After serving 35 years in prison, Oscar López Rivera had his prison sentence commuted by Barack Obama before leaving office.
López Rivera was the longest-jailed member of the group “Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional” or FALN (they really missed an opportunity there to be called “flan”), a paramilitary group whose mission was complete independence of Puerto Rico by any means necessary, as they saw U.S. rule as unjust and criminal.
López Rivera, however, as the New York Times puts it, is “a Puerto Rican militant associated with a group that carried out a deadly campaign of bombings in New York and other cities in the 1970s and 1980s.” The article also mentions that although López Rivera was convicted of several serious crimes, including robbery and interstate transportation of weapons to commit violent crimes, none of his charges actually involved “carrying out acts of violence.”
Before the end of President Obama’s final term, a petition calling for López Rivera’s release received over 100,000 signatures. Campaigns by several celebrities and politicians were also launched to get him released. Many feel the crime he was most penalized for was “seditious conspiracy,” which NPR’s Latino USA’s documentary on López Rivera said amounts to a “thought crime.” The video also discusses the United Nations’ assertion that colonized people have the right to self-determination by any means necessary.
Many Puerto Ricans celebrated his release. Others can’t forget FALN’s crimes.
His supporters have come to see him as a folk hero and saw his incarceration as unjust, having been sentenced to what amounts to a life sentence (who survives 70 years in jail?) for non-violent offenses.
Some see the group’s bombings as terrorist in nature, while others vehemently disagree, seeing the actions of the group and López Rivera himself, as those of an oppressed people fighting for their right to sovereignty and freedom from colonial rule.
Upon his release, López Rivera was invited by Puerto Rican Day Parade officials to attend as a “National Freedom Hero.”
Homecoming of FALN’s Oscar Lopez Rivera around the block from me. I suspect these aren’t chants of condemnation. pic.twitter.com/IW4LMT98Ef
— Vincent Casimir (@vncnt_csmr) May 18, 2017
Credit: @vncnt_csmr / Twitter
This title is one parade officials have never used before and was specifically created for López Rivera. The National Puerto Rican Day Parade, held every year in New York City with about three million attendees, is an enormous undertaking and normally has many sponsors.
Many of these sponsors have not taken kindly to what they see as a convicted felon, and member of a group responsible for the deaths of at least four people, being given an honorary title at the parade.
— The Jersey Journal (@jerseyjournal) May 17, 2017
Among those sponsors, and the first to pull sponsorship, was Goya, whose headquarters are in New Jersey.
[AHORA] Conferencia de Prensa de Oscar López Rivera | Hoy expira su condena #OscarLopez
Posted by Telenoticias PR on Wednesday, May 17, 2017
Credit: Telenoticias PR / Facebook
Goya, a purveyor of Latino products, has been a sponsor for every year of the parade’s sixty-year run. Although, as reported in NPR’s Latino USA in the video above, López Rivera didn’t take it sitting down, saying “I think Goya would have more to lose if Puerto Rico boycotted it.”
Other sponsors have also pulled their support as well. The New York Yankees, whose stadium is in the Bronx — home to the majority of Puerto Ricans in New York — have bowed out. Jetblue, which is arguably one of the most recognized airlines traveling to Puerto Rico at the moment, is no longer a sponsor.
As of Tuesday, AT&T also pulled sponsorship and Coca-Cola pulled funds to divert them to a scholarship. According to the Associated Press, state Sen. Nicole Malliotakis and NYPD Police Commissioner James O’Neill have also decided not to march in the parade.
Although the parade has fallen out of favor with some sponsors and politicians, others are doubling down on their support. U.S. Representative Luis Gutiérrez has publicly compared López Rivera to George Washington. Other politicians decided to focus in on what was really important: the parade itself. Of the dwindling support surrounding the parade, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said:
“The parade committee made a choice this year on someone to honor. That does not change the basic nature of the parade. Whether you agree with that choice or not, it’s still the Puerto Rican parade and my point is, I will be there to honor the Puerto Rican people. I intend on marching. It’s as simple as that.”
López Rivera has been defending himself in the media.
He unequivocally denounced violence in an interview recently with Representative Luis Gutiérrez. López Rivera told the New York Times, “I do not have blood on my hands,” also adding, “All colonized people have a right to struggle for its independence using all methods within reach, including force.”
On May 23, 2017, the The Board of Directors of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade posted a response to the controversy around appointing López Rivera and the sponsorship fallout:
“While we cannot predict whether other sponsors and/or organizations might choose not to join us on Fifth Avenue this year, we expect they will do so with the same level of responsibility and professionalism as JetBlue and the Yankees. This community deserves no less. We thank the thousands of individuals, elected officials and community leaders who have expressed their support for the Parade, its 2017 honoree roster, and its commitment to raise awareness about the issues that impact Puerto Ricans across the world, even if some issues might spark a conversation.”
The physical parade goes on, but what will happen to the soul of the parade going forward?
— New York Post (@nypost) May 23, 2017
Will it be an inclusive one or one divided by political ideologies, the way so much of this country seems to be at the moment? This could be a moment to come together, but will it be?
We can only hope so.