Cuban Protest Artist El Sexto: 'You Have to Keep at It'

El Sexto preparing for a Christmas Day performance art piece in 2014, just before his arrest. Private, courtesy of Amnesty International

Danilo Maldonado Machado, known as "El Sexto," is living proof that, in Cuba, political protest still carries a hefty price tag.

In December last year, just days after President Barack Obama announced the U.S. would reestablish relations with Cuba, the 22-year-old artist was locked up for painting the names Raúl and Fidel—the first names of the Castro brothers who have been in power since 1959—on the backs of two live pigs.

He had planned to release the pigs in a public park as part of a performance on Christmas Day. He was not just poking fun to score political points—his envisioned performance melded a Cuban Christmas tradition of letting pigs go and having the public catch them with ideas from George Orwell's Animal Farm.

But it never went ahead—he was arrested on his way there. "They imprisoned me before it happened…and they imprisoned 'Fidel' and 'Raúl' [the pigs]," El Sexto says, grinning.

El Sexto was released without warning from the Valle Grande prison outside Havana on October 20, 10 months after his arrest. Although at the time of his arrest he was accused of "contempt" for the leaders of the Revolution, he was never formally charged or put on trial.

The Cuban authorities first hinted on October 15 that they might release him, when they told his mother that he had "served his time." He was released five days later. The authorities have not publicly stated why they decided to release him at that time, but it came after an outcry from Amnesty International supporters, activists and artists from around the world. After his release, he traveled to the U.S., where he has remained ever since.

El Sexto's slight frame and enthusiastic use of sugar in a hot drink are the only hints that he spent more than three weeks on hunger strike in a Cuban prison earlier this year. And his eccentric energy is matched only by his ability to dive suddenly into a conceptual world created in his mind.

After his arrest last year, El Sexto was accused of "desacato" (contempt), a provision in Cuba's antiquated criminal law that carries a sentence of up to three years. Like other criminal offences used to silence dissidents in Cuba—including "enemy propaganda" and "resistance"—it sounds like it has been pulled out of an old sci-fi novel, and smacks of a type of repression that most Latin American countries left behind long ago.

El Sexto started to draw when he was 5 years old. He knew he wanted to be an artist, but didn't know how to go about it. He later found an artistic voice, inspired by fellow dissent artists such as Ai Weiwei and the New York graffiti scene. "I can't separate art and activism," he says.

"I couldn't do art based on dreams, drawing flowers and pretty things while just next to my house they are beating up women," he said. This is a nod to the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco), female family members of political prisoners who are regularly beaten and detained for peacefully protesting in Havana and elsewhere in Cuba.

For El Sexto, a graffiti artist is "a publicist of the underground, of the people, of reality."

"In Cuba, the government runs advertising. We get information about Fidel and Raúl and 'La Revolución' from the television…the radio, the newspapers, from all directions, on the street. That's the only type of publicity allowed. So, I started using the kind of graffiti I do to mock the mass advertising they produce. It's a confrontation," he says.

His case highlights a systematic trend. The Cuban authorities routinely harass and detain people for expressing themselves freely or protesting peacefully.

In November 2015, there were almost 1,500 arbitrary arrests in Cuba, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN). This is the highest number in a single month for many years, and double the monthly average in 2014.

On International Human Rights Day, December 10, the political police detained activists, including many in their homes, to prevent their peaceful protest. They also stopped journalists from leaving their offices to report the story.

While there are fewer prisoners of conscience on the island now than between the 1970s and 1990s, political opponents who mock the authorities continue to get jailed and harassed at an appalling rate.

In his first months behind bars, El Sexto shared space with more than 140 prisoners. He saw it as an opportunity to learn more about the human condition. "People pass you information, their story, without even knowing it. I like learning from people…and so that's what I did," he said.

When he went on hunger strike, he was isolated in a cell with no sunlight. To get through it, he began telling himself the hunger strikes were part of another performance, with people in the outside world taking part by sending their messages of solidarity and campaigning for his freedom.

After his release, and days without human contact, he was so weak he found it difficult to stand for long and had problems with his joints. He found the streets, and the people waiting for him in his house, strange, even overwhelming.

"The way I see art is sort of how I see the real world. It's something that doesn't exist, but that if I imagine really hard, people can influence with their energy and can make it real.… That's how it was in the cell. I said, 'I am going to get out of this prison,' and people began to work on that idea.… People across the world put their empathy in that small space, in that cell, and after that I got out."

El Sexto's case generated global attention from fellow artists and human rights organizations. And since his release, he has continued his activism.

When he recently won a $25,000 prize for his art, he publicly donated it to help Cuban migrants stuck in Central America as they attempt to reach the U.S. But he also used the occasion to call on his fellow Cubans not to leave the island, but to work instead towards solutions to the problems they face at home.

He has also been going to protests every Sunday with the Ladies in White, as part of their "Todos Marchamos" (We All March) campaign. Despite the risk of future arrest and imprisonment, he feels it is crucial to show solidarity. "You are as important to everyone else as they are to you," he said. "I wouldn't be a fulfilled person; I would be a terrible person if women were being beaten and I wasn't there [to protest]."

During El Sexto's imprisonment, his mother and grandmother actively campaigned for his release, and he knows his family has suffered because of his art and activism.

But he feels compelled to work toward a better society for his 2-year-old daughter, Renata María. His face lights up when he talks about her: "I don't want her to grow up in an environment where she has to speak softly.… It is difficult, but I hope she will understand that her dad goes out and creates art, for her and for everyone, and for me."

This commitment has fueled El Sexto's desire to again try to stage his performance with the two painted pigs for Christmas 2016, when he is back in Cuba. The announcement sounds crazy, almost naïve, and is sure to get him arrested again. But this is a man who spent almost a year in prison for his art, without formal charges and without seeing a judge.

"Art has to be done with bravery," he says. "Artists have a responsibility to people, because people give artists energy. And it is important to be responsible with that energy."

Louise Tillotson is researcher on the Caribbean at Amnesty International.