In early January 2013, Puerto Rican chat show SuperXclusivo (featuring puppet character La Comay) was cancelled after a sustained boycott campaign. Spark writer Ian Anderson interviews Carlos Rivera, who co-founded the Facebook group and played a leading role in the campaign.
The Spark: What were the initial problems with La Comay, and SuperXclusivo, that triggered this campaign?
CR: For more than a decade, the show had had issues with hate speech and hate “humour”. In 2010 this came to head with extreme homophobic comments. The TV station was forced by a huge LGBTT campaign to create a public promise to change. A few months later the format re-emerged.
It also had moved from being a celebrity gossip and crime sensationalism show and into politics - supporting right wing politicians, draconian law-and-order “solutions to crime” and so on. The latest of this effort had been the unsuccessful attempt to eliminate bail rights earlier in 2012. When we won that referendum, we celebrated the fact we won not against the political establishment, but against La Comay. It was there I was drawn to the issue in a definitive manner.
The immediate trigger was the disappearance of a young man in the middle of a robbery. This kidnapping and eventual murder generated incredible social media attention and sympathy.
Then the show made hateful comments towards the victim, to the extreme of implying he had it coming for frequenting a red light district. The sympathy for the victim was high, so the comments fell on sensitive ears.
The Spark: Who benefits from this bigotry? What are the consequences?
CR: Basically the right wing and conservative hate mongers - and the colonialist project benefit.
The fundamental consequence was the agenda being set from the right and from the reactionary perspective - even on unpopular issues. For example, the majority of Puerto Ricans are opposed to the death penalty, and the colonial constitution prohibits it. Yet this show made it seem as it was an open question, and had an effect of putting the anti-death penalty forces in the defensive. The loss of this voice has already had an explosive effect - a visible one - in how the debates happen at the street level. There is a sense that the silent majority is progressive - which it is - but there was not this sense before.
The Spark: Your “Boicot a La Comay” Facebook page has over 75,000 likes, can you talk about this growth?
CR: About half of it happened in the first 24 hours. It was entirely grassroots.
The Spark: What kind of impact has the campaign had on the company?
CR: They tried to reign in the show - changing it to a pre-recorded format. This created the conditions for the cancellation - Kobbo Santarrosa, the puppeteer found this unacceptable. It proved our theory correct: the show existed due to inertia - not even the management really liked it. They did like the money. So when we attacked the money, the incentive to continue was removed.
The Spark: Is this campaign an attack on “free speech”?
CR: No. Our first slogan was “Boycott without censorship”. This is why even if some members were calling for censorship - for example, pressuring the Federal Communications Commission to cancel the license - we never made those official. We knew we were treading dangerous waters in terms of speech.
Our idea was never to silence speech, but to de-fund speech. The two are not the same.
The Spark: What social forces have been drawn into the campaign?
All of them. But a salient fact is that the overwhelming majority of likes in Facebook are from women, at a ~58% vs ~42% men. This is significant, in part, because people considered SuperXclusivo to be a “women’s show”.
The Spark: Much of the coverage, and social media campaigning, has been Spanish-language. How do you think the English-language coverage has compared with this?
CR: It is natural that as local issue that would be the case, but one of the salient facts - except for brief notes in the New York Times - is that English coverage was Latino-oriented. It never broke to other news outlets. This speaks clearly of the colonial relationship.
The Spark: What is the relationship, and what are the differences, between US and Puerto Rican networks?
CR: Basically out of the three major TV channels, 2 are affiliates of Univision and Telemundo - the leading Spanish-language networks in the USA. WAPA-TV is “independent” but owned by a US private equity firm - the same that owns other “niche” channels like the Gospel and Christian Music Television.
The Spark: As someone currently living in New York, how have you found working on a campaign against a show produced in Puerto Rico?
CR: It made me dependent on the membership for the information - it also made the media have to work this.
The Spark: How did the simultaneous vigil in New York and Puerto Rico go?
CR: Very well, I think our victory is in part due to the pressures it generated on advertisers and the owners of the channel. In NYC we were able to directly confront employees for the corporation with our demands.
The Spark: How do you see the relationship between online and street organising?
CR: I think it is a false dichotomy - and the insistence on this dichotomy is a serious strategic and tactical problem for any political movement. Those who organized the Facebook page that triggered the Arab Spring continue to lead their online communities, but are one of the many voices on the street. This shows they are part of continuum, rather than a dichotomy. Certainly there are differences, but these are minor and microcosmic. At the macro level, they are part of the same general movement, and should be seen as such. Today, street organizing without an online presence is doomed, and vice versa. It is how the world is.
The Spark: This is a broad campaign around a single demand. From a socialist perspective, what can be achieved by participating?
CR: In particular, we have achieved credibility. This is a mass line issue in a classic sense. The absence of a real socialist force means the gain is limited, but the idea that socialists can contribute to reforms without having to compromise their strategic message is proven - hopefully the lesson will not be lost to socialists in PR.
The Spark: What’s next?
CR: We will see what the members want. But we already have had minor victories in other issues.
The Spark: How can socialists in Aotearoa support this struggle, and struggles like it?
CR: Fundamentally, raising the issue of the colonial relationship between the USA and Puerto Rico. The forces against colonialism in Puerto Rico are a minority, but this is due in part to the colonial condition in itself. International awareness of this issue will have solid impact. After all, the independence forces in East Timor, for example, were a minority, until international awareness of the struggle fuelled them. Of course, Puerto Rico has its own complexities, but the international silence on this question tends to isolate and demoralize the pro-independence forces. Some, for example, have become anti-annexation rather than anti-colonial - with serious consequences to the struggle for self-determination.