Latin America & Caribbean

What pigs protest says about Cuba

Cuban graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado Image copyright Berenice Aguirre
Image caption Maldonado was jailed for painting "Fidel" and "Raul" on two pigs

In the days after last December's historic announcement that the US and Cuba were to re-establish diplomatic relations, a number of dissidents were released from Cuban jails as part of the deal.

Among them was Roberto Hernandez.

In a small, dank apartment in a rundown neighbourhood of Havana, I paid him a visit as he was reunited with his family and fellow government opponents.

He said his time in jail had only strengthened his resolve against the Castro government.

"My ideas won't budge," said Mr Hernandez. "If anything, they've hardened a little more. I'm more sure than ever about what I believe."

Mr Hernandez was jailed for five years, and served two, for taking part in a demonstration with the anti-government Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU).

But just as Roberto Hernandez was being released, another dissident was being detained - a graffiti artist called Danilo Maldonado, commonly known as "El Sexto", whose work is unrelentingly critical of the Cuban government.

On this occasion, the authorities decided he had gone too far: he had mocked the leaders of the revolution.

On 25 December 2014, he painted the names Fidel and Raul on two pigs and intended to release them in a plaza in Havana.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Maldonado is accused of being in the pay of anti-Castro groups

His idea was that people would try to catch the pigs and the winner could keep them.

Whether you see it as a cheap publicity stunt or a valid artistic expression, the event was never likely to be allowed to happen in Cuba.

Maldonado was stopped by state security officers before he got to the square and was put in jail, reportedly without trial.

The government say "El Sexto" is a mercenary in the pay of anti-Castro groups in Washington and Miami.

But Amnesty International recently deemed him a prisoner of conscience.

"To jail an artist for painting a name on a pig is ludicrous," said Carolina Jimenez, the organisation's Americas Deputy Director for research.

Complicates Obama case

Now, there is some expectation that Maldonado might be released soon, after he spent days on hunger strike and US President Barack Obama apparently discussed his case in person with Cuban President Raul Castro earlier this year.

No official release date has yet been confirmed.

Image copyright Handout via AFP
Image caption President Obama and Raul Castro shook hands earlier this year

Either way, the Obama administration will hope he is out soon.

The arrest of what they consider seemingly harmless young opponents does not bolster their argument that engagement with Cuba is the right approach after decades of hostility.

"They're hoping that the Cubans will begin to ease up on human rights and open up politically. That would enormously helpful," says Michael Shifter, of the Inter-American Dialogue organisation in Washington DC.

"It makes it more difficult for Obama to make his case with Congress on the embargo - which is that it should be lifted - when these kind of practices continue and there is really no sign of significant change so far."

US embargo

The US broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1959 after Fidel Castro and his brother Raul led a revolution toppling US-backed President Fulgencio Batista. The Castros established a revolutionary socialist state with close ties to the Soviet Union.

The following year, the US imposed a trade embargo covering nearly all exports to Cuba. This was expanded by President Kennedy into a full economic embargo that included stringent travel restrictions.

The embargo is estimated to have cost the Cuban economy more than $1.1trillion, and to cost the US economy $1.2bn a year.

In September, the US announced eased restrictions on business and travel with Cuba, the latest move by President Barack Obama to improve relations with the country.

US businesses will now be allowed to open up locations in Cuba.

Even small overtures by the Castro government towards dialogue with some of the more high-profile human rights activists would go a long way to helping Obama's position, says Mr Shifter.

But he also points out that even the sight of the Cuban government sitting at the negotiating table with the Ladies in White opposition movement or UNPACU activists would not be enough to appease those members of Congress staunchly opposed to lifting the embargo.

Image caption Roberto Hernandez was freed from jail

Some analysts believe they would "keep changing the goalposts" over human rights and would not back removing the embargo under any conditions.

None of this is necessarily a surprise to Washington.

Raul Castro indicated the one-party system in Cuba was not up for negotiation in his closing speech to parliament in December.

"We shouldn't expect that in order for relations to improve with the US, Cuba is renouncing the ideas for which we have fought for more than a century and for which our people have spilled so much blood and run such great risks," he told the deputies gathered in the chamber, as well as millions of ordinary Cubans watching at home.

Cuba did not not expect the US to change its political system, "so we demand that they respect ours", he said.

A new diplomatic relationship has begun and further economic easing could come with it.

But even if El Sexto is released soon, it is unlikely to herald any new political winds on the island.

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