With the holiday season underway and Eric Holder on his way out the door as Attorney General, many Puerto Ricans are stepping up their calls for President Barack Obama to pardon 71-year-old political prisoner Oscar López Rivera, who has spent the last 33 years behind bars—including 12 in solitary confinement—for conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government.
The holiday season is a common time for such actions, but this does not appear likely this year, as Obama has granted fewer pardons than any other President in modern times.
López is one of the two Puerto Rican revolutionary nationalists who are still in prison. The people calling for his liberation include Uroyoán Ramón Emeterio Walker, president of the Universidad de Puerto Rico; Augusto Miranda, who won the silver medal in judo in the Central American and Caribbean Games and then told the press, “it’s an abuse what they’ve done to Oscar López Rivera, political prisoner. It’s time to give him his freedom”; and singers Ricky Martin (who called for freeing Lopez at the Latin Grammy Awards ceremony) and René Pérez Joglar, “Residente” of the reggaeton group Calle 13, who led a march across the Brooklyn Bridge last fall.
On Twitter, one person using the hashtag #FreeOscarLopez urged Obama, “after you pardon two turkeys, would you please consider freedom for Oscar López?” With Loretta Lynch, President Obama’s nominee for Attorney General, awaiting Senate confirmation, politics could get in the way of approving López’s clemency petition, as the Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Dia noted in November. Current Attorney General Eric Holder was Deputy Attorney General when President Bill Clinton offered clemency to 16 imprisoned members of Puerto Rican revolutionary groups in 1999, and Republicans and the far right denounced him for it both then and during his confirmation hearings in 2009. López was one of the 16, but rejected the offer because it would have required him to “abandon” his codefendant, Carlos Alberto Torres, who was not offered clemency, and to serve 10 more years for conspiracy to escape.
López was sentenced in 1981 to 55 years in prison on charges of seditious conspiracy, armed robbery, car theft, and weapons possession. (Nelson Mandela served 27 years in prison in South Africa in part on similar conspiracy charges.) López says the guns he had were “no more than a weapons collector would have at home.” The government accused López of being a leader in the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña (FALN), a militant nationalist organization that sought independence for the island through armed struggle. The group claimed responsibility for more than 120 bombings of government and economic targets in New York and Chicago from 1974 to 1983. Most were intended to damage property, but three in New York killed a total of six people, including four who died in the bombing of a Wall Street-area restaurant in 1975.
None of the group’s bombings in Chicago injured anyone, and a 1980 Chicago Tribune editorial said the nationalists “were out to call attention to their cause rather than to shed blood.” López, who had moved to Chicago when he was 14, was not charged with participating in any of the bombings, although one witness testified that López had taught him how to make bombs. But the judge said he would sentence López to the “electric chair” if he could, and the lead prosecutor said he “would like to see these Puerto Ricans die in jail.”
Later, López would receive 15 more years for conspiracy to escape, the result of a plot devised by FBI informants placed in his unit.
“These petitioners—while convicted of serious crimes—were not convicted of crimes involving the killing or maiming of any individuals,” President Clinton said in 1999. “The question, therefore, was whether the prisoners’ sentences were unduly severe and whether their continuing incarceration served any meaningful purpose.” In his defense, López argued that according to international law he had the status of prisoner of war as an anticolonial fighter. As colonialism is a crime against humanity under international law, and international organizations had determined that Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, López argued that he should be judged by an international body.
In a 1987 resolution condemning international terrorism, the UN General Assembly purposefully excluded actions by people seeking the “inalienable right to self-determination and independence of all peoples under colonial and racist regimes.” The resolution specified “the right of these peoples to struggle to this end.” The measure passed by a margin of 153-2. Only Israel and the United States voted against it.
Repression of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement
Puerto Rico became a U.S. colony after Spain was defeated in the Spanish-American War in 1898. The U.S. controlled Puerto Rico’s government and gave control of enormously profitable sugar and coffee plantations to American corporations. In 1936, Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of Puerto Rico’s Nationalist Party, and other nationalists were imprisoned for seditious conspiracy. He spent 10 years behind bars. In 1948, the Puerto Rican Senate passed Law 53, the “Gag Law.” It prohibited organizing or assembling for the purpose of promoting independence, writing or speaking of independence, or even displaying the Puerto Rican flag. It was repealed in 1957, but the decades of repression led independence movements to resort to armed struggle.
In 1954, Lolita Lebrón led an attack with other nationalists on the House of Representatives. Shooting from the gallery of the chamber, they wounded five Congressmen. Lebrón spent 25 years in prison. She later said “times have changed… I would not take up arms nowadays, but I acknowledge that the people have a right to use any means available to free themselves.” Puerto Rico became a “commonwealth” of the United States when it adopted a constitution in 1952, under Gov. Luis Muñoz Marin and his Partido Popular Democratico (PPD). This status means that Puerto Ricans are American citizens, but those residing on the island cannot vote in federal elections and do not have a voting representative in Congress. Entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare do not apply equally to Puerto Ricans. U.S. businesses are guaranteed the same access to Puerto Rico as to any state under the Interstate Commerce Clause, subverting the island’s self-sufficiency.
In 2007, Puerto Rican-born federal appeals-court Judge Juan R. Torruella wrote that the “Insular Cases,” the series of Supreme Court decisions in 1901 that defined the island’s status as belonging to the U.S. but not being part of it, had created “a regime of de facto political apartheid, which continues in full vigor.” In a November 2012 referendum, Puerto Ricans on the island voted against retaining commonwealth status by a 54%-46% margin. Of those voting against commonwealth, 61% supported becoming a U.S. state—the position of the island’s other major party, the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP); 33% supported becoming a “free associated” state like the Marshall Islands, which has the power to set its own foreign policy but relies on the U.S. for defense; and 5.5% wanted independence.
Both the pro-status quo PPD and the pro-statehood PNP support López’s release. Gov. Alejandro García Padilla (PPD) and Pedro Pierluisi (PNP), Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress, have both petitioned President Obama for his freedom. López’s release has drawn international support as well. Nobel Peace Prize laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Northern Irish peace activist Máiread Corrigan Maguire, and Argentine human-rights activist Adolfo Pérez Esquivel have petitioned President Obama for his freedom. When Uruguayan President José “Pepe” Mujica visited the White House in May, he urged Obama to grant a pardon to López, and told a press conference that “Puerto Rico is one of the nations that make up Latin America.” Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has called for freedom for López and said that “the Island of Puerto Rico is not alone in its struggle for dignity and independence.” The two causes also received international backing from the UN Special Committee on Decolonization, which approved a resolution this summer that called on the United States to “end subjugation” of Puerto Rico and to release López.
In his speech at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, President Obama said that “around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs.” Archbishop Tutu, another anti-apartheid hero, has said that description applies to Oscar López Rivera—that his crime was “conspiracy to free his peoples from the shackles of imperial justice.”