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PUERTO RICO REPORT
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
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
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"
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
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
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