After days of rumors and disappointed hopes, the Puerto Rican people joyfully received the news that they had been waiting years for: The incarcerated Puerto Rican political prisoner with the longest time in prison — 35 years — is scheduled to be released without restrictions on May 17.
On Jan. 17, three days before the end of his term, U.S. President Barack Obama finally commuted Oscar López Rivera’s sentence.
López Rivera, who turned 74 on Jan. 6, was charged in 1981 with “seditious conspiracy to overthrow the United States Government,” a charge that routinely applies to Puerto Rican revolutionaries fighting for independence. López Rivera was a member of the Armed Forces for the National Liberation of Puerto Rico, a clandestine group that believed in the armed struggle to bring independence for PR. The remainder of his 70-year sentence still faced him; 12 of his 35 years in prison he had spent in isolation, a cruel practice often imposed on political prisoners.
His commutation was part of Obama’s release of 200-plus prisoners. These included Chelsea Manning, who boldly released secret information that exposed U.S. war crimes in Iraq. It was unfortunate that the Indigenous leader Leonard Peltier and the brave Puerto Rican Ana Belén Montes were excluded from the list.
As soon as his lawyer, Jan Susler, told him the news, Oscar thanked his people in Puerto Rico and people all over the world who had demanded his release. His daughter Clarisa, at a press conference from San Juan, echoed her father’s words, saying, “With a broken voice and almost unable to hold back tears, among other expressions, he expressed his gratitude: ‘Today we celebrate the victory of the people of Puerto Rico. My deepest gratitude to the Government of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Thanks to all who made it possible for Oscar López Rivera to return to where he belongs, to his beloved Puerto Rico.’” (Claridadpuertorico.com, Jan. 18)
Campaign to free Oscar
This was really a victory won by the Puerto Rican people who raised the campaign worldwide. The struggle for liberation was welcomed by the most diverse sectors of the Boricua people, from supporters of independence to those backing statehood, passing through all the popular movements — women’s, environment, youth and student, artistic and sports, religious people of all beliefs, LGBTQ and individual activists.
The promise to free him has also been celebrated in all corners of the Puerto Rican archipelago. When some radio or television program begins you will often hear some mention of Oscar’s impending freedom. Activists rejoice and congratulate each other; messages have been received from many organizations throughout the world greeting his release.
It has truly been such a concerted effort that no single person or group can become the sole owner of the joint achievement. The Boricua National Human Rights Network based in Chicago, where Oscar resided, which has offices in several U.S. and PR cities, organized multiple actions with participation of several elected political figures.
There have been many contributions to this effort. On the last Sunday of every month the Women for Oscar demonstrated, both in San Juan and in New York, to bring attention to the case. The effort includes most Puerto Rican artists, including the now-famous Lin Manuel Miranda, René of the band Calle 13, Ricky Martin, Andy Montañez, Chabela Rodríguez and others. There have also been the efforts of dozens of organizations of the Boricua Diaspora in the United States that consistently distributed information at festivals, Puerto Rican parades, organized protests and meetings.
And then there was international support. Cuba, always in solidarity, took on Oscar’s case as one of its own. Venezuela and Nicaragua raised their voices in national and international forums. Figures such as Pope Francis and former President Jimmy Carter demanded that Obama release him.
A petition to Obama signed by more than 100,000 people was delivered in Washington on Jan.11, further pressuring the president as his term ended.
What does it mean for the Puerto Rican people?
Oscar’s reflections from prison have been very important to the progressive movement in PR, including his call to boycott the immense — and illegitimate — debt that is suffocating the population; his call for unity in the struggle for independence; and his solidarity with the prisoner Ana Belén Montes, who is isolated and incommunicado in a Texas jail. These are very key points in the current struggle and deserve wide discussion. By themselves, these reflections are already a legacy and Oscar’s great contribution to the Puerto Rican resistance movement.
On the other hand, that so many diverse sectors of the population have been able to unite in a consensus to free Oscar — whether for humanitarian and moral or political grounds — can be seen and extrapolated to see how this could help confront the urgent need that has priority in Puerto Rico today: the presence of a criminal Fiscal Control Board that the U.S. empire has imposed and that enforces the Puerto Rican people’s absolute lack of sovereignty and independence.
That reality is exacerbated by the existence of two right-wing administrations, in both Puerto Rico and the United States. The government of Governor “Ricky” Roselló wants to impose statehood on PR and advances a totally neoliberal agenda. This includes so-called Labor Reform that eliminates all the guarantees that the working class of the country achieved through years of incessant struggles, and that will impoverish the people even more. And in the U.S., Donald Trump promises chaos not only in his country, but worldwide.
So this year, 2017, promises to be one of unceasing struggles in both PR and the USA.
Although there is the promise of Oscar’s release in May, there is a need to stay alert until he gets out of prison. History is full of prison “accidents.” Unfortunately, Obama, as a proper imperialist, instead of immediately releasing Oscar is making him wait four months.
The newspaper Claridad reported that lawyer Eduardo Villanueva Muñoz, spokesperson for the Puerto Rico Human Rights Committee, “said that he appreciated the president’s signing the commutation [but] noted that Obama was under great pressure and that the people of Puerto Rico must be able to understand the imperial mentality that ‘never wants to give us an absolute victory.’” (Jan. 18)
Villanueva Muñoz “gave as examples the release [of pro-independence fighters] in 1999, given under imposed conditions; and when the U.S. Navy understood that it could not continue In Vieques, they said they were leaving, but only after three years.”