THE BLOG
02/01/2016 04:55 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Two Little Piggies: How a Cuban Artist's Protest Went Viral

Early on Christmas day, 2014, Cuban artist Danilo Maldonado, nicknamed "El Sexto," planned a performance piece inspired by Animal Farm. He had carefully painted, using bright red capital letters, the names "FIDEL" and "RAUL" onto two squirming piglets. It's traditional in Cuba between Christmas and New Year's to release pigs to be kept by anyone who can catch them. But Danilo never got to release his pigs.

One of Cuba's ubiquitous soplones (snitches), often older busy-body volunteers for the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), probably turned him in. After getting wind of his plans, the police arrested not only him, but, he now says with a wink, but also detained "Fidel" and "Raúl" -- the hapless piglets. Both were female, he adds.

An American friend, whose admiration of Fidel Castro remains undimmed and who has taken a solidarity tour to Cuba, was puzzled by El Sexto's behavior. He opined that the guy must be mentally unbalanced -- why, if he had a genuine grievance, didn't he just take it to the local CDR? Sure, go to the CDR and say, "I'd like a different government, please, one that I could actually vote for."

After his arrest, El Sexto was accused of desacato (contempt), a provision in Cuban law carrying a sentence of up to three years. But he never appeared before a judge nor was he ever formally charged, just held in limbo for almost nine months, after which, in desperation, he embarked on a hunger strike. Now, in retrospect, he considers that just another facet of his performance piece, though it might have actually ended in his death. After announcing his strike and writing a farewell letter to his family, he was placed in solitary confinement in a cell blocking out all light. The hours crept by, blurring day and night in his darkened cell, as hunger gnawed and he grew increasingly faint.

I learned about El Sexto's case in my role as volunteer Caribbean coordinator for Amnesty International (AI) USA. Remembering other Cuban political prisoners who had died on hunger strikes, I became alarmed and pressed for his release. After determining that he had never engaged in, nor advocated violence, AI soon formally declared Danilo Maldonado a prisoner of conscience. We mounted a worldwide urgent action campaign in solidarity with artists around the world. On October 1, 2014, after he'd spent most of September without eating, we received word from Danilo's mother that the authorities had promised to release him in 15 days if he would just start eating again. Sometimes imprisoned Cuban hunger strikers have been encouraged by jailers to gradually accustom their bodies to ingesting food, so we waited patiently for the promised release date and withdrew our urgent action. But, no, the 15th day came and went with no release, a blatant double-cross. Danilo abruptly stopped eating once again. He was already in a weakened state, so we reactivated our urgent action with greater vigor and, after a few more days and appeals pouring in again from everywhere, he was finally freed, a tall, thin man seen walking unsteadily out of prison from darkness into the bright Cuban sunshine. Undeterred by his ordeal, he immediately joined a silent Sunday march if the Ladies in White to protest the politically motivated detentions of their loved ones.

Danilo had been invited to an international art show being held in Miami in early December, Art Basel, but inexplicably, the U.S. Embassy in Havana denied his visa request, advising him to try again the following year. Undeterred, Danilo marched right over to the Swedish Embassy, which offers free internet services to Cuban dissidents, where he posted the denial letter from the embassy on Facebook. That led to the U.S. Embassy admitting a mistake and granting his visa, allowing him to make it to Art Basel just in the nick of time.

On December 10, 2015, we were honored to have Danilo as our guest at an event at AIUSA's Washington, DC, office. The occasion was universal Human Rights Day where Danilo joined in with other former prisoners of conscience from many nations, all writing letters together on behalf of prisoners still being held around the world.

When he was awarded a $25,000 prize for his art, Danilo publicly donated it to help Cuban migrants stuck at the Nicaraguan border en route the U.S. But he also called on his fellow Cubans not to abandon the island, instead to work towards solutions to the problems they face at home. Since the U.S./Cuba accords, he says that Cuban democracy advocates have been largely abandoned, "There have been no positive changes. The U.S. has given away too much at the normalization talks, and that has let Cuba continue its repression." That public statement is great no surprise -- he said as much here in our D.C. office and he has also vowed to try his pig caper again next Christmas, in 2016. Even if internet access is restricted in Cuba, that's not the case in the rest of the world, and his arrest would likely go viral once again. The Cuban regime, so sensitive about its international image, would be wise to ignore him next time.

As the father of two-year-old Renata María, Danilo hopes to provide a better future for her and for all Cuban children. To that end, he's willing to risk whatever it takes, including being imprisoned again. Next time, he knows what to expect. Unless Cubans can overcome their fear, put their bodies on the line, and be willing to suffer the consequences, he doesn't see how change will ever come to his beloved island.

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Danilo painting pig

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Venezuelan artist Carlos Luis Sánchez's tribute to El Sexto

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Danilo at Amnesty's D.C. office making a point, Dec. 10, 2015

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Danilo with former NIgerian prisoner of conscience, Dapo Olorunyomi, Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, 2015