“Speak While Staying Hidden”: Street Artists Create a New Revolutionary Landscape in Cuba by Breanna Ransome


I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba from March 15 to March 23, 2019. The trip included stops in Havana and Cienfuegos. Art is one of the most salient features of the Cuban landscape. Not only are there largely recognized art installments, such as Fábrica de Arte Cubano and Fusterlandia, but vibrant and diverse independent street art and graffiti that adorn the city's walls. In a country infamous for government censorship that has historically caused the erasure of individual expression and identity, Cubans have and continue to find creative ways to adapt to the severity of that censorship. Cuban street art is redefining revolution and rebuilding Cuban identity directly on top of its existing landscape, allowing artists to "speak while staying hidden" and reducing the risks associated with political dissent.

Rather than through anonymity, Cuban street artists typically mark their work with a recognizable tag and approach the transformation of Cuba's landscape by producing highly visible and large-scale public art that plays with abstract and enigmatic styles. These styles create space for layers of interpretation—for double or hidden meanings—and therefore decrease the likelihood of artists' censure should their work attract government attention or face accusation and investigation for political dissent. Their art presents a stark contrast to the pro-revolution propaganda that has typically characterized Cuban city walls.

This new landscape offers the opportunity to examine both the personal and cultural histories of Cubans as well as prompt Cubans who consume the art to face and heal from their historical trauma, reinstitute their identity, and potentially start a new revolution.

I explore the new revolutionary landscape in Cuba that street artists are building with their work by showcasing their politically dissident art and discussing the government's past and current pushback on individual expression. I consider the significance of this landscape in redefining a people and what "revolution" means for them and suggest that the trauma of a history that has intentionally caused the dissolution of the self teases out the necessity for Cuban people to recreate and face these traumatic experiences and absence of identity through the creation of this new landscape.

Freedom of Expression

C. is a college undergraduate student, a Cuban citizen, and a friend of mine. I always thought that rumors of Big Brother or constant surveillance in Cuba were exaggerated; however, C. told me a story of his most recent trip to his home country that confirms the intensity of the "see something, say something" culture in Cuba. Last year, he and his non-Cuban stepfather and non-Cuban uncle visited Cuba together. He informed me that his uncle, drunk at the hotel bar, loudly expressed to the bartender his impression of Cuba as a "dictatorship." C. reports that the bartender was reluctant to continue the conversation with his uncle and that C. and his stepfather promptly removed his uncle from the hotel bar. The next morning, the three men took a trip to the beach. Cuban government "agents," as C. referred to them, somehow located the three of them on the beach and detained them for investigation. They were interrogated and—when they were finally released to return to their hotel—their room had been rummaged through and their belongings were left in disorder.

Non-Cuban visitors tend to have a little more privilege and freedom of expression in Cuba but that doesn't mean that they should voice their opinions of the Cuban government at full volume or push the locals to divulge any resentment of the state. Even though C.'s uncle wasn't a Cuban citizen, the government was still watching, listening. As a matter of fact, C. mentioned that hotels in particular are one of the hottest spots for government surveillance. Cuban employees of hotels and other tourist-accommodating establishments interact more often with tourists than other Cuban citizens; therefore, of all those the government keeps tabs on, hotel employees are of higher interest.

In Cuba, I observed that both U.S. citizens and Cuban citizens were more inclined to and felt freer to express their disdain for U.S. President Trump than for the Castro regime. In Cuba, I've had conversations with U.S. tourists who openly vocalized their frustrations with the U.S. president, government, rules, and limitations with no hesitation and with no fear of retaliation. Similarly, Cuban citizens held nothing back when badmouthing The Donald.

Taken in women's restroom at Fábrica de Arte Cubano in Havana, Cuba (Ransome).
Cuban citizen and artist Braulio Fabián Lopez Hernandez's (tag: 2+2=5 ?) portrait of a balaclava holding a beheaded Donald Trump. This image was posted to Fabián's Instagram account with the caption: "EL MAYOR PREMIO 😡🖕🏾👊🏾!!!" which translates to English as "THE JACKPOT" or "THE OLDEST PRIZE" (IG@ttttteoe).

