The 60th national Puerto Rican Day Parade is scheduled for June 11th, the same day as the status referendum vote in Puerto Rico. The parade will take place on Fifth Avenue in New York, a State which has been home to a significant number of people of Puerto Rican heritage since the 1950s.
This year, the event is being overshadowed by controversy. The parade’s organizers decided to honor Oscar Lopez Rivera, a Puerto Rican activist who spent 35 years in prison before his sentence was commuted in 2016 by then President Obama. He has been named a National Freedom Hero by the parade organizers. Many others appear to disagree – intensely.
As a leader of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña (FALN), which has been associated with more than 100 bomb attacks and claimed responsibility for 70, López Rivera was considered a terrorist by the U.S. government. After authorities found a stockpile of weapons and explosives in his apartment, he went on the lam with other members of FALN. While no direct evidence of setting bombs was presented against him, López Rivera was held responsible for these events because of his leadership role in the organization. The event which resonated most strongly with his detractors was a 1975 bomb at Fraunces Tavern, a New York restaurant, that killed four people and left 60 more injured.
He was indicted twice during the 1970s while he was a fugitive, and was convicted in 1981 of seditious conspiracy, transporting weapons across state lines, use of force to commit robbery, and conspiracy to transport explosives with intent to destroy government property. In 1988, he received an additional 15 year sentence for attempting to escape from prison.
President Bill Clinton offered López Rivera and other FALN members clemency in 1999 on the condition of “renouncing the use or threatened use of violence for any purpose”. López Rivera refused.
López Rivera admitted to the actions of which he was accused, but maintained that he was a freedom fighter working to gain independence for Puerto Rico, where he was born (he moved to Chicago at 14). Under U.N. Resolution 1514, López Rivera argued, he was entitled to take violent action against the United States to end its domination over Puerto Rico. López Rivera wanted Puerto Rico to become an independent communist country. He requested that he be tried under international law, because he did not recognize the right of the United States to try his case.
Independence has never received as much as 6% in any status referendum in Puerto Rico, and the Independence Party has never fielded a successful gubernatorial candidate. Nonetheless, López Rivera expressed a determination to continue fighting for independence for Puerto Rico.
The decision of the Puerto Rican Day Parade organizers to honor López Rivera led to withdrawal by sponsors and participants in the parade, such as Goya foods, Coke, AT&T, JetBlue, Univision, and the New York Yankees. New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said that “ultra right-wing forces” are trying to undermine the event, while Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis said that honoring López Rivera was equivalent to honoring Timothy McVeigh. Elected officials who will be missing the parade include: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and Acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez — New York state’s first Puerto Rican chief prosecutor.
The New York Police Department (NYPD) will also not be marching in the parade. The NYPD offices were the site of one of the FALN bombings.
Organizers responded that the Puerto Rican Day Parade is intended to be educational, and that they will continue to work to increase awareness of issues, even when those issues are controversial.