Oslo — Article 39 of the Cuban constitution states that “artistic creativity is free as long as its content is not contrary to the Revolution.” Danilo Maldonado Machado, a.k.a. “El Sexto,” does not obey. He is a Cuban street artist and human-rights activist. He has been in and out of prison many times. In 2014, he took two pigs and painted names on them: “Fidel” and “Raúl.” He was referring to his country’s brother dictators, of course. And he had been inspired by Animal Farm, Orwell’s novella of 1945. Obviously, this act earned him a prison sentence.
In 2015, he received the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent — in absentia, for he was in prison. The prize is named after the late Czech playwright and democracy hero, and is given at the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual human-rights gathering in the Norwegian capital. Maldonado is here right now: at Freedom Forum 2016. He is able to thank the organization in person.
Maldonado is the very image of the street-artist rebel: tall (6´3˝) and thin. Funky haircut. Tattoos, jewelry, the works. He was born on April 1, 1983. April Fools’ Day is a good birthday for a jokester. In an interview with me, he notes that he was born just shy of the Orwell year: 1984. He also notes that, according to the Chinese zodiac, he was born in the Year of the Pig. “What else?” I say. Maldonado grins readily, as he is prone to do.
He grew up in Camagüey Province. Neither of his parents was especially political. Like all Cubans, Danilo was propagandized as soon as he reached school age. He and his classmates chanted such slogans as “We will be like Che [Guevara].” When they learned to read, they did not see such sentences as “See Spot run.” They saw “Fidel is in the plaza” or “Fidel is happy.” And, of course, TV, radio, and newspapers conveyed hardly anything but propaganda.
Danilo liked to draw, and something strange happened when he was nine. He drew a picture of Fidel Castro in his army fatigues, but with a monkey head. When his mother saw it, she was horrified. She took it from him, threw it away, and admonished him never to draw anything like that again. The child was taken aback. His mother had always liked his drawings before. Why was she so afraid of this one simple drawing? “That started a little revolution in my mind,” he says.
When he was 18, he was conscripted into the military, like everyone else. On the base, he saw things he had never seen before: goods, supplies — stuff. He stole some of it. For this, he was sentenced to six years in prison, of which he served three. When he got out, he had an urge to satirize: to satirize every government campaign, to puncture the atmosphere of fear and propaganda.
That’s how he got his nickname, “El Sexto.” The government was hailing the “Cuban Five,” a quintet of spies in the United States. The government was constantly celebrating these men as heroes. So Maldonado, tongue in cheek, started calling himself “El Sexto”: The Sixth.
He also spray-painted graffiti in the capital city, Havana, signing them with his nickname. In one instance, he painted “Peace. Love. Without fear.” This caused a buzz. Fear is the ruling emotion in Cuba, as in police states everywhere. On a bus, Maldonado overheard people talking about him. “Who is ‘El Sexto’?” He also overheard police talking about him. They were vowing to get these guys, who were waging this graffiti campaign. They thought that “El Sexto” was more than one person.
For years, he has had support from ordinary people, usually stated in whispers. He has support even among policemen. But most of the agents do their job: which includes harassing Maldonado, keeping him out of public spaces, and confiscating his property.
Once, Maldonado wore a T-shirt with the image of Laura Pollán on it. She was the leader of the Ladies in White, the human-rights group in Cuba. She died in 2011 under suspicious circumstances. The police ripped the shirt off Maldonado. They also took away his art materials. So, as he puts it, he used the one medium left to him: his body. He acquired a tattoo of Pollán. And of Oswaldo Payá, another Cuban democracy leader, killed by the regime in 2012.
Maldonado, like the people painted on his body, is one of those irrepressible dissidents.
In December 2014, President Obama announced his opening to Cuba. If international media were going to be paying more attention to Cuba, Maldonado thought it was a good time for an imaginative, daring performance. His inspiration was Animal Farm: which depicts a place where “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Ever since it was written, people trapped in totalitarian societies have been amazed by Animal Farm — by its accuracy, above all.
