It was a hard-fought battle, but the “Mandela of Latin America”, Oscar López Rivera, is set to be freed, after over three decades in prison. In an interview, his brother José López Rivera says that the campaign to release his brother aimed at showing that he was a man dedicated to the independence of his homeland, Puerto Rico.
During an international gathering of conscientious objectors to war in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2014, Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu had made a special reference to South Africa’s beloved leader Nelson Mandela. Speaking about how years of incarceration and resilience behind the prison walls have bolstered non-violent movements for independence, be it in his own homeland or India, he spoke of Rivera, considered to be one of the longest held political prisoners in the world.
Tutu was part of the international campaign lobbying for the Puerto Rican’s release, which finally bore fruit when Barack Obama signed his commutation in the final hours of his presidency. This news has given the people of Puerto Rico much hope for its own freedom from being a “colony” of the United States.
Rivera will be released after 35 years of incarceration. Twelve of those years were spent in solitary confinement. Without the commutation, Rivera would have remained in prison until June 2023, after turning 80.
Charged with seditious conspiracy because of his involvement in the movement calling for the independence of Puerto Rico, a US territory, Rivera was accused of several bombings in the US in the 70s and 80s. The campaign to release him, however, has long maintained the real reason for his arrest was his political activism.
A Life of Defiance
Oscar López Rivera was born in rural Puerto Rico in 1943, but the family moved to Chicago in 1950. He went on to fight in the Vietnam War. Rivera’s younger brother, José, who has been very active in the campaign for his release, remembers the impact Vietnam had on his brother in an interview.
“My brother received a medal for confronting the Vietnamese troops, but in truth, he had a moment of awakening,” José says. “He saw in them his brothers and not his enemies. He saw in them a struggle against colonialism similar to the struggle of Puerto Rico.”
Upon his return, a disillusioned Rivera became a community organiser in Chicago for the marginalised Puerto Rican community in the city. José tagged along with his elder brother. In the 1970s, they initiated parallel institutions like health clinics and a school for high school dropouts. That was also the time when Rivera became deeply involved with the Puerto Rican independence movement. “He joined the clandestine movement and left the public life. For many years, we had no contact with him, and then in 1981 we heard that he was arrested in Chicago,” José remembers.
The archipelago that includes the main island of Puerto Rico was invaded during the 1898 Spanish-American War, and has since often struggled with being a US territory. Residents of Puerto Rico have US citizenship but cannot vote in the presidential elections; neither do they have a vote in the United States Congress. The 3.4 million residents of the island only have the right to elect a governor. In a referendum in 2012, the majority of Puerto Ricans opposed the present form of territorial status, and the largest share ever sought full statehood. But the idea has never become popular enough to sway a majority of voters.
Puerto Rico has had a long history of movement for its independence from the United States. Since 2000, the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonisation has passed resolutions to expedite the process that would allow Puerto Ricans to exercise their right to self-determination and independence, and to release all Puerto Rican political prisoners in prisons in the United States.
The commutation of Rivera’s sentence was not an act of mere benevolence on the part of the outgoing US president. Obama joins a tradition of commuting life sentences, and he is the fourth president – after Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton – to have freed political prisoners. But what is more significant is that a long-standing international campaign for the independence of Puerto Rico was what led to his release. This included widespread support from Tutu and several other Nobel Prize winners, and most recently, from several members of the US Congress.
It also comes following a severe economic crisis in Puerto Rico that began in 2016. The US Congress recently put in place an oversight board to facilitate negotiations with creditors. Under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA, that was passed by the US Congress, the board could force a bankruptcy-like restructuring process of its $72 billion in bond debt. But the board was viewed as yet another colonial imposition.
Rivera had joined the fight for Puerto Rican independence as a member of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), which had claimed responsibility for more than 70 bombings in major US cities between 1974 and 1983, causing a total of five deaths. He was implicated on a number of charges, including “seditious conspiracy” – the same crime of which both Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were accused.
During his trial, Rivera refused to acknowledge seditious conspiracy as a crime: “How can a Puerto Rican be seditious towards the US state when we never had any part in electing a US government?”
