The 60th annual National Puerto Rican Day parade is scheduled in New York City for June 11, 2017. The annual celebration of music, dance, and cultural solidarity has always had a special place in the hearts of New York’s Boricua community. It’s a festival where culture and politics weave the joy and melancholy of Puerto Rican history and reality into a joyous, yet complex, tapestry, deeply resonant with the many voices of the people who make it happen.
Alongside the salsa and the many contingents of musicians and dancers that make it so much fun, the Parade has also committed to an ongoing campaign to raise awareness of the grave humanitarian and economic crisis facing Puerto Rico. This year that campaign focuses on the centennial of the Jones Act – which established US citizenship for all Puerto Ricans, and remains to this day a central pivot of modern Puerto Rican history. The legacy of the Jones Act is the unique brand of neo-colonialism that it fostered on the island. On the one hand, it offered the ideological prospect of equal status and opportunity. But that prospect has always been undercut by the reality of Puerto Rico’s subordination within the US capitalist system.
The centennial of the Jones Act and its paradoxical legacy serendipitously coincide with the release of Oscar López Rivera, one-time leader of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), a Marxist-Leninist organization whose members declared themselves combatants against the US colonization of Puerto Rico. In the 1970s, the FALN set off more than 120 bombs in US cities, causing millions in property damage, injuring dozens, and killing five. Although no evidence ever linked him directly to any of the bombings, in 1981 Lopez Rivera was convicted of seditious conspiracy (conspiring with others to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the US Government), weapons possession and transporting stolen vehicles across state lines. He was sentenced to 55 years (plus 15 more, subsequently, for an attempt to escape).
In the waning days of his presidency, President Obama commuted that sentence.
The Parade has been advocating for Lopez Rivera’s release for years. In celebration of the occasion it invited him to march in the 2017 Parade as a “Prócer de la Libertad” (Defender of Freedom).
And shortly thereafter a smear campaign coordinated by Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center set out to kill the Parade. To date that campaign has resulted in the withdrawal of a number of Parade sponsors, amid an increasingly outrageous cascade of lies about the Parade, those who support it, and Lopez Rivera.
MRC is a conservative advocacy group funded by organizations and individuals with deep connections to the Trump administration, as well as to the hedge funds and creditors who stand to gain the most from Puerto Rico’s misery. Despite styling itself a media “watchdog,” ever vigilant for left-wing bias, it is, in fact, a highly tendentious sponsor of anti-immigrant bias and climate change denial, among other right-wing positions. MRC is linked to and actively supports vulture hedge funds and bondholders that have lobbied Congress to prevent Puerto Rico from declaring bankruptcy or writing off unsustainable debt. Those lobbying efforts resulted in the establishment of the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board, which recently launched proceedings that many observers fear will inevitably result in big pay-outs to vulture funds and a crippling austerity regime for the island’s 3.4 million residents.
MRC is supported by substantial funding from the Mercer Family Foundation; Rebekah Mercer is an MRC Board member. Mercer and her father, Robert Mercer, are Donald Trump mega-donors, credited with having introduced Trump to Steve Bannon. Between 2008 and 2012, the Mercer Family Foundation contributed $7,494,000 to MRC. Through the family hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies, the Mercers are invested in Popular Inc. (d/b/a Banco Popular in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and as Popular Community Bank in the United States). As a bondholder, BPOP is heavily exposed to the Puerto Rican fiscal crisis, and its investors stand to benefit significantly from any resolution that results in a settlement with bondholders (as opposed to a bankruptcy proceeding that might favor, for example, pensioners over bondholders). Not surprisingly, Robert Mercer contributed $2.5 million to a Koch Brothers entity that aggressively lobbied Congress against allowing Puerto Rico to restructure its debts.
MRC’s board of trustees also includes Betsy DeVos’ father, Richard M. DeVos (whose foundation contributed $2.1 million to MRC between 1998-2010); William Walton (an advisor to Trump’s transition team); and Paul Isaac, a principal of hedge fund Arbiter Partners (and author of a 2016 letter to the Financial Times arguing against Puerto Rico’s right to file bankruptcy).
MRC’s hit-job on this year’s Parade has been led by Ken Oliver-Mendez, and by Jorge Bonilla. Oliver-Mendez previously worked for Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuño (who now works for the law firm Steptoe & Johnson, a law firm prominently represented on the creditor side of the debt crisis). Bonilla is a onetime Republican candidate for Congress in Florida’s ninth district and a writer for MRC’s “Newsbusters” blog. Since President Obama announced the commutation of Lopez Rivera’s sentence, Bonilla has posted 14 articles attacking Rivera.
To all appearances, right-wing Puerto Rican political operatives have made a deep miscalculation in attacking the Parade. Whatever they may think about Lopez Rivera’s radical anti-colonialist politics – and opinions vary – the vast majority of Boricuas supported his release. (The man served his time – 36 years in a federal penitentiary, 12 of those in solitary.) Puerto Rican New York will be out in force on June 12 and they will make that point clearly. Meanwhile, on the island, a status referendum is scheduled (for June 11), which Puerto Rican statehood advocates hope will result in renewed impetus to their drive for statehood. Oliver-Mendez and Bonilla are both aggressively pro-statehood, and evidently hope that by attacking Lopez Rivera, they will increase turnout and support in favor of their position in the referendum. But in doing so they have aligned themselves with a group of xenophobes and right-wing extremists in US politics who, in no conceivable universe, will ever support Puerto Rican statehood (a lock to create a 51st state that would be a safe seat for two new Democratic Senators). So, in their campaign to promote statehood, they will have alienated most Puerto Ricans and done nothing ultimately to advance their cause in the US, where their natural allies occupy the left side of the political spectrum.
So: bad faith gives rise to strange bedfellows. Resist both – on June 11, come out, dance, support the Parade.