Puerto Rico: Arts, Politics and a Controversial Documentary

This is the official FBI photo of Filiberto Ojeda Rios.

by Erica Sanchez-Vazquez

All around the world, governments spend huge amounts of money in funding the arts, as a response to market failure in capitalist societies. As David Throsby states in The Economics of Cultural Policy, “the overall output of arts and culture will… be less than the social optimum, providing an in-principle justification for government intervention to boost supply.”

Thus, certain public agencies face the challenge of choosing which projects to fund, a decision that involves judging quality and possible social impact, among other factors. This can be a big source of disagreement when the funded projects appear to have a particular political aim.

Case in point: the Puerto Rican Cinema Corporation’s controversy regarding funding of a documentary about an independence leader.

In 2006, the agency promised a group of filmmakers a loan to produce a documentary about Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, a leader of the Puerto Rican Popular Army (often called the Boricua Popular Army) who was killed by the FBI in 2005.  (Some believe the FBI purposely assassinated Ojeda.) In 2011, the corporation decided to pull out the funds that were assigned to the project. And the producers are now suing so that it will live up to its word.

The decision to take the money away has clear political overtones. Ojeda is considered a hero by many, and a terrorist by others.  (The FBI considers the group a terrorist organization.) When funding for the project was approved, the political party in power was the pro-Commonwealth party. When funding was pulled out, it was the pro-statehood party.

According to the corporation, the project contains partisan propaganda and thus the decision was justified. The law that oversees these arts funds specifically prohibits, according to the Puerto Rico Daily Sun, “financing projects for particular purposes or whose purpose is sectarian or partisan propaganda.”

“We handed this in as a historical project about a particular person through whom we can take a historical look at Puerto Rico. We have nothing to do with any political party or campaign. We don’t want to influence elections. We’re not a sect. The allegations are a bit weird,” said the producer, Freddie Marrero.

The filmmakers are not waiting around for the courts to decide on the issue. They have moved on to other forms of funding. They have started a campaign on Indiegogo, a platform that lets entrepreneurs, activists, artists, and others raise money for their projects. As of this posting, they have recollected almost $12,000. They hope to raise at least an additional $5,000 by the end of this week.

This way of funding film might be just what the Puerto Rican film industry needs, as well as other national industries that do not enjoy the resources of the big production hubs. It moves away from public funding, which can be unreliable and controversial, and gives power back to producers and audiences themselves.

(The photo of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos is in the public domain.)

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