Two years ago, also at the Oslo Freedom Forum, I interviewed a young defector from North Korea, Yeonmi Park. Even when she got to South Korea, she did not feel quite free, in her mind. But then she got a hold of Animal Farm. She read it all night, and cried. The book seemed to be about her homeland, specifically. “Animal Farm set me free from brainwashing,” she told me.
In Cuba, Maldonado took his two pigs — females, as it happened — and gave them those famous names, Fidel and Raúl. His plan was to take them to Central Park in Havana and put on a show: Rebelión en la granja, i.e., “Rebellion on the Farm,” which is how Orwell’s novella is known in Spanish. Maldonado knew he would be arrested and imprisoned. His aim was to show the world that freedom of expression in Cuba was denied.
He never made it to the park. They arrested him on the way. Maldonado was charged with disorderly conduct, but he was never given a trial. He was sentenced to three years — “Three years for two pigs,” as his supporters put it. The prison was Valle Grande, where he was confined with common criminals (as dissidents are in Cuba). Amnesty International declared Maldonado a prisoner of conscience.
There came a time when the prisoners did not have water. And that led Maldonado to stage a hunger strike. He also had this thought: “It was my activism that got me in here, and it will be activism that gets me out.” He considered his hunger strike a kind of performance art. He went without food for 24 days. Was he prepared to die? Yes, he says, although he did not think it would come to that: He figured he was too well known for the regime to let die. The regime would not want the publicity.
Maldonado’s hunger strike garnered international attention and led to international pressure on Castro & Co. They relented, releasing Maldonado on October 20, 2015. His jailers had some parting words for him: “Stay out of trouble.”
He refuses. He wants to “stretch the limits of what is possible,” he says. Why? Why him? What drives him to it, what compels him to put his neck on the line? Why him and not someone else? He answers the way dissidents usually do when I ask them this question: “I don’t know.” In the past, Maldonado tried to live a normal life, but found he could not. He must strike little artistic blows against the dictatorship, or try to.
His goal is to “break the pattern of brainwashing in people,” he says. He wants to counter the government’s incessant propaganda. He says he thinks like a publicist: What can I do to catch people’s attention and wake them up a little? He says that Communism is like slavery: “People are told to be grateful for what little they’re given by their masters. They’re also told that life would be wretched for them elsewhere, or under a different system.”
“Why do they let you travel?” I ask. “I don’t know,” says Maldonado. Then, grinning, “Maybe they think I’ll never come back.” Maldonado is more trouble to them at home than abroad. Whatever the dangers in Cuba, he has no desire to go into exile, because “I want to be part of change in Cuba. I see America and the American dream, and I want to implant that spirit in Cuba: to have a Cuban dream, which is freedom.”
I ask him a standard question: whether there’s something he wishes people — especially outsiders, foreigners — could know. He has an immediate answer: “Che Guevara was a murderer. He wasn’t a hero. Also, Raúl and Fidel are murderers, not legitimate authorities, not legitimate heads of state. They are there by force, not by the will of the people.”
En route to the Oslo Freedom Forum, Maldonado flew from Havana to Paris. Sitting next to him was a man wearing a Che shirt: a foreigner, probably a Frenchman. Maldonado wanted to explain to the man about Guevara, but they did not have a language in common. Maldonado says he can excuse Cubans who wear Che shirts: They have been propagandized all their lives. He has a much harder time excusing men and women from free societies.
Before we part, I tell El Sexto that I consider him something of a miracle. When I was growing up in Ann Arbor, Mich., the cool kids like him — the artists and rebels, with funky hair, tattoos, jewelry, etc. — were all on the left. They wore Che shirts. They were pro-Castro. And here the coolest kid on the block is anti-Castro, pro-democracy, anti-Che. “I’m so glad you exist,” I tell him. He grins.