El Sexto: A rebel, artist, and sometime political prisoner from Cuba

Jay Nordlinger in National Review:

Signed: El Sexto

A rebel, artist, and sometime political prisoner from Cuba


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.

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