Last week, events in Puerto Rico continued to reach new levels of tension and emotion as the island’s bankruptcy proceedings began, the university’s month-long strike was threatened by court maneuverings, and the long-held political prisoner Oscar López Rivera emerged from house arrest to assertively spread an anti-colonial message to a people long denied sovereignty.
López Rivera, whose sentence was commuted in January by Barack Obama, had been in prison since 1981, convicted of seditious conspiracy and other offenses as a member of the FALN, a radical Puerto Rican independence group that carried out bombings in New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC, in the 1970s and early ’80s. Because of Puerto Ricans’ universal yearning for national pride, the still-defiant 74-year-old appeals to a broad swath of islanders regardless of political affiliation.
Even though López Rivera was not convicted of any of the FALN’s bombings, he has been branded by some as a terrorist, and several corporate sponsors of this year’s Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York—including AT&T, the New York Yankees, and JetBlue—have withdrawn their sponsorship to protest the parade organizers’ decision to honor López Rivera.
Yet even as López Rivera denied he was a terrorist, pacifically aligning himself with Puerto Rico’s resistance movements as well as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ solidarity, his return home was almost overshadowed by the dizzying pace of events. Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood government, in conjunction with the US-imposed Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB, or La Junta, as it is commonly known on the island), invoked Title III of the PROMESA act to launch bankruptcy-like proceedings and moved to stifle dissent as the looming reality of austerity cuts hung over the island’s 3.4 million residents.
The tension-filled month began with protest on May Day in San Juan, when several streams of demonstrators—worker and student groups, faculty members, a feminist contingent, street artists, and an increasingly politicized middle class—coming from different points around the city converged at the Milla de Oro (Golden Mile) in the Hato Rey business district. The crowd, numbering tens of thousands, came to hear a mix of speeches and musical acts on a stage set up in front of the World Plaza building, which once housed the failed Westernbank and which in April had acquired a new tenant: the FOMB, which had been put into place by Congress’s PROMESA act last year.