Regarding Cuba's government and the conditions the government imposes upon the Cuban people, there were some whispers among U.S. tourists that were more like statements of fact (e.g., "they aren't allowed to do that here" or "things aren't like that here"), but none that explicitly attacked or condemned the Cuban government. Cuban citizens would state that "things could be better" and that "things are difficult" but were always sure to follow-up with "but we make it work" or "we are grateful for what we have." Cuban citizens' precautionary tone regarding the Cuban government is a blanket tucked tightly under every visible corner of the country and those who go tugging tend to end up in trouble. The government keeps files on Cuban citizens that record both actions and statements that assist in determining an individual's loyalty to the revolution and the Brigadas de Acción Rapida, or the Rapid Action Brigades, observe and control dissidents ("VIII. ROUTINE REPRESSION"; 'Represores Cubanos'). Consequences are arbitrarily administered (i.e., without proper trial) and at varying levels of intensity to include harassment, discriminatory layoffs, detention, labor camp sentencing, imprisonment, various forms of abuse, exile, and execution.

Although technological advances and access enable U.S. government surveillance to be even more extensive and advanced than the Cuban government's surveillance, in the U.S., the right to freedom of speech and expression, even in the opposition of government, is at least protected by the U.S. Constitution. No such human rights are protected by any Cuban government documents. Contrarily, official Cuban law ignores due process and places oppressive limitations on expression, assembly, the press, and so on. In the U.S., individuals and groups alike openly renounce both countries' governments virtually without consequence.

Outside Trump Tower during a protest in New York City, U.S. (Anadolu Agency–Getty Images).
Bay of Pigs veterans protest against Castro in Miami, U.S. (Lee).
At the news of Fidel Castro's death, a young woman in the U.S. smiles and holds up a sign shaped like a gravestone (Cardenas).

Expression in the arts

Cuban culture has been vibrantly colored by the arts since dawn of the twentieth century. From 1900 to the onset of the Revolution in 1959, Cuban art was internationally recognized and celebrated. One of the first acts of the new government was the introduction of programs that were designed to enhance artistic expression but that, in effect, compromised artists' freedom of expression. Fidel Castro's policy for intellectuals and artists alike was:

"Within the Revolution, everything; outside the Revolution, nothing."

Although state sponsorship opened the door of opportunity for many intellectuals and artists, they are only permitted to produce work that adheres to Castro's totalitarian policy. Essentially, pieces that react positively to or promoted the revolution were encouraged and pieces that criticized the new government were prohibited (and their creators paid the price). This is still the case today. Liberal artists have been silenced via social persecution as "anti-social elitists" or homosexuals. Often, those that don't successfully acquire asylum are sent to labor camps or prison or even executed. According to the Anti-Castro Archivo, an estimated 4,000 people were executed in Cuba between 1959 and 2016 and the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reports 9,940 arbitrary detentions in 2016 and 5,155 in 2017.

The Revolutionary Landscape

With Cuban art and expression controlled by government policies, "revolution" is constantly defined by the landscape the Castro regime has built and reinforced by the protectors of that landscape. The Comités de Defensa de la Revolución, or the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), are a network of organizations across Cuba that act as "the eyes and ears of the Revolution." They quell counterrevolutionary activity and comprise an overwhelming majority of the country's citizens (over 80 percent) (Sanchez). The CDR is organized into levels, which include "Block" and "Neighborhood." According to Richard Fagen in his book The Transformation of Political Culture in Cuba, Fidel Castro claimed that, with the implementation of the CDR, the counterrevolutionaries that "think they can stand up to the people" are "going to be tremendously disappointed" because:

we’ll confront them with a committee of revolutionary vigilance on every block.

