Self-Determination and the 2017 National Puerto Rican Day Parade
Recently released Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera has announced that although he will march at the Puerto Rican Day Parade this Sunday, June 11, 2017, he will not accept the recognition bestowed on him by event organizers as the parade’s principal honoree. Lopez Rivera gracefully declined the award in response to the political controversy orchestrated by right-wing forces over his expected decoration. His public statement asserted that the honor should go to “those confronting the fiscal, health care and human rights crisis Puerto Rico is facing at this historic juncture.”
But those who believe in the right to self-determination of all people who face military, economic, and/or political subjugation should continue to uphold that honor and defend the right of colonized people to determine for themselves, without outside pressure, who among them should be honored and why.
In 1981, US federal courts convicted Oscar Lopez Rivera for seditious conspiracy and sentenced him to life in prison. Approximately 20 years before Lopez Rivera was so convicted and imprisoned, Nelson Mandela was convicted and sentenced of the same crime. Mandela directed his armed militancy against settler colonial Apartheid in South Africa. Similarly, Oscar Lopez Rivera supported armed opposition to US imperial rule in Puerto Rico, which began when the US military invaded and colonized the island on July 25, 1898. In the US, the charge of seditious conspiracy was first used in the late 19th century against the unionizing efforts of militant labor organizers in Chicago and the struggle for the eight-hour day—in the same era that the US launched its colonial project in Puerto Rico.
After 35 years in prison, an international movement secured Lopez Rivera’s release from prison on May 17, 2017. A broad range of political actors advocated for his freedom, including members of Congress, 10 Nobel Peace Prize winners, Coretta Scott King, President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Senator Bernie Sanders as well as a global coalition of human rights and religious, labor, and business leaders, including the United Council of Churches of Christ, United Methodist Church, Baptist Peace Fellowship, Episcopal Church of Puerto Rico, and the Catholic Archbishop of San Juan.
Immediately following Lopez Rivera’s release, right-wing forces launched a calculated campaign of demonization against him, distorted the facts of his case, and branded him a terrorist. Nelson Mandela was given the same designation by the US government until 2008.
It is no coincidence that the witch-hunt against Lopez Rivera— Puerto Rico’s living symbol of independence—is happening precisely at the moment when the predatory practices of the US government and its corporations in Puerto Rico are being exposed and debated on the island and around the world. Not surprisingly, the same pirates who have pillaged the Puerto Rican economy are exploiting the honoring ceremony at the largest yearly gathering in NYC to advance their agenda. Their aim is to silence critics of US imperialism, disfigure the idea of Puerto Rican self-determination, and retain control over the island.
The controversy illustrates the political unity among the US government, US corporations, right-wing forces and the corporate media. Over 41 corporations have withdrawn fiscal sponsorship of the parade, including NBC, Goya Foods, JetBlue, AT&T, Corona beer, Coca-Cola, and the New York Yankees. Top celebrities and public officials including Governor Andrew Cuomo have announced that they will not endorse the parade.
NYC Police Commissioner James O’Neill has also protested, stating that he will not march in the parade. In light of the long history of racist police beatings and murders of Puerto Ricans in New York City, many will see Commissioner O’Neill’s absence as a welcome development. Ask Ana Baez and Margarita Rosario, whose sons were brutally murdered by the NYPD in the 1990s. Or ask the descendants of Victor Rodriguez and Maximo Solero, two bike-delivery men known for singing Puerto Rican folk songs en route to their destinations. In 1963, the men were shot and killed by police inside a police car beneath the underpass at 96th Street and Riverside Drive—just two in a spate of fatal police shootings of Puerto Ricans and African Americans in New York in the early 1960s.
