The art of resistance in Cuba

Danilo Maldonado, the Cuban graffiti artist commonly known as “El Sexto”, is fighting prison with paper. Since December 2014, repression of artists in Cuba has increased significantly. Español.

Pamela Kalkman
17 September 2015

Cuban political activists still face arrest and detention despite warming relations with the US. All rights reserved.

The drawing below shows a man who, even with a pig’s nose, a cap, and sunglasses, bares an undeniable resemblance to Raul Castro. His body is covered with prison bars that hide an angry man, desperate to escape. Upon a closer look, the prisoner’s tall physique and tattoos on his breast and arm make it clear that he is Cuban artist Danilo Maldonado, commonly known as El Sexto. A text balloon shows the president saying “This boy “El Sexto” converted me into a pig. You can protest all you want, I won’t let him go!

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A second drawing shows a baby girl. With her beautiful blond hair and big dark eyes, she stares sadly into the distance. On her head she wears a chick. Beneath her face we read her name: Renata, written in the signature style of her father, Danilo:

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In the following drawing, a prison watchtower stands in front of a fence with barbed wire. Apart from one sleeping guard, the tower is abandoned. Yet one feature stands out. A familiar sight for those who know Havana well: the tag of Cuban’s most famous graffiti artist, El Sexto:

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Maldonado: Cuba as a prison

Maldonado’s chosen moniker alludes to “Los Cinco” (“The Cuban Five”), or rather, the five Cuban intelligent officers who were recently released from U.S. prison as a result of the current U.S.-Cuba negotiations. Before that, the Cuban government used their imprisonment to stir a nationalist antagonism against the U.S. Everywhere on the island road signs demanded the immediate release of “our five heroes.”  

For Maldonado, the island of Cuba is only another prison that locks in its own citizens. By covering the country’s streets with his graffiti combined with the signature tag that says “El Sexto”, he hopes to counter government propaganda by conveying the idea to Cuban citizens that they are, in fact, the “sixth prisoner”. Ironically, shortly after “Los Cinco” were released by Obama in December, the Cuban government decided to arrest El Sexto.

It has been over eight months since Maldonado was first thrown into Valle Grande prison in Havana. His crime: planning to stage an art performance based on Orwell’s famous novella, Animal Farm. Cubans have the tradition of slaughtering and eating a pig on Christmas Eve, which has become too luxurious of a tradition to practice amidst the deteriorating economy. As a means of protest, Maldonado planned to “feed the Cuban people” on this past Christmas Eve by releasing two pigs in Havana’s Central Park. However, these were not regular pigs: spray-painted in military green, they went by the names Fidel and Raul.

Roughly three weeks before his holiday protest, Maldonado told me that word had probably gotten out about his plan. Security agents had been blocking his house, trying to prevent him from leaving. On the actual day of performance, he was arrested on his way to the park with his pigs. Later, he was accused of “insulting the maximum leadership of the revolution,” an offense punishable by one to three years of imprisonment in Cuba.

When two of his close friends, punk singer Gorki and artist Lia Villares, tried to visit Maldonado, they were denied entrance. The guards had labeled them as “CR” or Counter-Revolutionary, the go-to label for everyone who is critical of the Cuban regime. This branding may be related to a video clip they released, which demands the release of Maldonado; or, it may have to do with Lia Villares’ visit to the Oslo Freedom Forum in May, where she received the Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent of the Human Rights Foundation on behalf of Danilo.

Either way, the guards probably weren’t happy either with the petition the friends started on, or with the recording—which they slipped out of the prison—of the conversation between Tania Bruguera, a famous Cuban artist and a U.S. resident, and Maldonado, in which he denounces his unjust imprisonment. To be honest, it is hard to know just how someone comes to be labelled as a “CR” in Cuba.

Although artists around the world and exiled Cubans have supported Maldonado on social media, the diplomatic front remains disturbingly silent. For instance, representatives of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with whom Maldonado and I had an extensive discussion on the infringement of his human rights two years ago, haven’t spoken out against his imprisonment – even now he has started a hunger strike. Meanwhile, a recent press release announced that the Netherlands will send a trade mission to Cuba in 2016 to promote the Dutch business interests.