Not only does the CDR's structure in turn break down and organize the Cuban landscape into sections, it designs and controls its appearance, even its soundscapes. For example, they're responsible for maintaining neighborhoods, schools, and other social places, including the clean-up and rebuilding efforts after natural and other disasters. They issue citations at the sound of foreign music playing. The CDR is the landscape. Even though it is run by the country's citizens, the choices the CDR makes and the actions they take are completely determined by the blueprint the Castro regime envisioned, designed, and enforces for Cuba's revolutionary landscape. CDR emblems and other pro-revolution "street art" are plastered on every neighborhood's walls.

Revolutionary CDR propaganda (Top left: Lipov; Top Right: Orozco; Bottom: The Man Defined Team)

Although expression of government opposition has been criminalized by the revolution and the CDR functions as the physical landscape of revolutionary surveillance and control, Cubans have adapted and that revolutionary landscape is changing. Cuban artists have embraced street art and graffiti—forms of public art that are not sponsored, regulated, or sanctioned by the state—as a mode for this expression. This art is risky but street artists have made an effort to safeguard themselves: they choose dilapidated walls as their canvases and center their art in improving city aesthetic. Cuban street artists are redefining revolution and rebuilding Cuban identity directly on top of its existing landscape, allowing artists to "speak while staying hidden" and reduce the risks associated with political dissent. The street artists play with abstract and enigmatic styles to produce art that creates space for layers of interpretation, allowing for a higher degree of freedom of expression. Common motifs in politically-charged Cuban street art are balaclava-clad men, deformed or alien-like figures and creatures, and realistic people in prayer-like or begging positions. The art often incorporates anti-establishment undertones and strong implications of suffering or of a crumbling identity but does so in a coded way. It is just subtle (or just complex) enough to camouflage political dissidence, significantly reducing the chance it incriminates the artists.

Yulier P.

Yulier Rodriguez Perez, who signs his art Yulier P., is now 29-years-old and lives in Havana, Cuba. Yulier typically paints naked, extra-terrestrial beings with varying emotions. Oftentimes, his alien figures don't have mouths, which represents Cuban people's inability to express their true feelings about their social and political situation. They are alienated from the rest of the world and have no voice in their own. The appearance of the creatures and characters Yulier creates reflect different types of real, Cuban people's inner opinions and feelings (Ellis).

Yulier's piece in Havana, Cuba (Meneghini).

One of Yulier's pieces (above) depicts a green, alien-like creature with a shadow where its mouth should be. The shadow-mouth represents the Cuban people's reluctance to express their discontentedness with the state of their country because they fear they will lose their jobs or worse. The creature's outstretched arm with palm facing upward represents submissiveness, a hope for absolution, or begging. With teets and a flower adorning the creature's head, we have reason to identify her as female. One of her hands hides and shadows half of her face to distort her identity and implies that she has two faces: one that represents her according to the rules and expectations of the external world and one that represents her internal feelings and opinions. She is bent over in a submissive position, bowing down to male dominance and the dominance of the state over her body. The teets not only demonstrate her femininity but also categorize her as a producer and nurturer of children who will be raised within the revolution and make fine Cuban citizens and workers. This particular creature is recurring in Yulier's work and some see it as "an evocation of Cuba, struggling to feed her children as she extends a long hand seeking charity" (Béchard). The exposed half of the face then is the Cuba that others see—that is outwardly portrayed—while the shadowed half of the face is the identities of the Cuban people, shadowed by the revolution, unseen, unheard.


Image: (IG@yuliergraffitticuba)

When asked how he chooses where to paint his street art, Yulier says he "always chooses places that are in poor condition, that are uninteresting and gray" (Llano). He believes he is not only improving Havana's image but also "stimulating debate about the future Cubans want" (Llano). Yulier is careful not to identify as a dissident artist. He claims his art is social and not a direct attack on the system (key phrase: "not a direct attack"); rather, he claims his art creates spaces for people to think (Llano). Yulier was arrested in August 2017 after months of harassment, detained for 48 hours, and released on the condition that he paint over every one of his murals (Llano). Yulier has painted over 100 murals in the city of Havana and refuses to censor himself. This is not the only time Yulier is arrested for his crimes.

