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Cuba, Crooners, Congratulations And "Censorship"

by Lance Oliver

October 8, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rico's political class has managed to insert itself into the stickiest political issue in the entire Caribbean, as well as poking at a particularly raw nerve in Puerto Rico: the former, Cuba and Castro, the latter, "censorship."

It started when Cuban businessman Raúl Alarcón's company, Spanish Broadcasting System, bought four radio stations in Puerto Rico. While Alarcón was visiting the island, New Progressive Party Representative Edwin Mundo quickly put together a congratulatory proclamation for him.

It was a small and relatively hasty affair, held in the office of House Speaker Edison Misla Aldarondo. The minority party representatives didn't bother to attend. But the controversy soon began building, and as so often happens, it quickly grew beyond its humble beginnings.

The problem, as Mundo's critics saw it, was that Alarcón has been accused of boycotting the work of artists who perform in Cuba. Some Cuban exiles see any such visit as tacit support for the Castro regime. In this case, Alarcón was accused of ordering his radio stations not to play songs by Puerto Rican performer Danny Rivera.

Soon everyone looking to score some political points was scrambling to the press conference microphones to criticize the NPP House leadership for granting congratulatory proclamations to someone who was silencing a Puerto Rican singer.

After the controversy boiled over, Alarcón publicly denied that such a boycott existed. His stations in New York played Danny Rivera songs, he protested.

Why had he not denied earlier that the ban was in place? a reporter asked.

Nobody had asked, Alarcón replied.

But by then, other events had made the original point of controversy irrelevant. Instead of pulling back, Mundo went on the offensive, saying that if he owned radio stations, he would also refuse to play songs of performers who went to Cuba.

That alone added 20 decibels to the discussion. It no longer mattered whether Alarcón had ever blocked Rivera's records from being played or not. Now the focus was on Mundo and his condoning "censorship."

Mundo was accused by a group of actors at a press conference of "criminalizing" political opinions. San Juan Mayor Sila Calderón extolled Rivera's virtues and said he should be free to sing wherever he wanted to sing.

Popular Democratic Party legislators quickly stated that they didn't know Alarcón or what he did with his businesses in the states. Nobody wanted to be tainted with the "censorship" brush.

Censorship is a volatile issue in Puerto Rico and is not always defined the same way it is elsewhere. It usually arises when the news media are involved, but performers can be the cause of the moment, as well.

In the battle between El Nuevo Día and Gov. Pedro Rosselló over government advertising, one of the newspaper's arguments was that the governor was "censoring" the newspaper. Did Rosselló send in the National Guard to shut down the press? Did government inspectors approve each story in El Nuevo Día before it was printed as Israel does with military incidents, for example?

No, what the government did (not defensible, but also not "censorship") was deny the paper a portion of the lucrative windfall of government advertising.

In another interesting case, a veteran newspaper reporter sued his own employer because he wasn't allowed to write what he wanted.

In both cases, the aggrieved party not only cried "censorship" also raised the First Amendment. But the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution only says free speech cannot be restricted by law. The First Amendment doesn't guarantee easy revenue from government ads, nor does it oblige a newspaper to print anything someone submits.

In the Rivera case, it also doesn't require a radio station owner to play certain songs. Doesn't a station owner have the right to avoid playing certain songs, whether because he doesn't like the artist's politics or just plain can't stand the music?

A newspaper has broad leeway and can publish just about anything it wants to about a sitting governor or other high-profile public figure. A disgruntled reporter can write anything he likes and print up copies and hand them out to any interested readers. Danny Rivera can sing what he likes, where he likes, whether before a big audience in Havana or on a street corner in Santurce.

Anyone who tried to stop them would be guilty of censorship.

It seems a simple line to draw, an easy issue to settle. But it will certainly be blurred again someday. Now, as for Cuba, that one won't be so easy to solve.


Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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