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Sponsors are dropping New York’s Puerto Rican Day parade after a controversial decision

New York’s decision to honor Oscar Lopez Rivera, who led a Puerto Rican nationalist group linked to numerous bombings in the 1970s, has drawn criticism. (Tannen Maury/European Pressphoto Agency)
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Numerous big-name sponsors say they are pulling support for New York City’s storied annual Puerto Rican Day parade this year amid controversy about the decision to honor Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera during the festivities scheduled for June 11.

Lopez Rivera, a 74-year-old activist, is slated to be honored as “Procer de la Libertad,” or National Freedom Hero, and to help lead a procession along Fifth Avenue — a decision that created a controversy, prompting companies from AT&T to the New York Yankees to back out.

At issue is Lopez Rivera’s past.

In the 1970s, he was a leader in the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, an organization that aimed to achieve independence for Puerto Rico. That group then claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings across the United States that killed as many as six people and injured many others, including law enforcement officers. Rivera was sentenced in 1981 to 55 years in prison for seditious conspiracy, armed robbery, interstate transportation of firearms, and conspiracy to transport explosives with intent to destroy government property.

But Lopez Rivera was not convicted in the bombings, according to the Associated Press. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama commuted Lopez Rivera’s sentence after the activist had served more than 35 years in prison.

Parade organizers have acknowledged that Lopez Rivera is considered “a controversial figure.”

“Lopez Rivera’s ideologies on the independence of Puerto Rico do not represent all Puerto Ricans,” the organizers said this month in a statement. “Nevertheless, his figure brought together Puerto Ricans of all ideologies, as well as global human rights organizations and leaders, including Pope Francis, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, President Clinton and President Carter, among many others, to seek clemency in unison. Some people call him a terrorist while others think of him as a freedom fighter, as was the case with Nelson Mandela.”

The organizers said the decision to include Lopez Rivera in the parade “was not made in haste.”

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New York’s National Puerto Rican Day parade — a six-decade-long tradition — celebrates Puerto Ricans and their culture and also awards scholarships to students of Puerto Rican descent, according to the parade’s website.

Coca-Cola said in a statement that the company will still provide financial support to the scholarship program but “decided not to march in the parade” this year.

JetBlue, which is based in Long Island City, N.Y., said, “It became clear that the debate about this year’s parade was dividing the community and overshadowing the celebration of Puerto Rican culture that we had set out to support.” As a result, the airline said, it is redirecting funds to support scholarships for Puerto Rican students.

“We did not make this decision lightly and hope all sides will come together to engage in a dialogue about the parade’s role in unifying the community at a time when Puerto Rico needs it most,” according to JetBlue’s statement.

New York’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the Hispanic societies for both the Fire Department of New York and the New York Police Department and the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York said in similar statements that they will not participate in this year’s parade.

Organizers said in a statement that “while we are saddened and disappointed by certain sponsors pulling out of our parade, we respect their views and decision to do so.”

The New York Daily News became one of the most recent to pull support, noting in an editorial Wednesday that it “must break from the parade this year while wishing the best to the marchers and spectators who will gather in salute to the people and legacy of Puerto Rico.”

The newspaper said:

It’s a wonderful event, as stirring a show of the city’s spirit as the West Indian parade, Columbus Day Parade or St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Which is why the Daily News has proudly participated as a media sponsor, both with a float and by donating to the parade’s scholarship fund.
To register our appreciation for the many among our readers with deep connections to and passion for Puerto Rico.
To honor the contributions of Puerto Ricans to New York and the nation in every conceivable field of endeavor.
To extend support for American citizens too often forgotten, who live on an island territory with a rich history and bright future, despite present struggles.
But this year, an ill-advised decision by parade organizers forces us to withdraw.

Not everyone, however, sees it that way.

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who was born in Puerto Rico, sent a letter along with 35 other elected officials to parade board members this week, commending their decision to honor Lopez Rivera.

“As countless families continue to struggle in Puerto Rico’s current fiscal crisis, Oscar is a reminder of the hope that has always anchored the Island — and that’s why we fully stand behind your efforts to honor him during this year’s 60th National Puerto Rican Day parade,” the officials wrote. “Oscar’s presence will lift people’s spirits and bring attention to the challenges that must be immediately addressed on the Island. … We stand in solidarity with Oscar and express our full support for the Board’s decision to recognize and uplift the legacy of Oscar López Rivera.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said he, too, plans to march in the parade, according to the Associated Press.