Image: (IG@yuliergraffitticuba)

El Sexto

Clearly, Cuban street artists still face persecution. It's just not as severe or as often: it really depends upon how careful and strategic they are in producing their work. Not all artists are painting aliens with no mouths. One of the reasons artists like Yulier catch so much heat is because of street artists like Danilo Maldonado Machado, also known as El Sexto. El Sexto identifies himself as an opponent to the regime and is frequently arrested. He has been imprisoned three times for political reasons and, as of April 2015, was considered the most persecuted of Cuban street artists.

An drawing of El Sexto balancing two pigs painted with the names "Fidel" and "Raul" (Translating Cuba).

One of El Sexto's most infamous attempts to produce dissident art was a planned street demonstration inspired by George Orwell's Animal Farm. In 2014, he painted the name's "Fidel" and "Raul" on two pigs and intended to charge attendees 20 pesos each to join the demonstration and try to catch one of the pigs. Whoever caught a pig would be allowed to keep the pig. El Sexto's genius is not in painting pigs to reveal his feelings toward the Castro brothers but in providing incentive for Cuban citizens to participate in his politically-charged art demonstration. El Sexto feels strongly about the unification of the Cuban people in opposition of their government. He was arrested before the demonstration could take place and spent ten months in prison with no formal charges and without trial (Barton). The campaign to free El Sexto became an international affair, sparked by Amnesty International's reference to El Sexto as a "prisoner of consciousness" (Martel). El Sexto is also infamous for painting "Se fue" or "He's gone" on the Hotel Habana Libre following Fidel's death in 2016, after which he was promptly arrested (Martel). Following this arrest, in Gollom and Gomez's CBC News report, his girlfriend Alexandra Martinez, who lives in Miami, Florida in the U.S., reflects:

He didn't harm anyone, just merely spoke his mind. And unfortunately the Cuban government has no tolerance for that.
El Sexto's writing on the wall following Fidel Castro's death: "Se fue" or "He's gone" (14ymedio).

El Sexto currently lives in the U.S. and partakes in various art demonstrations and other forms of activism to fight for human rights for Cubans living in Cuba. One of these demonstrations included the realization of the "Animal Farm" art demonstration he attempted in Cuba in 2014 that led to his ten-month imprisonment. The demonstration took place in 2016 in Miami Beach, Florida and was a huge success; attendees included hundreds of Cuban Americans (Penton). His work in Cuba was groundbreaking in regards to using artistic expression for political dissent and he continues his work from across the water, where it is met with immense support.

Read writer Kesav Wable's poem "Honoring Cuban artist/activist Danilo Maldonado Machado, aka "El Sexto," which eloquently expresses the artist's role in exposing and putting pressure on a country that fails its people:

[El Sexto] refuses to be silenced in a land / where government terror snuffs, stifles / and suffocates the act of expression.
Liberty— / If you want to reach it, Danilo states, / "Fear is an important thing to eliminate."

El Sexto is "a soldier, speaking truth to authority" (Wable). However, the majority of street artists do not declare themselves activists. Additionally, their work is typically subtle, encrypted, enigmatic. They have had, unlike El Sexto, little to no international visibility or support and therefore attempt to operate within spaces where there is as little risk for arrest as possible. However, the barriers that perpetuate this invisibility are finally fading. As tourism in Cuba increases, outsiders have the opportunity to perceive the new revolutionary landscape Cuban street artists are creating with their work. Artists share their work via independent media such as Facebook, Instagram, and websites and have even begun selling their prominent work on canvas as well as other merchandise online; awareness is increasing, support is strengthening.

