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Cuban Dissident Artist ‘El Sexto’ Released from Maximum Security Prison

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He had been held for two months without charge.

Cuban dissident artist Danilo Maldonado Machado, aka El Sexto, was released over the weekend from the maximum security prison outside Havana, where he had been held for nearly two months.

The artist and activist had been held at El Combinado del Este, a maximum security prison used for hardened criminals as well as Cubans whose political views oppose the state. This was his third arrest since December 2014, first in relation to an artwork likening Raul and Fidel Castro to pigs, and again on the eve of a visit by former President Barack Obama to Cuba.

On November 26, 2016, El Sexto was violently taken from his home in Havana by police, who gave no reason for his arrest. He was scheduled to leave Cuba for Art Basel in Miami, where he had planned exhibitions and performances.

Cuban authorities did not give a reason for his release on Saturday, January 21, either; however, Pollock Fine Art London, a gallery that represents El Sexto, noted in a statement that it coincided with a recent communication sent to the Cuban government from the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, regarding their reviewing of a petition to declare the artist’s incarceration illegal according to international law.

More than 13,700 people signed an online petition on Change.org demanding El Sexto’s immediate release. “Short-term arbitrary arrests remain a common tactic to restrict freedom of expression in Cuba,” read the petition’s explanatory text.

Amnesty International also called for urgent action, calling the artist a “prisoner of conscience.”

After his release, El Sexto thanked the petitioners and Amnesty International, as well as other human rights organizations, activists, artists, and writers who supported him. He also expressed his gratitude to the international attorneys who fought for him: Centa B. Rek Chatjtur of the Human Rights Foundation, and Kimberley Motley, who was arrested in Havana on December 16 for attempting to publicize the artist’s unwarranted arrest and incarceration. He is currently at home with his family in Havana.

Cuban artists still condemned to silence

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Dissident artists are no better off post-Fidel, and renewed relations with the US haven’t helped as many hoped or claimed they would

“[T]he fault of many of our intellectuals and artists is to be found in their ‘original sin’: they are not authentically revolutionary.”
— Che Guevara, Man and Socialism in Cuba, 1965

Last year was a good one for Cuban artists. With renewed diplomatic relations with the US, a boom in Latin American art and Cuba’s exceptional artistic talent — fostered through institutions such as the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana — works by prominent Cuban artists fetched top dollar at international auctions, and the Cuban film industry was firmly in the international spotlight.

While the end of the embargo brought with it hope for political liberalisation on the island, as with previous periods of promise in Cuban history cases of repression and censorship of dissident artists were rife in 2015.

So let’s begin again: Last year was a good one for Cuban artists who adhere to the country’s long-established revolutionary narrative and don’t embarrass the regime.

The fear of censorship for art that is critical of the government has been fostered through decades of laws and repression that limit freedom of expression. This can mean stigmatisation, the loss of employment and even imprisonment. Charges such as “social dangerousness” and insulting national symbols are so vague they make convictions very easy.
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