On closer inspection, the outcry against the Puerto Rican Day Parade Committee and the defamation of Oscar Lopez are smokescreens for the real injustice—that Puerto Ricans are daily terrorized by systemic racism and poverty in the US mainland and colonial domination in their homeland. Consider, for example, the passage of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) — a ploy recently imposed by Washington officials to assure the payment of a $73 billion dollar debt, created not by Puerto Ricans but by the colonizers themselves. Puerto Rican functions as a major tax haven for US corporations and billionaires that saves them billions in federal taxes, while 45% of the people of the island live in poverty. In addition, top US corporations rake in an average net profit of $26 billion a year, and $600 billion in the last twenty years. As economist Rosario Rivera Negrón demonstrates, Puerto Rico is the fifth largest consumer market in the world for US products. And given the island’s small population, the per capita profit that Puerto Rico yields to corporations ranks among the highest in the world. And to demystify the lie that Puerto Rico is dependent and indebted to the US, she explains that in one year alone , the island received $4.6 billion in federal dollars, but contributed $71.6 billion dollars to the US economy.
Somehow, the pillaging of Puerto Rico by US colonialism is absent from US media coverage of the Oscar Lopez controversy. Media pundits also fail to ask, why is Oscar Lopez Rivera being vilified for defending, the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness on behalf of his people—essentially, for walking in the same tradition of the Founding Fathers of the US?
The media has made much mention of the bombings conducted in the 1970s by the Fuerzas Armada de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña, (FALN—Armed Forces of National Liberation) of which Oscar Lopez Rivera was a member. But what the corporate media will not mention is that International Law (United Nations Charter 1514) established long ago “the legitimacy of peoples’ struggle for liberation from colonial and foreign domination and alien subjugation by all available means, including armed struggle.”
The media has also failed to offer contextual depth to Lopez Rivera’s capture in 1981: the long and violent history of US repression, imprisonment, torture and murder of other Puerto Ricans like Oscar Lopez who similarly fought for independence or stood up against injustice, among them Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, Lolita Lebron, Rafael Cancel Miranda and the currently held Ana Belen Montes Lopez, among many others.
From 1948 –1957, the US government orchestrated the passage in Puerto Rico of the Gag Law, also known in Spanish as Ley de La Mordaza, which banned the Puerto Rican flag and prohibited writing about independence, gatherings to discuss independence, and even national independence references in music—.ruling authorities eliminated the original revolutionary words of the Puerto Rican national anthem. These measures also banned the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico and set in place the legal structures for the incarceration of nationalist leaders. Similar laws have been implemented by colonizers around the world, including Zionists in Palestine today.
The Gag Law accomplished two goals. In addition to killing and imprisoning Puerto Rican independence leaders and destroying their organizations, the legal repression and fear it unleashed signaled to the Puerto Rican people that endorsing ideas associated with their own freedom would come at a heavy cost to them personally. Although the law was eventually overturned, its legacy lives on today in the controversy surrounding the honoring of Oscar Lopez Rivera at the Puerto Rican Day parade.
These controversies can be avoided only when we build a mass fighting movement made up of Puerto Ricans and other oppressed and exploited people here in the US and around the world. Only then will we ensure that Puerto Ricans retain self-determination and control of their annual traditions and their country.
Free All Political Prisoners. US Colonialism out of Puerto Rico!
Johanna Fernández & Carlito Rovira, on behalf of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home.
Johanna Fernández is assistant professor of 20th Century US history at Baruch College of the City University of New York. Her book on the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican counterpart to the Black Panther Party, is forthcoming. In 2014, she filed a lawsuit against the NYPD that led to the recovery, in 2016, of the “lost” Handschu files, the largest repository of police surveillance records of New York activists, dating back to 1955. She is a leading member of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home and the broader movement to free Mumia.
Carlito Rovira is a former member of the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican counterpart to the Black Panther Party, which was active in New York and beyond in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. Following the COINTELPRO-induced demise of the Young Lords, Carlito moved to New Orleans to join the fight against the re-emergence of the KKK. He is a Puerto Rican Revolutionary Nationalist who continues to fight to bring about socialism in the United States. Today Carlito devotes himself to the release of all political prisoners by working in the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home.