For Puerto Ricans, Sunday was a day of celebration and contention. A parade in New York City featured a man that some deemed a terrorist, and a non-binding referendum in Puerto Rico on the island’s political status was boycotted by several parties, including the leading opposition group.
As New York’s annual Puerto Rican Day Parade moved along Fifth Avenue, voters on the home island cast ballots overwhelmingly endorsing statehood. The Associated Press reported that nearly half a million votes were cast for statehood, but the participation rate was just 23%, leading opponents to question the validity of the vote.
Beyond low turnout, other factors undercut the vote’s significance:
- Congress has the final say over whether the territory changes its status, making the vote merely an advisory opinion.
- The ballot language was not approved by the U.S. Justice Department, which rejected an earlier version because it did not allow voters to endorse the territorial status quo. That option was then added, but the department said it had not had enough time to review the changes, and asked that the election be postponed. It was not.
The vote came against the backdrop of a financial and economic crisis that has helped drive almost half a million Puerto Ricans to the mainland in the past decade. Unemployment on the island, which has 3.4 million residents, stands at 12%, and the cost of living has risen rapidly.
Statehood’s advocates say it would help the economy; its opponents warn that the island will lose its cultural identity and struggle even more financially because it will suddenly have to pay millions of dollars in federal taxes.
“The cost of statehood on the pocketbook of every citizen, every business, every industry will be devastating,” Carlos Delegado, secretary of the opposition Popular Democratic Party, told AP. “Whatever we might receive in additional federal funds will be canceled by the amount of taxes the island will have to pay.”
Turnout was low at some polling places, but that was not a problem 1,600 miles to the north, where tens of thousands turned out in New York City to celebrate Puerto Rico by dancing to salsa music and waving — or wearing — Puerto Rican flags.
That mood largely overshadowed the controversy over one participant: Oscar Lopez Rivera, 74, a former member of the militant Puerto Rican nationalist group FALN. He spent 35 years in prison for his involvement with the group, which was responsible for bombings that killed and maimed dozens in the 1970s and '80s.
The attacks included a lunchtime blast in 1975 that killed four people at historic Fraunces Tavern in Lower Manhattan, less than a mile from the new World Trade Center.
Lopez Rivera was convicted of seditious conspiracy. But he was never charged with any specific bombings, and he has denied participating in attacks that injured anyone. He was released from prison last month after his sentence was commuted in January by then-president Barack Obama.
Corporate sponsors, including AT&T and JetBlue, dropped out of the parade over the organizers’ decision to honor him as “National Freedom Hero,” and Gov. Andrew Cuomo refused to march.
Lopez Rivera said last week he would decline the honor and participate as an individual, partly because he wanted the focus on Puerto Rico’s problems, not him.
Marchers on Sunday included Mayor Bill de Blasio, who for weeks defended his intention to march, but then said last week he was uncomfortable with honoring Lopez Rivera.
Riding on a float, Lopez Rivera was cheered by supporters, some of whom carried signs calling him “our Mandela.” But other spectators booed, including Nanchelle Rivera, 28, of Orlando. “He did not represent me,” she told AP.