónica, March 15, 1984, 12.
    4. “Mal de homos llegó a Brasil,” La Razón, June 9, 1983, 23.
    5. “La peste rosa cobró dos vidas en el país,” Crítica, June 5, 1983, 23.

Featured image caption: A global view of HIV infection. (Courtesy Geneva: AIDS Feedback, 1997/US National Library of Medicine)

Patricio Simonetto is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the Institute of the Americas (University College London). He is the author of 'Entre la injuria y la revolución. El Frente de Liberación Homosexual en la Argentina' (2017) and 'El dinero no es todo. La compra y venta de sexo en la Argentina del siglo XX' (2019). He is currently working on his book project entitled A Body of One’s Own. The making of sex change in Argentina (1900-2012).

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