For many, graffiti is just another form of street art, but for Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado it is a way to dissent from and protest against the Cuban Communist Party. Through his art, he criticizes the human rights abuses the Cuban people suffer at the hands of the Castro regime.
As a young kid in Cuba, Maldonado always knew he wanted to be an artist. Yet throughout school he was constantly indoctrinated with the country’s revolutionary ideology and saw himself unable to express his thoughts through art. As he grew older, he eventually found the artistic medium that would give him voice: graffiti. However, his artistic expression came at the price of his freedom—he is now one of Cuba’s most detained artists.
The world noticed Danilo when, in December 2014, he performed one of the most subversive acts seen in Cuba in the last couple of years. He was arrested for attempting to stage a performance involving two pigs; one painted with the name of Raúl, while the other read Fidel. As part of his act, he planned to release the pigs in Havana’s central park for people to try and catch them. His main inspiration: George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Danilo never made it to his performance. He was detained on his way to the central park. The Cuban Communist Party accused him of contempt for the leaders of the Revolution—a crime in Cuba that can cost you up to three years in jail. When talking about his arrest, Danilo believes he was arrested “simply because [he] made fun of the highest leaders of this revolution.”
Danilo was not given a trial. He was never officially charged. Simply for trying to express his art, he was held for 10 months in a Cuban prison.
To him, and to the rest of the world, his imprisonment only confirmed the harshness of the dictatorship. While he was in jail, several international human rights organizations picked up his case. Each day he remained imprisoned, more joined his cause. He was classified as a prisoner of conscience by both the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba and Amnesty International. The Human Rights Foundation awarded him with the Vaclav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent.
With his story in the spotlight, Danilo was eventually released in October of 2015. Since then, not only has Danilo continued to draw graffiti, but he has become one of the island’s leading human rights activists. He is constantly marching with the Ladies in White, or creating works of graffiti that raise awareness and protest against the Communist Party. Because of these practices, he has been arrested twice and detained several more times without pretext after his release in 2015. Danilo is aware that to truly express himself through art he must become an enemy of the state. But as he said “art has to be done with bravery,” which is why he has promised to stage his performance with the pigs on Christmas 2016.
Danilo’s story is a reminder that there is no freedom of expression in Cuba and that the Castro regime systematically cracks down on those who disagree with it. It is an example of how the Cuban Communist Party has not changed the tactics it used to get power after the Cuban Revolution, despite the recent detente with the Unites States.
Opposition in Cuba is still constantly silenced by the regime. President Obama’s recent visit made that clear, when more than 50 peaceful protesters were arrested ahead of his visit for speaking out against the regime and demanding democratic elections. Among those arrested was El Sexto. Similar actions were taken by the regime when Secretary of State John Kerry and Pope Francis visited the island.
The reality is that Danilo is an artist who, like any other artist, just wants to showcase his work. Yet he cannot because the regime strictly forbids it. Would we tolerate this kind of behavior here? No, because freedom of expression is something that should never lead to prison.