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(Adds quotes from parade organizers, parade kick-off)
By Laila Kearney
NEW YORK, June 11 (Reuters) - A Puerto Rican nationalist, vilified for his alleged links to a deadly bombing campaign, decided on his own to pass up a special award that Puerto Rican Day Parade organizers wanted to give him, hoping to dispel the rancor that had enveloped the New York event, an official said.
Even so, Oscar Lopez Rivera still wanted to march in the annual celebration of Puerto Rican heritage, said Louis Maldonado, a member of the parade's board. This year was the first opportunity he had to do so since being released from prison after serving 35 years on sedition charges.
“The reality is we did not convince him to do that. This was his decision. His decision alone," Maldonado told WABC-TV when asked if organizers bowed to political pressure by dropping plans to give Lopez Rivera a "National Freedom Hero" award.
"He did so because he saw the level of divisiveness that was happening in our community," Maldonado said.
As the parade marched up Fifth Avenue on Sunday morning, there was little sign of the firestorm of criticism that has surrounded the event since organizers announced their plans.
Thousands of cheering spectators lined the route, many of them waving small Puerto Rican flags. The crowd applauded wildly as Lopez Rivera, 74, rode past on a colorful float decorated with leaping fish. He gave a "thumbs up" and thrust a clenched fist in the air.
Organizers expected 1.5 million to watch Sunday's event, held the same day as the U.S. territory holds a referendum on statehood.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was among the public figures who decided against marching in the parade once it was known Lopez Rivera was being considered as the honoree. New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the nation's largest police union, called for a boycott of the annual celebration by Americans with roots on the Caribbean island, home to 3.5 million residents.
JetBlue Airways Corp, AT&T Inc and other major advertisers pulled their sponsorships over Lopez Rivera's participation.
"I think it's good that he declined it because it was entirely distracting from the issue at hand, which is Puerto Rico," Mayor Bill de Blasio, who planned to march all along, said last week. "That’s the only thing this parade should have been about."
In 1981, Lopez Rivera was convicted of sedition and other charges, along with other members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, known by its Spanish-language acronym as FALN. U.S. authorities said the group was responsible for dozens of bombings in the 1970s and 1980s in a campaign to secure Puerto Rico's independence.
Lopez Rivera, who was sentenced to 55 years in prison, plus 15 additional years for a foiled escape plot, was freed in January during President Barack Obama's final days in office.
Lopez Rivera's supporters, including "Hamilton" playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda and other celebrities, view him as a symbol of Puerto Rican nationalism and the campaign to end what they see as the colonial status of the U.S. territory, acquired by the United States after the Spanish-American War.
Critics of the decision to honor Rivera say he is a convicted criminal who helped carry out the 1975 bombing of New York's Fraunces Tavern and other deadly attacks. No one was ever charged in connection with that bombing.
After Lopez Rivera declined the award, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said publicly she would find a way to honor him at the parade.
Currently, Puerto Rico is struggling with $70 billion in debt, a 45 percent poverty rate and critically underfunded healthcare and pension systems. A federal oversight board appointed by U.S. Congress is managing its finances.
Against that backdrop, Puerto Ricans on Sunday will cast votes on whether their struggling island should become the 51st U.S. state. Even if islanders vote in favor of statehood in the referendum, Puerto Rico's fifth since 1967, statehood would require an act of the U.S. Congress. (Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York and Timothy Mclaughlin in Chicago; Editing by David Gregorio and Nick Zieminski)