Parades should be uncomplicated affairs: floats, marching bands and baton twirlers. In New York City, few things are that simple — especially for the Puerto Rican Day Parade, an annual event that has seen its share of violence, graft and mismanagement.
This year, the parade, which will travel up Fifth Avenue on June 11, has become embroiled in a political controversy that may have cost it one major sponsor, and put some of the city’s top public officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, in an awkward position.
At issue is the parade’s decision earlier this month to honor the Puerto Rico nationalist Oscar López Rivera, who was freed on Wednesday after having served more than 35 years in prison.
Parade officials said they would designate Mr. López Rivera — a Puerto Rican militant associated with a group that carried out a deadly campaign of bombings in New York and other cities in the 1970s and 1980s — a National Freedom Hero, the first time they have made such a designation.
The militant group F.A.L.N., the Spanish acronym for the Armed Forces of National Liberation, thought of itself as waging war with the United States to win independence for Puerto Rico. Its most deadly bombing was in 1975 at Fraunces Tavern in Lower Manhattan, a blast that killed four and injured scores. No one has ever been charged with carrying out the bombing.
Mr. López Rivera was serving a lengthy sentence for his activities with F.A.L.N., including transportation of firearms with the intent to commit violent crimes, and transportation of explosives with intent to kill and injure people and to destroy government property. He was never charged with carrying out acts of violence.
After his sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama in January, Mr. López Rivera was moved from a federal penitentiary in Indiana to house arrest in Puerto Rico, until his release on Wednesday to the cheers of supporters on the island, where many consider him to have been a political prisoner.
Speaking after his release, Mr. López Rivera railed against capitalism and gentrification and thanked the leftist governments of Venezuela and Cuba that supported him while he was in prison. He also denied taking part in any action that took human life. He added that the days of armed revolution are long past. “I have always said that human life is sacred,” he said.
“Let me say this: We are a colonized people, and according to international law, that says all colonized people have a right to struggle for its independence using all methods within reach, including force,” Mr. López Rivera said. “That is a right.”
He also said that it was wrong to call him a terrorist. “I do not have blood on my hands, and that’s why I cannot be a terrorist,” he said.
Mr. López Rivera said that he would accept the invitation of organizers in New York to march at the head of the parade. Mr. de Blasio, who is running for re-election in a city with a large bloc of Puerto Rican and Hispanic voters, said on Wednesday that he, too, intended to march in the parade.
CreditEd Bailey/Associated Press
“The organization he was affiliated with did things I don’t agree with, obviously, and they were illegal,” Mr. de Blasio said, at an unrelated news conference in Queens. “All things considered, I understand why so many Puerto Ricans in this city respect that he fought for Puerto Rico, in their eyes. I don’t agree with the way he did it. But he did serve his time.”
In 1999, Mr. López Rivera turned down an offer from President Bill Clinton to have his sentenced reduced. His lawyer said at the time that he refused the clemency offer because it did not include all of the group’s members still in jail. One of the conditions for accepting the clemency then was that the militants renounce the use of violence.
“Two presidents, two attorney generals gave him a pardon because he had renounced violence,” Mr. de Blasio said. “I’m comfortable that he served his time, has made his statement clear, and let’s move on.”
Among those not so willing to move on is Joseph F. Connor, 51, who had just turned 9 when his father, Frank Connor, was killed in the Fraunces Tavern bombing.
“My father was murdered by terrorists, and his terrorists were released and offered clemency,” Mr. Connor said, referring to a group of F.A.L.N. militants who were freed in the late 1990s at the time that Mr. López Rivera opted to remain in jail. “His life was valued less than these political agendas that, in my view, are driving all this stuff.”
The parade’s honoring of Mr. López Rivera reflects New York’s distinctive politics. Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council speaker who is Puerto Rican, has long championed his cause, and flew to Puerto Rico to be with Mr. López Rivera on Wednesday.
The parade, which is in its 60th year, has been dogged by accusations of financial misdealing and mismanagement, investigations and at least two interventions by state authorities. The most recent came in 2014, when the state attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, removed the organization’s leadership, making way for a new board of directors with Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez, a former secretary of state, as chairwoman.
The parade has also been marred by violence. In 2000, groups of young men gathered in Central Park after the parade and attacked dozens of women, dousing them with beer, groping them and tearing off their clothing, while the police mostly stood by.
It was not immediately clear why one of the parade’s long-running sponsors, Goya Foods, pulled its support.
“We made a business decision not to sponsor the parade this year,” said Rafael Toro, a Goya spokesman. Asked if the decision was related to Mr. López Rivera’s participation, Mr. Toro said, “I think the important thing is that this year we’re not participating in the parade.”
Spokesmen for City Hall and the parade organization refused to make Ms. Cortés-Vázquez available for an interview.
Mr. López Rivera insisted that Mr. Connor and other relatives of victims of F.A.L.N. bombings had been fed “lies” by the F.B.I. He also said that he recalled seeing Mr. Connor and others when they appeared with an agent at a parole hearing in 2011 to ask that he not be released.
“At no time did they show any respect towards me,” Mr. López Rivera said. “If you don’t respect me, why should I reciprocate? I wasn’t there to tell them, ‘Hey, listen, I’m sorry.’ That’s not me.”