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Cuban Political Activists Still Face Arrest and Detention

As the stars and stripes are raised at the US embassy in Havana for the first time since 1961, Cuba's dissidents are arrested for expressing political opinions — and sometimes just for the possibility that they might.

by Creede Newton
Aug 14 2015, 3:40pm

Graffiti of a shadow holding the Cuban flag by Cuban graffiti artist and dissident, Danilo Maldonado Machado. (From Maldonado’s Facebook page)

In Havana's Central Park, visitors have the opportunity to enjoy an idyllic Cuban scene: dashing men in white shirts and straw hats, elderly women in flowery skirts making cigars, children chasing soccer balls through the well-tended grass, and classic American cars with gaudy paintjobs making their rounds.

But seven months ago, on Christmas Day 2014, cars were not the only gaudily-painted things looking to run around Central Park.

Danilo Maldonado Machado, a Cuban graffiti artist and dissident, had brought two live pigs to the park, and painted them green. The green paint imitated military fatigues, and he wrote the names "Fidel" and "Raúl" on their sides, after the names of the Castro brothers, the successive leaders of Cuba's socialist government since 1959.

However, the Cuban political police, a specific branch of Cuba's law enforcement that deals with dissidents, arrested Maldonado as he and his swine accomplices marched toward Central Park. Since then, he has been detained without trial in the Valle Grande prison near Havana, and Cuba's dissident community is indignant.

Related: US Flag Raised Over Embassy In Cuba

Maldonado was initially held incommunicado, but he has recently been allowed occasional visitations and phone calls, according to sources in close contact with the activist.

"He didn't even get the chance to realize his performance, but he's in jail for it. It shows the extreme limits we still have on our speech," Henry Constantin, a Cuban activist for freedom of speech and access to internet, told VICE News in an interview.

Constantin was disheartened by Maldonado's arrest, but he also recognizes the irony behind it. Since 2001, there was a campaign conducted by the Cuban government to secure the release of five Cuban spies (or political prisoners, depending on the point of view), popularly known as the "Cuban Five," who intended to infiltrate several anti-Castro groups in the United States.

During the time of the campaign, Maldonado saw the Cuban people as the sixth political prisoner, and "he began signing his work with the name 'El Sexto' to represent all of us. The irony is that the [Cuban Five] have been released, but El Sexto is still in prison. It's a sort of cruel irony," Constantin continued.

Danilo Maldonado Machado, known as "El Sexto," stands in front of some of his graffiti (from Maldonado's Facebook page)

The warming relations between the US and Cuba, two Cold War foes who have shared a contentious history since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution ejected the US-friendly dictator Fulgencio Batistain, began in earnest with a prisoner exchange.

In December 2014, the same month Maldonado was detained, the remaining three members of the Cuban Five were released (two had previously secured freedom) in exchange for Alan Gross, a subcontractor for the US Agency for International Development.

To Constantin, who was expelled from three Cuban universities before being barred from ever studying again in Cuba due to his views on freedom of expression and access to information, the continued imprisonment of Maldonado shows that the Castro regime isn't interested in real political change.

Gorki Águila, the leader of Cuban punk band Porno Para Ricardo, agrees.

"They only want to continue in power. If it seems like they've changed, it's an act," the singer said in his do-it-yourself recording studio in the Miramar district of Havana, La Paja Recold, which he heralds as a "territory free of communism."

The punk rocker has had his fair share of run-ins with the authorities. In 2003, he was arrested by an undercover policewoman after she posed as a fan, asked for drugs, and subsequently received them (the authorities said these drugs were amphetamines, but the singer says it was a few joints). The charges resulted in his serving four and a half years behind bars.

After release, Porno Para Ricardo's lyrics became increasingly anti-Castro, and anti-communism. Then, in 2008, he was re-arrested, on the charge of "dangerousness," a measure that allows for the pre-arrest of individuals deemed likely to commit crimes. He was released after three days.

"It was a matter of fear," he said, reflecting on his 2008 arrest. "It's [the government's] favorite tool for shutting people up."

A man walks toward a corner tagged by Danilo Maldonado Machado with the "Connect Cuba" logo (provided by FHRC)

Águila told VICE News that Cuban authorities recently tried to silence him again. During this year's Biennial festival, a bi-yearly art event in Havana that showcases work from artists in the Global South born out of "conflict and concern" that ran from May 22 to June 22, the singer was putting up posters on the walls of Havana's Museum of Fine Arts with the image of Maldonado and the word "freedom".

The police apprehended him and removed the posters. 

"This festival is supposed to show the artwork of the oppressed, and I'm arrested for demanding freedom for an oppressed artist. It's limitless hypocrisy," Águila said.

Though many have assumed that renewed relations would prompt the Cuban government to respect human rights, Jose Luis Martinez, the Director of Communications for the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (FHRC), says that's not the case.

"Persecution hasn't stopped, and as a human rights organization, we track these things. We've seen an increase in repression," Martinez told VICE News over Skype.

The FHRC currently sponsors 26 political prisoners directly, including Maldonado. Martinez says that prisoners of conscience in Cuba are people who have been outspoken against the government for one reason or another.

Recently, Maldonado worked with FHRC on the "Connect Cuba" campaign, which aims to increase internet penetration on the island, which is currently at a meager 3.4 percent, according to a leaked internal government document.

"Many want to see a democratic change on the island. In exchange for that, the political police have been very hard on these activists," Martinez said, referring to a specific branch of Cuba's law enforcement that deals with dissidents.

Related: Why Hitchhiking Is Huge in Cuba: 'The Transportation System Is Screwed'

Martinez views the situation of these prisoners as fairly dire. According to him, they have few tools available, not even independent lawyers, the idea of which is "nonexistent" in Cuba.

"There's not much [Maldonado] or any other political prisoner can do from inside prison, aside from petition for their release and bring awareness to their situation," Martinez said.

In order to raise awareness of their situation, Maldonado and nine other political prisoners announced a hunger strike on July 31, demanding the end of political persecution, the elimination of the "dangerousness" charge used to preemptively apprehend dissidents, and the release of all political prisoners.

While Martinez is hopeful for the future, he places this hope in the Cuban people, and not the renewed relationship between the socialist island nation and the US, or any other country.

"Just for expressing yourself freely, you can be thrown in jail for an indeterminate amount of time. That has to change, and the change will come from the relationship between the Cuban government and its people," he said. 

Related: What Will a Carnival Cruise to Cuba Be Like?

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Politics
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cuba
barack obama
Havana
defense & security
Fidel Castro
Porno para Ricardo
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alan gross
Danilo Maldonado Machado
fulgencio batista
josé luis martínez
foundation for human rights in cuba
gorki Águila
henry constantin