Danilo Maldonado, the Cuban graffiti artist and human rights activist known as El Sexto, is the very antithesis of the communist “new man” the Castro revolution was supposed to create.
Maldonado spent 55 days in prison after spray painting “Se Fue” — He’s Gone — on a wall of the Habana Libre Hotel the day after Fidel Castro died. He was released Jan. 21 and is now in Miami to thank his supporters and promote his art.
The military-style haircut he was forced to get while imprisoned at the Combinado del Este facility in Havana now contrasts with the fresh paint splattered on his shoes, loose T-shirt and jeans and a baseball cap with an upturned brim.
Maldonado is preparing a show of his art in the United States, and plans to travel to Switzerland and Norway to talk about Cuba’s human rights record in Geneva and attend the Oslo Freedom Forum in May.
“I come from the streets, but that’s not where I wanted to stay,” the artist said.
Born in 1983, Maldonado grew up during the Special Period, when the Soviet subsidies had ended and Fidel Castro was preparing for a return to cave dwelling to survive. A native of Camagüey in eastern Cuba, he had to share a Havana house with another family and shoulder the burden of a home with no father.
“In those days I sold milk candy around the neighborhood to help my mother get by,” he recalled. “Sometimes we didn’t even have 50 cents to buy the milk. My rebellion against poverty and oppression started then.”
Maldonado is a street artist. He didn’t get a formal art education. He tried to get into an art academy as a child, but was turned away because he was too young. Leonel, a teacher at his neighborhood cultural center, took him under his wing and showed him the first strokes.
“Since then, I wanted to bring out what I had inside, but I didn’t know how,” he said.
The first time Maldonado went to prison was for the burglary of a warehouse at a military base while he was enrolled in obligatory military service. He was sentenced to six years behind bars. The experience changed him.
“Prison is a place where you meet different types of people with different cultures and points of view. Learning to live among them, to live together, is one of the great lessons I learned,” he said.
He also learned in prison that respect is not won with violence, “but with principles and the right way of acting.”
“El Sexto is a brave young man who has learned to be free within that giant prison that is the island of Cuba,” said Juan Antonio Blanco, director of the Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba. “His attitude reminds us of the existentialist principle that we always have the freedom to choose.
“Danilo Maldonado has chosen insubordination to exercise his freedom,” Blanco said. “Many of his critics have actually opted for submission in hopes that history will come to rescue them without having to pay the same price.”
Maldonado does not hide his troubled past. Asked about a campaign by pro-Castro bloggers who accuse him of being a drug addict, he said, “I’ve been involved in many things in my life that have made me what I am today. I don’t come from a monastery.
“People change,” he added. “They have a right to change. I don’t even like the smell of alcohol.”
His nom-de-artiste came to him during the Castro campaign demanding the return of five Cuban spies held in U.S. prisons. The last of the five was freed in 2014. Havana called them the “five heroes,” so Maldonado called himself El Sexto — The Sixth — to represent the people of Cuba, held “hostage” by the Castro regime.
The government “comes at you through the television. They are like part of your family. I wanted people to open their eyes and know the message of freedom,” he said. “That’s why I knew that I had to reach them with a message that was sarcastic and that everyone could understand.”
When government workers painted over his graffiti, he painted over their ugly black splotches with the words, “You paint over my things, I paint over yours.” He distributed fliers with subversive messages and invited everyone to “be free and happy.”
Asked about his role in Cuban culture, he replied, “I do my job — to be free. I wish everyone else could see that it’s possible, and break with the government.”
Maldonado has been jailed three times for political reasons.
In 2014, he planned an art performance titled “Rebellion in the Farm.” He planned to set two pigs lose in a central Havana park. In green paint, the pigs were named Fidel and Raúl. Any Cubans who captured the pigs could keep them.
He was arrested before he could carry out the performance and spent 10 months in the Valle Grande prison on the outskirts of Havana.
While in prison, he wrote a diary about conditions inside — the filth, horrible food and degrading treatment of inmates. He also took clandestine photos as evidence for his complaints. The images were posted on the internet and viewed around the world.
In 2015, Maldonado received the Vaclav Havel Prize for people “who participate in creative dissidence and exhibit courage and creativity to defy injustices and live in truth.”
His art and activism go hand in hand. And both are scandalous.
“There are people who criticize me for calling the [Cuban] flag a rag for a work of art made with the bust of [Cuban patriot] José Martí,” Maldonado said. “For me, the only thing truly sacred is human life — more so than any other symbol created by man. I believe in life, and respect for life.”
Maldonado was also jailed for joining the dissident Ladies in White during their Sunday protests and the #TodosMarchamos campaign, both demanding the release of all political prisoners.
Among the tattoos displayed on his body are images of Laura Pollán, the late founder of the Ladies in White, and Oswaldo Payá, later founder of the Christian Liberation Movement, as well as a demand for the release of jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López.
“I am worried about the conditions of political prisoners in Cuba, of Eduardo Cadet and so many others,” he said.
He’s also trying to educate the international community about the plight of the thousands of Cubans stranded in various parts of Latin America after the Obama administration abolished the “wet foot, dry foot” policy for migrants from the island.
“Those are our brothers. We have to unite to help them,” he said. “Unless we Cubans unite, we are not going to change our country.”
Follow Mario J. Pentón on Twitter: @mariojose_cuba