- Title: Former Cuban political prisoner joins activists calling for U.S. intervention
- Date: 20th July 2021
- Summary: HAVANA, CUBA (FILE - SEPTEMBER 29, 2015) (REUTERS) VARIOUS OF POSTER ON HOUSE OF DANILO 'EL SEXTO' MALDONADO READING 'FREEDOM / POLITICAL PRISONER ARTIST DANILO MALDONADO, FREEDOM NOW!' WHILE HE WAS IN PRISON OVER PIG INCIDENT HAVANA, CUBA (FILE - OCTOBER 20, 2015) (REUTERS) VARIOUS OF MALDONADO SPEAKING WITH FAMILY MEMBERS AND FRIENDS AT HOME AFTER AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL INTERVENED ON HIS BEHALF AND HE WAS RELEASED FROM PRISON TATTOO ON MALDONADO MALDONADO SPEAKING ON TELEPHONE
- Embargoed: 3rd August 2021 01:37
- Keywords: Cuban-Americans Danilo Maldonado El Sexto U.S.-Cuba graffiti artist political prisoner protest
- Location: WASHINGTON, D.C., UNITED STATES AND HAVANA, CUBA
- City: WASHINGTON, D.C., UNITED STATES AND HAVANA, CUBA
- Country: USA
- Topics: Diplomacy/Foreign Policy,Government/Politics,United States
- Reuters ID: LVA001EMICZEV
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: In December of 2014, Cuban graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado, known as 'El Sexto,' painted 'Fidel' and 'Raul' on the backs of a pair of pigs, put them in a taxi and headed to a park for a Christmas Day art show. His plan was to release the pigs in the park and let people try to catch them, as a piece of protest performance art. Before his work, called Animal Farm, could be displayed, the government put him in jail.
He spent most of 2015 - a total of 10 months - in prison. Only after Maldonado went on a hunger strike and Amnesty International intervened on his behalf, calling him a prisoner of conscience, was he released.
But his problems didn't end there. After Fidel Castro's death in 2016, he was also jailed after calling for people to protest against the government.
For the past three years, he has lived and run his studio in Miami, the heart of the Cuban exile community, but he has kept a close eye on recent developments in his native Cuba and says he is alarmed at the continuing lack of human rights and the Communist government's crackdown on dissent.
"A prison in Cuba is the worst thing you can imagine," he recalled. "Overcrowding, there is no possibility of getting medicine, of anything. They throw you in there and forget about you, totally, until you get out. Even after all the times I was in and out of jail, I never had a trial, I was never prosecuted. We're talking about a country left adrift, a country that throws you in jail because there's just one law and that is to protect the interests of the Castro family."
Thousands of Cubans staged spontaneous anti-government protests a week ago to demonstrate against an economic crisis that has seen shortages of basic goods and power outages. They were also protesting the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and curbs on civil liberties. Scores of activists were detained.
Standing in front of the White House with a few dozen protesters, Maldonado says he is concerned over Havana's harsh crackdown on the biggest street protests in decades.
He said a few years back, dissent was often spearheaded by artists but this summer's protesters have been average citizens - and the government has little incentive to do much more than let them languish in prison.
"Right now, the people have gone out on the streets. The people are demanding food; they're demanding freedom, freedom above all. They're not calling for the embargo to be lifted. Young people, as young as 14 and 15 years of age, are being killed. I have a friend that sent me a photo of a 14-year-old girl who was put in jail. There's no response from authorities, nothing. And just like her, there are many people who aren't artists, who are regular people, not famous, and are imprisoned. They will manage the artists and release them but there are a bunch of names of anonymous people who have been imprisoned and are serving time and they've been abandoned there," he said.
"If we don't get tough now with a clear response, when else would we do it? They know the United States is the only country with power. The United States did it with Che Guevara, who ultimately wasn't able to lead a revolution. The United States did it with Noriega. The United States has done it with I don't know how many cartel leaders. They went to the other side of the world to get Bin Laden. Why don't they go get the Castro family?"
His call for action was echoed among the activists, who warned that time was of the essence, as videos of police brutality against unarmed civilians circulate among social media.
"We want freedom. We want the American government to unite with other governments and intervene and say, 'Enough is enough.' If we have that freedom call from America to go to Iraq, to go to Afghanistan, why not Cuba? Cuba is 90 miles away. It's in our backyard," said 35-year-old former U.S. Marine Gianni Leyva.
Biden, a Democrat, had vowed during his presidential campaign to ease some of the sanctions on Cuba tightened by Trump, a Republican.
But analysts say the protests have complicated Biden's political leeway to do so, especially after he made a poorer-than-expected showing with voters in south Florida's anti-communist Cuban-American community, which backed Trump's tough policies toward Havana and Caracas and helped him win the battleground state.
Many analysts say Biden may have to tread carefully on Cuba policy ahead of the 2022 congressional elections.
Cuban-American Yeni Hernandez, a 40-year-old wedding planner in Sweetwater, Florida, said both Republican and Democratic politicians have promised Cuban-Americans for years that they would support them. Now, she said, was the time to do just that.
"How many years have all the Congressmen and Senate and state representatives gotten the vote of the Cubans, (saying) 'We're going to help you. When the moment comes, we're going to help you.' Well the moment is here and we don't see any help. Wifi is not going to solve it," she said, referring to Biden's comments that his administration was reviewing if Washington could help Cubans regain internet access after Cuba's government curbed it.
Sixty-five-year-old Cape Coral, Florida resident Beatriz Rojas left Cuba 54 years ago. She said the country has been under a dictatorship for 62 years and she wants to see her homeland free. She wants to visit the few remaining relatives she has in Cuba but she doesn't see a way out unless the United States is willing to help.
"This has been too long. Sixty-two years. They're killing kids. They're killing everybody that they can kill. I just want to tell President Biden that he is the president of the most powerful country in the world. If he doesn't step up and do something for our country, not only our country but the whole world is going to turn into Communist because they're everywhere," Rojas said.
The United States is expected to soon announce initial steps as part of the Biden administration's review of Cuba policy in response to the protests, State Department officials said on Monday.
The senior officials' comments further signaled that Biden was not ready to soften the U.S. approach after his predecessor, Donald Trump, rolled back a historic Obama-era dÃ©tente with Havana.
The officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, also made clear that the Biden administration is still seeking ways to ease the humanitarian plight of the Cuban people while keeping pressure on the Communist-led government in Havana.
(Production: Gershon Peaks, Arlene Eiras)
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