This is translation of a feature about Carlo Oliveras, Advocacy Coordinator for ITPC Latin America and the Carribean, that originally appeared in El Nuevo Dia.
Carlo’s life changed when he was 16 and travelled from Puerto Rico with a group of young missionaries from their school, to teach English to peers in Guatemala. The trip exposed Carlo Andre Oliveras Rodriguez to another side of the world. This exposure, and spending time with communities in Latin America inspired Carlo’s activism spirit.
At this young age he spent time with a family of five in a house which had only wood stove and a small crop of corn outside. “I saw the happiness that came from helping people. For me it was an epiphany,” recalled the Master’s student in Public Health.
Fight for marginalized communities
It was these experiences which made the now 25 year old realize the need to fight for marginalized communities, not only in Puerto Rico, but throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. The experience made him feel very strongly about what he was to do. He finally came out of the ‘closet’ and said the incidents that had disrupted his life led him to reveal to his parents that he was gay. His parents were worried he would be ridiculed, attacked and discriminated against being still very young in a very religious environment. His parents and his brothers have been very supportive of him.
Carlo does not like being called an activist, although it is technically what his career is called. The young man is engaged in international committees to advocate for the rights of people living with HIV and AIDS, access to treatment and the right to health for marginalized communities.
Working and volunteering
At first Carlo thought it was a religious calling, but then he realized it was actually simply a call to help and do something positive, he explained. Carlo remains vocal on Puerto Rican issues. When he talks of his calling, it is not poetry. In addition, to volunteering in six non-profit organizations, the young man works as Advocacy Coordinator for Latin American and the Caribbean at the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition (ITPC). It is an organization of activists founded in 2003, which advocates for the right to treatment access for all people living with HIV. It campaigns to challenge pharmaceutical companies and international organizations to provide affordable treatment for all. For ITPC Carlo is currently coordinating the first Out of Pocket expenses community research program in the Americas.
As part of Carlo’s work he calls on WHO and the UN, to address treatment access problems faced by thousands of HIV patients. “Previously only the northern countries had access to treatment, the South didn’t have any or it was very expensive. We need to keep working with communities to ensure their rightful claims are heard. We are providing support, collecting data and doing community work, we are community,” Carlo explained.
As a Puerto Rican, Carlo has faced resistance during presentations to the leaders of these important international organizations. As Puerto Rico is part of the United States, as an incorporated territory it has no fixed representation in any international body. He says “I am this strange creature in a battle between Caribbean, Latin America and Puerto Rico, in a body that does not have a representation for Puerto Rico. He is keen to leverage the platform to expose and discuss the political situation on the island and how they are excluded from international discussions. “Puerto Rico is still part of the decolonization committee of the United Nations, and though it has its own constitution, the Federal Constitution of the United States overrules it. Leaving Puerto Rico without the power to adequately address the needs of its people”.
It’s impossible for him to be in his position and not talk about the problems facing his country, he stressed. The mission, he says, is visibility.
Stigma, fear and rejection
Carlo’s activism started as a teenager when he began working in the Puerto Rico Community Network for Clinical Research on Aids (PRCoNCRA) one of the oldest organizations dedicated to helping people living with HIV and AIDS on the island. His work consisted of promoting HIV testing in hard to reach community settings throughout Puerto Rico. “When I started in PRCoNCRA everything became clear to me and I began to study psychology. I wanted to be available to my community and my peers and I got the chance at age 18. It was hard for my parents because they did not want me to be as engaged in such a heavily stigmatized setting. It was a community counselling program for young gay men”. When he came out to his parents, he reckoned it helped him communicate with guys who were going through worse situations than he faced.
“We dealt with young people who did not have the support I had, and this made me strong enough to expose issues that they were not exposed to, so they could make the right informed decisions. Like talking about sex with men for example. In the end it all starts with education.” Whilst many others his age went out with their friends, Carlo went in a different direction and visited the metropolitan area where gay men met. There he distributed condoms and provided oral HIV tests, at bars, pubs and brothels.
“After seven years of working with young people living with HIV, I still find it hard to deliver positive results. Not because I know that there is not care, but because of the heavy burden society inflicts in people living with HIV. This is the hardest thing to get rid off”. His work helped him understand the level of rejection and suffering that many HIV patients live with on a daily basis, as when working in PRCoNCRA, people automatically thought he was living with HIV. My father spent years thinking that I was HIV positive, and had not said anything. When I was dating someone, people immediately went to them and said “take care of yourself he’s positive”. People on social media and forums published images of me with writings underneath that said: “dirty” or “unclean”.
He acknowledges that his work does not allow him to devote more time to local struggles, so he tries to stay active within different organizations. The entities with which he collaborates are: “Taller Salud” in Loiza, the Comprehensive Committee for the search of Equity, Positive Youth Network of Latin America and the Caribbean, the Board of Directors of PRCoNCRA, Board Chair of the HIV Young Leaders Fund Advisory Committee and Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) Advisory Committee at (WHO).