Nearly a year after Cuban artist and former Miami Dade College student, Danilo Maldonado Machado, left Miami, he is being held in jail accused of disturbing the peace with a political performance art piece.
Maldonado Machado, known as “El Sexto,” is a 32-year-old human rights activist from Havana who expresses himself through graffiti. Cuban authorities call his art decadent because he criticizes the regime.
Authorities arrested Maldonado Machado on Dec. 25 for planning a performance and exercising his freedom of speech.
The performance that Maldonado Machado conceived was to paint the names “Raul” and “Fidel” on two oiled pigs. He was set to release them for people to catch in the Central Park of Havana. His goal by doing this was to provide a Christmas meal for the lucky family who caught the animals. The artist could face up to three years in jail.
The independent Cuban website 14ymedio.com reports that Maldonado Machado has been jailed numerous times for artwork critical of the Castro regime.
Maldonado Machado came to MDC last January for a semester when the College hosted 15 students from Cuba to study abroad here for the first time in 55 years. The Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (FHRC) sponsored the students’ tuition, living expenses and other auxiliary costs.
“The goal was to simply provide access to people in general,” said Juan Blanco, executive director at the College president’s office. “The results were above average of MDC.”
Blanco describes Maldonado Machado as a very calm and sweet person.
“He’s the kind of person that is very hard to not like,” Blanco said. “Very cooperative and willing to give a hand [to those] who need it. [He] felt committed to changing the Cuban system through his art.”
But Cuban authorities did not take kindly to his art and his commitment to change.
“He was stopped on his way to the performance,” Blanco said.
The Cuban authorities jailed the graffiti artist for staging the symbolic pig stunt.
“They have not yet tried him, but he is incarcerated,” said Henry Constantin Ferreiro, Maldonado Machado’s friend and Cuban journalist who joined him at MDC last year. “Anything can happen in Cuba but I have faith that we will get him out of jail soon.”
The FHRC has been fighting for Maldonado Machado’s release. They helped launch a campaign to #FreeElSexto and created a petition on change.org
“We think that any vocal, nonviolent effort, both inside and outside of Cuba, including the petition can help to create awareness for El Sexto’s situation and help him get out of jail,” said Jose Luis Martinez, the Director of Communications for the FHRC. “Danilo was only trying to attempt a piece of public performance art in December which ultimately led to his arrest and subsequent incarceration without trial to this day.”
Blanco said the Cuban jail system is known for doing whatever they want. In most cases, prisoners are in cells without running water.
Maldonado Machado’s grandmother told 14Ymedio.com: “He was sleeping on the floor for two months because for him, as for many other prisoners, there was no bed. They don’t even let an aspirin in. Danilo is chronically asthmatic, he had pneumonia, and they denied him antibiotics.”
Blanco fears Maldonado Machado may be harmed.
“It is not unusual that the guards ask other delinquents to attack you,” Blanco said. “Sometimes you share a very small cell with many, many people. There are many accounts of people that were in jail there, and most of them give the same description.”
Constantin Ferreiro said the Cuban government lives in fear of losing power.
“Any discrepancy or critic the government receives from its people they handle it like it is an attack on their status,” Constantin Ferreiro said.
The FHRC considers Maldonado Machado a political prisoner and is demanding his immediate and unconditional release.
“Danilo is an exceptional artist, activist, we like to use the term “artivist” and a good person who believes in the basic right of Free Expression, as well as all basic human rights, and democracy,” Martinez said.
While at MDC, Maldonado Machado studied sociology, computers, psychology, business and English.
In a heartfelt article Maldonado Machado wrote for The Reporter published on Feb. 13, 2014 entitled “Thank You Miami Dade College” he marveled at the differences between the two countries and the freedom of expression here.
He wrote: “Shock is what I felt when I learned that here you only need five students in order to form a group of some sort while in my country, the only group for the youth to join is the UJC, the Union of Young Communists, assuming they are not expelled from school, like San Miguel Molina, who got thrown out of medical school for having contrasting political views.”
During the Summit of the Americas in Panama last week President Barack Obama met with Cuban leader Raul Castro and brought up the importance of freedom for civil society activists like Maldonado Machado. Cubans on opposing ends of ideology, including Constantin Ferreiro, demonstrated in the streets of the Central American city.
In Panama, Maldonado Machado’s friend Gorki Águila, a musician and director of the band Porno para Ricardo, performed a song about the graffiti artist’s plight. On Maldonado Machado’s Facebook page, friends posted an enormous image of a bearded El Sexto wearing an orange T-shirt, jeans and a cap projected on the stage during the performance with the words Libertad Para Danilo (Freedom for Danilo) across his torso. Postings on the Twitter hashtag #ElSexto and #FreeElSexto demand his release.
Last week, in New York City’s Times Square, artists and activists performed an interactive spoken word tribute to Maldonado Machado and others jailed in Cuba linked to the Twitter hashtag #yotambienexijo or “I also demand.”
Also last week, the New York City-based Human Rights Foundation awarded Maldonado Machado the Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent along with two other activists. The Foundation’s website said the prize celebrates those who, with bravery and ingenuity, unmask the lie of dictatorship by living in truth. Maldonado Machado will be honored in a ceremony during the 2015 Oslo Freedom Forum in the Norwegian city on May 27.