In response to Cuban street artists' rapid development and significant impact not only on the Cuban people but on the outside world from which they have for so long been cut off, the government is passing new laws, such as Decree 349, which "threatens to derail a thriving cultural scene in Havana" (Gallo). Decree 349 "requires artists to obtain government approval before performing or displaying their work, while also regulating the artwork itself" (Gallo, my emphasis). For the past 60 years, the law incriminated anyone who produced art outside the revolution; now, as the government becomes less and less able to control political dissent and expression with fear and consequence, preventative methods in the form of new legislation is being implemented. Only time will tell whether or not these preventive methods will effectively decrease the activity of Cuban street artists. The floodgates have already been opened. In just one month, from April to May 2019, street artist Braulio Fabián Lopez Hernandez's Instagram account grew from 246 to 2,785 followers.


Fabián, whose tag is 2+2=5, strikes a balance between Yulier's more passive approach and El Sexto's aggressive approach. He works out of Yulier's studio but his art is slightly more politically-driven in its design and delivery. It features a signature balaclava-clad male, which Fabián began painting in 2016 and has now painted more than 100 times (Béchard). He calls the figure "Supermalo" or "Super bad." Sometimes this figure is depicted in prayer, as Jesus Christ, as a superhero; other times he has his back to the viewer; other times he is homeless sleeping on the ground with no bed. Similar to the purpose of Yulier's alien-like figures, Fabián's Supermalo represents the conditions of the Cuban people from all points on the spectrum.

Image: Fabián standing next to his depiction of Supermalo on the Cuban flag (Mills).

Although, historically, it has been used for soldiers as a means of protection from the cold, the balaclava has become known as a means for or symbol of identity concealment. It conceals not only the wearer's facial features but facial expressions and prevents both positive identification and clear perception of expression/feelings. Fabián tells Deni Ellis Béchard of Pacific Standard:

Everyone has a mask.
From left to right: Supermalo as Jesus Christ (IG@ttteoe); Supermalo as a superhero (Mills); Supermalo with his back turned and confused (Mills).

In multiple interviews, interpretations and quotes from Fabián's explanation of his tag vary. Some say it derives from the slogan "two plus two equals five" in George Orwell's 1984, which, as a phrase, carries revolutionary, anti-establishment associations. In an interview with the Center for Media & Social Impact, Fabián says:

People say that two plus two equals four, but I don't see it like that . . . I want people to know that I am free.

To be free, we must be free of the reality that is not reality. 2+2=5 implies that something is amiss. Additionally, 2+2=5 alludes to Radiohead's song "2+2=5" with the subtitle "The Lukewarm," which alludes to Dante's Inferno. According to Unmask Us, in an interview, the band's lead singer and songwriter, Thom Yorke, explains that, in Dante, the "lukewarm" are:

The people who don’t give a fuck . . . The lukewarm are on the edge of the Inferno, cruising around near the gates but they can’t actually get out. They’re like, “What are we doing here? We didn’t do anything at all.” And in Dante’s eyes it’s, “That’s exactly why you’re here. You did fuck all. You just let it happen.”

The lyrics of Radiohead's song carry a profound message that is tightly aligned with the efforts of Fabián and other Cuban street artists.

Are you such a dreamer / to put the world to rights?
You have not been / Paying attention.
Don't question my authority or put me / in a box.

Whether Fabián has personally read 1984 or has listened to Radiohead's song, there’s a common message that threads through songs, texts, and art that urges people to wake up and question. Fabián and other Cuban artists use street art as their vehicle to portray this message. Fabián also tells Béchard:

Here in Cuba, when there are personal or social problems . . . we have to speak while staying hidden . . . Everyone wants to speak. I am speaking for everyone.