On the issue of human rights, another press release proudly highlights the Dutch government’s cooperation with “human rights activist Mariela Castro,” the daughter of Raul Castro, who is a promoter of gay rights but, at the same time, does not hesitate to use words as “despicable parasites“ and “mercenary” to describe the island’s dissidents. Other European countries are just as cautious in bringing up the issue of political prisoners.   


Maldonado is not the only activist being repressed in Cuba—far from it. Much of 2015 has seen such repression: the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reports that more than 4,000 political detentions have taken place since December 2014. The past month of August has been especially risky for human rights activists, with a record number of 913 political detentions. Furthermore, many fear that the visit of Pope Francis (19 to 22 September) will cause another wave of detentions, as happened during the 2012 visit of Pope Benedict, when a lot of opposition artists were arrested out of fear they would talk badly of Cuba to the foreign press.

It is not a coincidence that most—often violent—arrests take place on Sundays; these are the days the Ladies in White, a group of women activists who resist the political detention of ordinary citizens, organize their weekly march in Havana. The march started in 2003 among families and relatives of political prisoners, but it has grown into a much larger movement for civic rights in Cuba. The ongoing repression fits perfectly into Raul Castro’s strategy to combine small-scale economic reforms and diplomatic openness with repression of political and civil rights at home.

Nevertheless, cultural resistance against the regime remains very much alive. In the end, there are many ways to interpret Fidel’s famous 1961 guidelines for artists and intellectuals, “…within the Revolution everything, against the Revolution nothing.”For instance, Cuba is home to a vibrant hip-hop movement. Besides the notorious and famous duo Los Aldeanos, Cuba hosts many young rappers who sing about racism, poverty, police harassment, and exclusion. Although they have difficulties finding places to perform, their music is enthusiastically shared on the black market.

Theater is another place where one can find alternative views on Cuban society. In Cuba, theatre is a form of art dominated by the youth, who often use symbolism and double meanings to express their frustration at the growing alienation between the people and their government, and between the Cuban youth and the rest of the world. For example, the young director of a 2014 play based on the Greek myth of Antigone, told me it “clearly symbolizes the entombment of our generation.”

In paintings and sculptures, the images of Che Guevara and Jose Marti—two national heroes of Cuba—often carry double meanings. Artists often re-use key words of the socialist discourse —such as ‘rebellion,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘equality’ and, of course, ‘revolution’—not only to satirize the mismatch between the government’s stated commitment and the reality but also to express their yearning for the ideals of the words. In the words of one animation artist: “art in Cuba has many sub-texts which are known by the people, more than by the officials themselves, who are more distanced from social life.”

In cinema, young filmmakers are taking the lead in expressing a high level of social criticism through symbolism. In the past decade, they have produced a vast amount of independent films and documentaries that, among others, pose questions on the realities of poverty, deterioration in quality of life, non-productivity in the economy, marginalization of minority groups, and mass migration of Cubans to the U.S.

Luckily, there is too much “counter-revolutionary” art out there to censor, and there aren’t enough prisons to lock up all the critical young artists. Even if the Cuban authorities would manage to quiet down this cultural vibrancy, it would still do little to cover up the fact that most artists already feel free in their minds. In the words of Maldonado, “To beat me you need police and prisons. To beat you I only need spray and this little piece of paper.”

While repression has certainly continued steadily since December, the rapprochement with the U.S. also seems to encourage artists who wish to further push the boundaries of what is possible “within the Revolution.”Thus, to really understand what’s happening in Cuba, it is crucial to look beyond diplomatic statements and superficial press releases, and delve into the diverse cultural expressions of Cuban artists themselves— even, or especially, those coming out of Valle Grande Prison.

A final drawing depicts Cuban military officials kneeling before the Ladies in White. Their leader, in the middle, holds in his stretched arms a string of flowers, asking for forgiveness. Next to the drawing El Sexto writes “one day this will be.”:

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