MIAMI — The death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro on Friday night rocked the Cuban community across the globe, with many wondering whether his passing would activate real social change on the island. But as revelers flocked to the streets of Little Havana in Miami to celebrate the ruthless leader’s death, artists still living in Cuba found themselves embroiled in an ongoing battle for their rights.
On Saturday morning, November 26, dissident graffiti artist and activist Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado Machado was detained by Cuban officials. Just hours before, Maldonado had posted a video online cheering Castro’s death and inciting his followers to speak out against injustices committed by the Cuban government. According to Maldonado’s girlfriend, American journalist and filmmaker Alexandra Martinez, Machado called her frantically on Saturday morning around 11:15am. “He said the Cuban police had forced their way into his apartment complex, and they were now beating down his door,” she says. Maldonado is currently being held in a prison in Guanabacoa, a town just outside Havana, but no formal charges have been filed against him.
The video posted by artist Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado Machado before his arrest
Unfortunately, Cuban artists are used to this kind of harassment, even in the wake of the supposed normalization of relations between the United States and their country. According to Lillian Manzor, a professor of modern languages and literature at the University of Miami specializing in performance art and censorship in Cuba, artists on the island have had a modicum of success presenting critical works, but there is a definitive line that can’t be crossed. “It’s well-known that in Cuba in the last 25 years, you can say almost anything except Fidel and Raul,” says Manzor. “You cannot directly talk about Fidel or Raul, or critique or make fun of them in the arts.”
Maldonado has crossed this line explicitly, and as such, is one of a handful of artists in Havana who are under constant surveillance by the Cuban government. He first landed on authorities’ radar with an October 2014 performance entitled “Animal Farm for Christmas,” for which he intended to release two live pigs emblazoned with the words “Fidel” and “Raul” on their backs into Parque Central — an irrefutable violation of the unspoken government policy on artistic works. Maldonado was detained on his way to the park and spent the next 10 months imprisoned.
Similarly, Tania Bruguera, one of Cuba’s best-known contemporary artists, was detained in 2014 in advance of an attempted performance in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucíon. Bruguera had planned to invite Cuban citizens to stand before a microphone and freely express their opinions about the future of the country, but the piece never came to fruition: the artist was arrested en route to the plaza on the day of the event. Following that ordeal, Bruguera was arrested twice more, and her passport was withheld so that she couldn’t leave the country.
Censoring conversation among Cuba’s artists is a critical function of the Comite de la Defensa de la Revolucion, a citizen’s network enlisted by the government to police potential dissident activities or social upheavals. In addition, Manzor says that everyday citizens who aren’t necessarily affiliated with governmental agencies often uphold what they believe to be the central tenets of the revolucíon. “There are many, many people in Cuba who honestly disagree with Maldonado, who really believe that Bruguera’s art isn’t really art,” she says. “I think these people are really involved in making sure that these works don’t get to the public sphere, and they support the harassment of these artists.”
For Maldonado, that harassment is palpable. According to Martinez, Maldonado is constantly pursued. “They follow us everywhere in Cuba; it’s literally non-stop,” she says.
Preventing these artists from leaving the country is another government tactic to keep them contained. Bruguera, who has spent the majority of her career working in Chicago, was prevented from leaving the country for nearly seven months following her December 2014 arrest. Before his arrest on Saturday, Maldonado was scheduled to travel to Miami to perform at a show entitled La Libertad Artistica during Art Basel Miami Beach. When he arrived at the Havana airport on Thursday, he was told he could not board the flight, and officials retained his passport. Days later, he wound up in jail.
Even with the threat of imprisonment and detention, Maldonado and Bruguera soldier on. In February 2015, Bruguera told the Miami New Times that “what’s happening in Cuban cultural policy now is very dangerous” and that “art can be a way to understand, a way to heal, but for that to happen, art has to talk about sensitive things, and the government has to allow it.” Since then, she’s managed to raise over $100,000 to open an Institute of Artivism in Havana; the goal is to create a place where local and international artists can dialogue and work to inspire policy change on the island. Maldonado, meanwhile, has been recognized by Amnesty International and the Human Rights Foundation as a leading human rights activist in Cuba.
As Maldonado’s family and loved ones search for answers regarding his latest imprisonment, it appears that Castro’s death has done little to shake up the dictator’s legacy of oppression and censorship. Says Marzano: “I don’t know that Fidel’s death will have that big of an impact.”
Update, 11/30: On Tuesday, November 29, Maldonado’s mother, Maria Victoria Machado Gonzalez, was allowed to visit her son in prison. According to Gonzalez, Maldonado was badly beaten and had suffered an asthma attack while imprisoned. He is being charged with defacing public property, which in Cuba is typically a nonpunishable offense that carries a fine.