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Meet El Sexto, the performance artist pushing for free speech in Cuba

A slender dark-haired man scribbles with spray paint on a crumbling city wall in Havana, Cuba’s capital city. He writes: Peace. Love. Without Fear. And signs his name in script: El Sexto.

The man is called El Sexto, which means “The Sixth” in Spanish. He is also known as Danilo Maldonado Machado, a Cuban dissident artist and human rights activist who was arrested in Havana on Sunday weekend following a peaceful protest, the same day that President Barack Obama landed there for a historic visit. (He was released later that day.)

His nickname refers to the “Cuban Five,” a group of spies formerly imprisoned in the U.S. who were returned to Cuba in 2014. He mocked the Cuban authorities for calling the spies “heroes” and and declared himself the “sixth hero,” according to Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez.

For years, the artist has combined word, performance and visual art to speak out about the relationship between fear and freedom. Maldonado makes videos of most of his art projects and shares them on his blog. He is a staunch advocate for freedom of expression, which he told The New York Times “does not exist in Cuba.”

“People here are afraid to express themselves,” he added.

Machado grew up in a low-income neighborhood of Camagϋey, Cuba, under the Castro regime. In school, like many students, he joined students in the morning assembly singing, “Pioneers for communism. We will be like Che.” But Maldonado remained critical of these songs, and chose to rebel against them for his strong belief in freedom of expression for all Cubans.

Here are a few times Maldonado has challenged Cuba on the issue of free speech:

1. Painted graffiti on public walls in Havana.

Some of Maldonado’s earliest projects began with various works of graffiti around the crumbling walls of the city of Havana in December 2011. In the video above, he writes: Peace, Love, without Fear. At the end of the video, he says, “Freedom for Cuba. I will not stop [myself] from painting on these walls.”

2. Began a flyer campaign to speak out against fear of the government.

In 2012, Maldonado began a flyer campaign in which he handed out papers with the word miedo, or “fear,” on the front. On the back he wrote: “Fear is something you interpret if you want. State your fear, and rip it now. Life does not wait.”

Another flyer Maldonado created contained folding instructions. As people folded the flyer, it transformed to a small paper plane with Libertad, or “freedom,” written on top. “But just like Cubans, this plane doesn’t fly very far,” Maldonado says in the video above.

3. Painted the names of Cuban leaders on pigs — and received jail time.

In December 2014, Maldonado painted the names of Raul and Fidel Castro on the backs of two live pigs and tried to release them publicly. He was arrested for ten months, just days after President Obama announced the U.S. would re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience.

Following his release, the 22-year-old artist visited the U.S. in October 2015, where he won the Human Rights Foundation’s Vaclav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissident. He staged this piece of performance art, titled Rebeliόn en la Granja, or “Animal Farm” for George Orwell’s classic novel, at the Market Gallery in Miami Beach.

4. Wrote a letter urging followers to find their “internal leader.”

While imprisoned by the Cuban government in September 2014, Maldonado went on a three-week hunger strike awaiting his release. He wrote a farewell letter to his friends and followers, saying:

“This might be my last work and I have named it ‘Drawing Attention’ or ‘The Awakening of the Inner Magician.’ Each one of us has an inner magician. May my Gothic existence touch your hearts and light your flame and awaken your internal leader, being conscious of this gift of life and standing up against evil. Someone said, ‘The world is not this way because of those who do evil but because of those who allow it.’”