Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: For a true Art Basel VIP, look to Cuba’s El Sexto

Danilo Maldonado Machado, alias “El Sexto,” receiving the Václav Havel Award for Dissidence in Miami on Monday.
Danilo Maldonado Machado, alias “El Sexto,” receiving the Václav Havel Award for Dissidence in Miami on Monday. jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

After spending 10 months in prison without a trial for making art the Cuban government considered defamatory, graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado, better known as “El Sexto,” is visiting Miami. Bienvenido.

Freed after Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience, the young Cuban artist came to accept a human-rights award for work that pushes the boundaries of censorship on the island. He couldn’t have arrived at a better time. As top artists, galleries, exhibitors, museum curators and collectors gather for the 14th edition of Art Basel Miami Beach, we’re once more feasting on the best contemporary art in the world.

May this be the oxygen El Sexto needs for the next stage of his life and work in Cuba. May his presence give the issue of artistic and personal freedom in Cuba the exposure it merits at this crucial time in history, when the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments seems to have done little to quash human-rights abuses.

The Ladies in White and other dissidents marching to church on Sunday are routinely harassed, beaten, and detained across the island. Artists such as internationally renowned installation and performance artist Tania Bruguera — an Art Basel regular — and the lesser known Maldonado have paid a high price for testing the limits of what rapprochement means for the Cuban people.

Both were arrested for attempting performance art projects — she an open mic on Revolution Square, he letting pigs he painted with the names Raúl and Fidel roam in a Havana plaza. Bruguera was temporarily detained and put under house arrest repeatedly, her passport confiscated. She was monitored, harassed and banned from the Havana Biennial. After eight months, thanks to her high profile abroad and appeals by entities like the Guggenheim Museum, she got her passport back and was able to leave Cuba.

Maldonado was released in October with the warning “not to make the same mistake” or he’d be returned to prison.

During a Miami news conference on Monday to accept the Human Rights Foundation’s Václav Havel Award for Creative Dissent, Maldonado focused attention on the latest exodus of disaffected Cubans. Some 4,000 are stranded at the Nicaraguan border in a bid to reach the United States.

“I want to say to those stranded in Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama that you’re not alone, that we’re not going to leave you alone to come into harm’s way. But we cannot give a prize to immigration or to stimulate Cuban immigration. We need to seize this moment to make people see that this is not the solution for Cuba — to leave, to escape. We need to be responsible for our own destiny, our own country. That same energy spent shouting ‘Libertad!’ in Costa Rica we need to spend shouting it in Cuba. … No one is going to do for us what we ourselves need to do.”

People without artistic sensitivity, people who think art is only a hobby of the wealthy, often ask me why art matters.

Maldonado easily answers that question.

For his boldness, his conscience and heart, he’s the year’s true Art Basel VIP.