On December 25, 2014, Havana-based graffiti artist “El Sexto” prepared a piece of performance art featuring a pair of pigs.1 The piece was called Rebelión en la Granja, or Animal Farm.2 After preparing the pigs, El Sexto hailed a taxi, put the pigs in the trunk and asked for Havana’s Central Park.3,4 He was planning to display the pigs at an art show there. But he never made it that far. The taxi was stopped by the police, and El Sexto was detained. He has remained in prison since Christmas Day of last year.
His crime: painting the names “Fidel” and “Raúl” on the two pigs.4
Accused of “disrespecting national figures”—specifically Fidel and Raúl Castro, former and current presidents of Cuba—El Sexto has been imprisoned in Valle Grande jail without any formal charges and without trial for almost 10 months.2,4
“El Sexto,” or “The Sixth,” is the self-given nickname of 32-year-old Danilo Maldonado Machado.4 The alias sardonically refers to the official campaign for the return of the so-called Five Heroes, five Cuban men who were imprisoned in the United States for espionage and seen by the Cuban government as martyrs for the Cuban cause.5,6 In 2009 Machado declared himself “The Sixth” Hero, and spray-painted graffiti with the satirical words “Devuelvan mis cinco euros” (“Give me back my five euros”) throughout Havana. In the next years his work would evolve to include not only political graffiti, but paintings, drawings, clothing, and tattoos, all of which he used to protest the Cuban government’s violations of human rights. Machado was harassed countless times—he had his credit canceled, his materials and works seized by police or confiscated from his buyers at airports, his graffiti covered over in pink paint, even his clothes physically ripped from his back—but the artist never backed down. “They can call me a dissident, or whatever term they wish to invent,” he said in a 2012 interview, explaining that he considers himself no more than a human being with a need for self-expression. “I am going to continue doing what I do, even if it means my life.”5
The Five Heroes were returned to Cuba in 2014, but by then, Machado’s many works had transformed the streets of Havana, and the significance of the name “El Sexto” had evolved well past the meaning of its origin. Machado’s arrest only served to heighten that significance. Now, instead of being unjustly imprisoned by the United States, Machado is unjustly imprisoned by his own government. In the most painfully ironic way, the Sixth Hero is now the only hero.7
Since his arrest and especially since Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience in September, the campaign to free Machado has ballooned throughout Cuba and into the international sphere.8 Tania Bruguera, an internationally recognized artist whose work can be found on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, wrote a letter in September to Ban Ki Moon, secretary general of the U.N.9,10 In the letter she asked that Raúl Castro be pressured to release El Sexto at the September-October U.N. General Assembly session.9 Bruguera herself was arrested last December for a piece of performance art as well; this piece simply invited Cuban citizens up to the stage to speak their minds freely for one minute each. Authorities charged her with disrupting public order, took her passport, and threatened her with a trial which never happened. Though she was soon released and had her passport returned, she dares not leave the country, because at any time her case could be brought to trial in her absence and she could be exiled permanently from Cuba.11
Last May, while in prison, Danilo Machado was awarded the Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent.12 At this time another Cuban artist called publicly for his release: Gorki Águila, lead singer of the dissident rock band Porno para Ricardo. This move landed Águila in jail. He was released shortly after but has again been arbitrarily arrested at least once since then.13
Machado, Bruguera and Águila are far from being the only cases of unjust persecution by the government. The Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a dissident group within Cuba, says that the Cuban government holds about 60 political prisoners, at least 25 of whom were arrested for peaceful political protest.4
Machado himself recently went on a 24-day hunger strike, ending it on the first of October when an official told him he would be released in 15 days.1,14 Machado and his mother are doubtful of this promise, however; she said that officials have made similar promises in the past, and yet El Sexto remains in jail.14
Carolina Jiménez, the Americas Deputy Director for Research at Amnesty International, called the imprisonment of Machado “ludicrous” and demanded that he be released immediately. Jiménez added that the cowardly incarceration of innocent dissidents by the Cuban government proves that change in Cuba is slower than it may seem from the outside. “What this story shows,” she said, “is that while Raúl Castro shakes hands with the world in his historic visit to the USA, things have hardly changed in Cuba, where people are still being thrown in jail solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.”8
1 Martel, Frances. "Amnesty International Calls for Release of Cuban Artist ‘El Sexto’ Jailed for Castro Pig Art." Breitbart. Breitbart News Network, 2 Oct. 2015. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.
2 Montaner, Gina. "El Sexto Y Los Dos Cerditos." El Nuevo Herald. Firmas Press, 4 Oct. 2015. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.
3 Santiago, Fabiola. "Cuban Artist El Sexto Played by the Rules of Engagement — and Got Burned." Miami Herald. N.p., 29 Sept. 2015. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.
4 Trotta, Daniel. "Amnesty International Declares Cuba Graffiti Artist a Prisoner of Conscience." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 29 Sept. 2015. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.
5 Santana, Ernesto. "'The Only Thing They Can't Take from Me Is My Body'" Diario De Cuba. N.p., 5 Oct. 2015. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.
6 "Who Are the Cuban Five?" FreetheFive.org. National Committee to Free the Cuban Five, n.d. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.
7 Sanchez, Yoani. "El Sexto: He Who Laughs First, Laughs Twice." Translating Cuba. 14 Y Medio, 3 Oct. 2015. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.
8 "Cuba Must Release Graffiti Artist Jailed for Painting Castros’ Names on Pigs’ Back." Amnesty International. N.p., 29 Sept. 2015. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.
9 "Tania Bruguera Pide a Ban Ki-moon Que Interceda Por El Sexto Para Evitar 'un Desenlace Trágico'" Diario De Cuba. N.p., 29 Sept. 2015. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.
10 Kennedy, Randy. "Tania Bruguera, an Artist in Havana, Has a Great New York Week." The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 13 July 2015. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.
11 Cotter, Holland. "Havana’s Vital Biennial Was Trumped by a Stifled Voice." The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 1 July 2015. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.
12 "HRF to Cuba: Free El Sexto." Human Rights Foundation. The Human Rights Foundation, 25 Aug. 2015. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.
13 "Cuba: HRF Condemns Threats Against Lead Singer of Porno Para Ricardo." Human Rights Foundation. The Human Rights Foundation, 13 Aug. 2015. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.
14 "El Grafitero El Sexto Abandona La Huelga De Hambre." Diario De Cuba. N.p., 1 Oct. 2015. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.