The Parade: Oscar López Rivera Controversy Shows How Powerless Puerto Ricans Remain

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Oscar López Rivera. Photo: Telesur

This past Sunday’s Puerto Rican Day parade had all of the trappings associated with summer celebrations of ethnic pride. Floats, music, crooked politicians, food, and culture was in full effect. It also provided a number of unplanned lessons in hardball politics – in the value and costs of political self-determination, the mechanisms of colonialism, the over-involvement of elected officials in supposed community events, and the role of corporate money in our political life.

The selection of a Grand Marshall is one of the key promotional elements of any parade effort, whether it’s the Puerto Rican, Afro-American, or West Indian/Labor Day march. A Mayor or Governor is a great “get” since they bring the possibility, almost a guarantee, of future government grants, patronage jobs, and so forth. Movie stars and recording artists help draw crowds. And corporate honorees are likely to bring a fat check. Parades have costs; for porto-potties, grandstands, receptions, and so forth. In addition, the parade offers college scholarships, which increases the need and desire for funds.

Given this pattern, the parade committee’s decision to honor Oscar López Rivera was guaranteed to cause controversy – and to negatively impact their bottom line. Rivera was one of the United States’ longest-held political prisoners before his sentence was commuted by president Barack Obama. Born on the Island and raised in Chicago, he was a decorated Vietnam War veteran, bilingual education advocate, and co-founder of a still-functioning community school. In the early 1970’s, he joined the Armed Forces for National Liberation (FALN,) which engaged in armed struggle to win independence for the island. The group was implicated in scores of bombings during that period. After many years underground, he was arrested in 1981 and sentenced to 55 years for seditious conspiracy.

López Rivera became the subject of an international campaign for his release. He turned down a grant of clemency offered by President Bill Clinton in 1999, refusing to renounce violence as a legitimate tool for the Puerto Rican freedom struggle, and refusing to leave behind other, still-imprisoned companeros.

Upon announcement of his selection as an honoree, more conservative members of the parade committee, and many elected officials criticized his participation. Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill, in a rare break with Mayor Bill De Blasio, was among the first to drop out of the parade. He was followed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who refused to cite Lopez Rivera as the cause of his absence. Corporate sponsors, usually the largest donors, followed suit. Coca-Cola, island-based Goya Foods, Jet Blue Airlines, Telemundo, the Daily News, and NBC/Channel 4 backed out. Published reports suggest that up to 1/2 of planned display floats withdrew.

In response to the boycott, López Rivera announced that he would decline the place offered him at the head of the parade. Instead, he walked (floated actually) in the body of the parade as just another proud Puerto Rican. It’s unclear whether this concession will help recoup the lost donations and prestige of the event.

He was widely and repeatedly cheered along the parade route, and was clearly the crowd favorite of the day.

Why the conflict over what seems to be a simple gathering of floats and revelers? Who cares, and why do they care? Apparently, the corporations and the politicians, if not the public, are aware of the link between public opinion and continued political control. Whether in the Puerto Rican or the African diaspora, unacceptable-to-the-status quo leaders or ideas cannot be tolerated in the “mainstream.”

This is the reason why the Governor, the Mayor, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito are either openly or covertly, but always deeply involved in the planning process. The lame duck Council Speaker is a principled supporter of Lopez Rivera. Most of the rest of the electeds tried to dodge this intrusion into business as usual.

Politicians are sure to have surrogates or minions who informally, but efficiently serve as liaisons or fixers for their clients or principals. They provide plausible deniability of involvement (if things go wrong,) but can guide the event in ways that help their patrons.

DeBlaso, who is running for re-election this year, scored political points by supporting the march after the backlash first erupted. Then after the honoree withdrew, he claimed that he had covertly urged the committee to dis-invite him.

Who are the political winners and loser here? It depends on your perspective. But one clear victim was the ability of the parade committee –or by extension, the Puerto Rican or African-American community– to exercise their self-determination as regards who they perceive to be worthy of honor or celebration.

And a lack of self-determination is clearly a topic that the political class does not want to address. In a fitting bit of irony, another non-binding “statehood or independence or commonwealth” plebiscite was scheduled for parade Sunday. The non-binding aspect of the vote makes it clear that the Puerto Rican people cannot determine their political future. And, to add economic injury to political insult, Puerto Rico is now a virtually bankrupt entity. Decades of financial mismanagement have led to the appointment of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA,) whose job is to impose an austerity regime that will include world Bank-style budget cutting, school closings, wage/pension reductions, etc. No need to feature an independent voice offering an out-of-the-box solution to the island’s chronic problems.

Viva Puerto Rico; and its people’s struggle to control their island and their parade.

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