January 17, 2017; Washington Post
Along with Chelsea Manning and more than 2000 others, Puerto Rican activist Oscar López Rivera had his sentence commuted by President Obama yesterday. López Rivera has been in prison for 35 years, and will be released in May of this year after decades of advocacy. López Rivera was convicted and sentenced in 1981 to 55 years in prison for seditious conspiracy, and then received another 15 years in 1988 for trying to escape from Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas. Because of the political relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States government, he is widely considered to be a political prisoner.
When López Rivera was arrested 35 years ago with other FALN members who were convicted for a series of bombings, he and the others wanted recognition as combatants in an anti-colonial war against the United States to liberate Puerto Rico, which has “owned” the island since 1898. The residents were made citizens only in 1917, a few months before twenty thousand of them were drafted. López Rivera fought in the Vietnam War and won a Bronze Star, after which he became a community organizer in the Chicago Puerto Rican community.
Given the colonial context that was the focus of their resistance efforts, López Rivera and the others tried to invoke prisoner of war status, asserting that U.S. courts did not have jurisdiction to treat them as criminals, but the U.S. refused to release them to an international court.
Mother Jones reminds us that while some of the bombings for which the FALN claimed responsibility did result in deaths, as they wrote in 2014, “the basis for López’s conviction was specifically the more than two-dozen bombings claimed by the organization in the Chicago area, none of which resulted in injuries. A 1980 Chicago Tribune editorial observed that the bombs were ‘placed and timed as to damage property rather than persons’ and that the FALN was ‘out to call attention to their cause rather than to shed blood.’” Still, he is the only one of those convicted still in prison.
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Over the years, no less than 10 Nobel Prize winners have petitioned for his release, as well as, according to the 2014 Mother Jones report, “the government of Puerto Rico, the American Association of Jurists, the AFL-CIO, the United Church of Christ, and the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries.”
Four members of Congress have called on President Obama to let him go. “Oscar has served 33 years in prison,” Rep. [Luis] Gutiérrez [(D-IL)] emailed. “He is being imprisoned for deeply held political views that resonate powerfully in the Puerto Rican community and beyond.”
Puerto Rico’s main newspaper, El Nuevo Día, publishes letters from López Rivera to his granddaughter every Saturday. Last November, one of the letters read:
The future for me is something unpredictable…Puerto Rico has changed. So has the Chicago of my adolescence. Those nights when i stay awake thinking about my projects, i animate myself by telling myself that, at the end, i have survived 70 years and i have walked beneath the shadow of death many times. If a man has managed to survive this, how is he going to be afraid of the free air when it hits him in the face?
Residents of Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories that have not been admitted to U.S. statehood still do not have voting representation in the United States Congress and do not have electoral votes for president. Bernie Sanders was seen as helping to wage the most recent campaign for the activist’s release.—Ruth McCambridge