14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 3 February 2017 — The uniform haircut imposed upon entering the Combinado del Este prison contrasts with the stains of fresh paint on the shoes of the super tall man, who stands nearly 6’5″. Danilo Maldonado Machado, known as ‘El Sexto’ (The Sixth), a graffiti artist and human rights activist in Cuba, embodies the antithesis of the New Man forged by the Revolution.
After being imprisoned for 55 days for painting graffiti on a wall of the Habana Libre hotel, Maldonado was released on 21 January. He is currently visiting Miami to promote his art and to thank the Cuban community there for their support.
His life has not been easy. He was born in 1983 and grew up in the years of the Special Period when the Soviet subsidies ended and the island was plunged into misery. Originally from Camaguey, he had to share a roof in Havana with another family and take on the weight of a home without a father.
His art is street art. He never went to an academy. As a child he tried but was rejected for being “very small”
“In those years I was selling milk caramels in the neighborhood to help my mother get by,” he recalls.
“Sometimes we did not even have fifty cents to buy milk. The rebellion against poverty and oppression began at that time.”
His art is street art. He never went to an academy. As a child he tried but was rejected for being “very small.” Leonel, a teacher in the House of Culture in his neighborhood, took him under his wing and showed him the first strokes.
“From there I wanted to get out what I had inside, but I did not know how,” he says.
The first time that Maldonado went to prison was due to a robbery at a warehouse on a Cuban Army tank base. At that time he was serving his compulsory military service. He was sentenced to six years in prison. The prison experience changed him “forever.”
“Prison is a place where you find many types of people, with different cultures and points of view. Learning to live among them, to live together, is one of the great lessons that experience left me with,” he says.
His artistic name, El Sexto (The Sixth) occurred to him in the midst of the Cuban government’s campaign to bring back “The Cuban Five” – spies imprisoned in the U.S.
In prison he also learned that respect is not gained through violence but “with principles and with acting in the right way of.”
Maldonado does not hide that he had a troubled past.
“I have been involved in many things in my life that have made me what I am. I do not come from a monastery. I come from the street but that is not where I wanted to stay,” he answers when asked about the campaign against him pushed by bloggers working for the Cuban government who accuse him of being addicted to drugs.
“People change, they have the right to do it. I do not like even the smell of drinking,” adds the artist.
His artistic name, El Sexto (the Sixth), came in the midst of the campaign by the Cuban government to bring back the five Wasp Network spies imprisoned in the United States, who were known in Cuba as “The Five Heroes.”
He called himself “The Sixth Hero,” who represented the voice of the Cuban people, “the hostage” of the dictatorship, according to Maldonado.
Maldonado has been arrested three times for political reasons
“They (the Government) put them on television, like they are part of your family. I want people to know the message of freedom and to open their eyes. So I understood I had to come to them with a message that was sarcastic and that everyone could understand,” he says.
“You cross out my things, I cross out yours,” he wrote, about the stupid black spots that officialdom uses to try to hide graffit in the capital. In addition, he distributed leaflets with subservise phrases and invited the whole world to be free and happy.
“I am doing my work: being free. I would like others to see that it is possible to be free and to break with the government,” he says when asked about his role in Cuban culture.
Maldonado has been arrested three times for political reasons. In 2014 he attempted to stage a street performance titled Animal Farm. He proposed to release two pigs in Havana’s Central Park. On the backs of piglets, which were painted green, the names of the Cuban rulers were also painted: Fidel on one piglet and Raúl on the other.
The idea was that whoever captured the piglets could keep them as a prize. It was easy to imagine what the winners would do with them. The daring act, which never came to fruition, cost him ten months’ imprisonment in the Valle Grande prison.
El Sexto has been imprisoned for joining the Ladies in White in their Sunday protest marches to demand the release of political prisoners
The conditions in the Cuban prisons, the dirt, the bad food and the degrading treatment to the inmates were documented by him in a diary. In addition, the artist was able to take photographs that he clandestinely sneaked out of Valle Grande to support his complaints.
Art and his activism go hand in hand. Sometimes both activities are scandalous.
“There are people who accuse me of calling the flag a ‘rag’ or reproach me for a work of art made with the bust of José Martí. For me what is truly sacred is human life, above any other symbol created by society. I believe in life and in respect for it,” says Maldonado.
El Sexto has been imprisoned for joining the Ladies in White in their Sunday protest marches to demand the release of political prisoners, and has been part of the ‘We All March’ campaign.
Laura Pollán, the deceased leader of the Ladies in White and Oswaldo Payá, the deceased leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, are tattooed on his skin, along with a petition for the release of Leopoldo López, a Venezuelan politician currently a political prisoner in that country.
In 2015, Danilo Maldonado received the Vaclav Havel Prize, for “creative dissent, the display of courage and creativity to challenge injustice and live in truth”
“I am worried about the situation of political prisoners in Cuba, Eduardo Cardet and many others,” he says. He is also trying to sensitize the international community to the drama of thousands of Cubans who were stranded in Latin America following Barack Obama’s repeal of the wet foot/dry foot policy, shortly before he left office.
“These are our brothers, we should unite to help them. As long as we Cubans do not join together, we will not change the situation of our country,” he laments.
In 2015, Danilo Maldonado received the Vaclav Havel Prize, awarded to people “who participate in creative dissent, display courage and creativity to challenge injustice and live in truth.”
Currently, El Sexto is preparing an art exhibition in the United States. He also plans to travel to Geneva to talk about human rights in Cuba and plans to attend the Oslo Freedom Forum.
This article is part of an agreement between 14ymedio and the Nuevo Herald.