Cuban street artists like Yulier, El Sexto, and Fabián are altering the Cuban landscape—the very structure that has historically created and maintained the country's revolution. Their street art not only allows them to "speak while staying hidden" but also allows them to speak for those who cannot. Cubans have had no representation in the history of its revolution. Instead, Cubans are both representative of and represented by the revolution. Over the course of the country's revolutionary history, Cubans have been stripped of their identities, their personal and cultural histories, and have been replaced by files, created and kept under lock and key by the CDR, deeming them either pro- or anti-revolution. No one can know the individual identities of the Cuban people outside of these files. Not only are Cuban identities reduced to a revolutionary support status, they are shaped by it, as well. In A Child of the Platt Amendment, Renée Méndez Capote proposes the compelling idea that individual identities begin forming and are nurtured by their political environment even before birth:

When I was engendered, Cuba was in full effervescence. My embryo fed on struggle, hope, and combative force. I was the child of the Constitution, just as my sister who was engendered two months after I was born and weighed, at birth, less than four pound, was the "child of the Platt Amendment" and nourished, in the womb, by disappointment and bitterness, anxiety and impotence. (155)

Cuban identities are a result of the brutal consequences for political dissent, the inability to form an opinion that isn't spoon-fed by revolutionary propaganda, the high-and-mighty walls of the revolutionary landscape within which are many eyes and ears, watching, listening. These are the people who cannot speak. As the world around them changes and progresses, more and more Cubans realize that something is amiss, that maybe two plus two doesn't equal five, or four. Fabián implies that it is more than just "more and more Cubans," that it is everyone: "everyone wants to speak" (Béchard).

Michelle Balaev's article "Trends in Literary Trauma Theory" discusses trauma theory for the purpose of analyzing trauma within literature; however, her explanation of where trauma locates itself pinpoints the trauma and identity struggle some Cuban's are currently overcoming and responding to with street art:


There are laws in place and fear instilled that keep the Cuban people from rising up and starting their own revolution to be free of all of the systems of power that have oppressed and controlled them. As Cuban street artists reinstitute their identity on the very walls of Cuban cities, they address the discordance between Cubans as individuals and Cubans as revolutionaries. As they do so, they access "the inherent strength of a complex human psyche that prevails against traumatic experiences and moves beyond an identity simply defined by a past traumatic event" (Balaev).

When most people hear the word “revolution,” it makes them feel a certain way. Usually it is an energizing, instigating, power-giving word for a population of people who feel oppressed. Therefore, their actions, thoughts, beliefs, and so on are shaped by it. The irony lies in that, for a word that typically connotes that there is positive change on the rise, for the people of Cuba, it means that things are at a standstill. “Revolution” in Cuba, as of right now, stands for the prevention of change by way of the government, the prevention of a revolution of a people who don’t know what revolution really means. And this is what I mean when I say that street artists are redefining revolution by altering the Cuban landscape. They are changing what revolution means for Cuban's from standstill to taking stands. They are speaking for everyone. They are revitalizing expression and creating spaces where Cubans can reclaim their identities, can question.

For a moment, consider that the walls of the Cuban cityscape are like mirrors. When Cubans look at these walls, they see reflected back at them CDR propaganda, "Viva la revolución," "Yo soy Fidel;" that is who they become and who they remain. Yulier's alien-like figures and Fabián's Supermalo are just some of the street art pieces in the city where Cubans stop and see a new reflection, one that forces them to confront their real identities, their personal histories. In that sense, Cuban street artists are not only speaking for, they are speaking to all Cubans. With the increased international visibility of Cuban street art, Cuban street artists are beginning to speak to everyone else, as well.

One of the strengths of visual culture is its ability to give insight into people's view of the world around them, of themselves, and demonstrate what they find most important. Street art "was until recently uncommon in Cuba's tightly controlled public spaces. Its emergence reflects greater scope for critical expression under President Raul Castro and increasing influence of international culture as the country slowly opens" (Meneghini). The new landscape that Cuban street artists are creating offers the opportunity for Cubans and non-Cubans to experience and consider Cuban identity and histories outside of their files, outside of the revolution. Although new legislation, such as Decree 349, and government officials' attempts to quickly paint over the proliferating street art, it appears as though this looking-glass landscape is here to stay, to expand, to revolutionize.

Supporting Cuban Street Artists

Follow Cuban street artists on their media platforms and share their work to raise awareness and circulate their message:

Work Cited


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Breanna Ransome

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