An escape bid landed him in solitary confinement for 12 years, in two of the toughest prisons in the US: Marion, Illinois, and Florence, Colorado. “The lights were kept on 24/7, the walls were white, and food was slid in through the doors, to deprive him of any sensory feelings,” José recounts.
José says that their few meetings during that time were held with a glass wall between them. No letters were allowed in either.
“Once, when I had met him, he told me that the prison wanted to impose loneliness upon him, and so he had to learn to live with solitude. Some of the greatest people in history who were incarcerated had also learnt to live with solitude, and it became a way of life for them. People like them, including my brother, found immense inner strength which most of us do not have,” says José, in awe of his brother.
The Campaign for Clemency
Outside the prison, the campaign to release Rivera, along with 18 other political prisoners from Puerto Rico, was gaining momentum. New York City-based educator, activist, and author Matthew Meyer has been in the forefront of mobilising the international campaign.
As a teenager in the early 80s, Meyer had heard of post-World War ll activists in New York who were mobilising support for the independence of Puerto Rico from the US. As a child, Meyer had travelled to Puerto Rico with his father, who had been deployed to teach English to Puerto Rican youths instead of going to fight in the Korean War.
In the early 1990s, even as the campaigners walked the usual route of marches and distributing pamphlets, a broader campaign was being envisaged, the results of which wouldn’t be immediately visible. It was a call to massive grassroots organising, both in Puerto Rico and internationally, among the broadest possible reaches of justice and human rights.
The attempt was to go beyond the confines of the West and bring to light the struggle for Puerto Rican independence, and its political prisoners, to the world. “Political prisoners have been awarded for their resistance with recognition, and often the goals have been achieved. So the idea was to have the rest of the world thus resonate with Rivera and what he stood for,” explains Meyer.
Meyer reached out to Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former political prisoner Adolfo Perez Esquivel of Argentina, for his support for the release of Rivera and the independence of Puerto Rico. Soon, many other supporters followed. These included Tutu and fellow Nobel laureates Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland and former president of East Timor, Jose Ramos Horta; as well as writer and activist Arundhati Roy, former US President Jimmy Carter, former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the Broadway musical “Hamilton”, who had recently thrown the spotlight on Rivera’s case.
In 1999, as then-President Bill Clinton was leaving office, he commuted the sentences of 11 members of the FALN. But Rivera refused to accept his commutation because it was conditional – he would have been released contingent on his “good behaviour”. In addition, the commutation excluded two fellow activists. According to Meyer, Rivera refused the deal because he was never convicted of the crimes for which he was arrested. “By accepting the deal he would also be accepting the labels on him,” Meyer says. But the release of the 11 activists renewed the faith within the solidarity campaign about Rivera’s release too.
It took 17 years for that to happen. In December 2016, keeping an eye on Obama’s limited time in the White House, over 100,000 people signed a petition urging Obama to grant clemency to Rivera. Archbishop Tutu also wrote to Obama, invoking the words of Martin Luther King, Jr:
Meyer says after 1999, it was clear that Rivera was not “tearing his hair out to get out of jail.” He had become a strict vegetarian, read proficiently, and had in some ways become a transcendent figure in Puerto Rican life.
“He was once a radical militant activist, but today he is considered the father of Puerto Rico, close to Don Pedro. So the campaign for his release was less about the freedom of one man, but more about the freedom of a nation.”
José, on the other hand, is more realistic when speaking of the divided Puerto Rican society. “Because of the US colonial presence, people in Puerto Rico live in a dualism: people believe that they themselves represent negativity, whereas what the coloniser represents is hope and aspiration. Even through that duality, there is a segment that is very active in calling for the independence of Puerto Rico. But Oscar has become the emblematic figure of Puerto Rican unity,” he says.
This unity, José says, was evident in the recent elections, when each of the seven candidates running for the post of Governor of Puerto Rico agreed on the need to release Rivera. Meyer says that since 2016, the solidarity campaign had begun to feel hopeful there would be some positive news, but not until the final days of Obama’s term.
So what happens next, when Rivera is released on May 17? A huge crowd at the airport in Puerto Rico is, of course, expected, Meyer says. There has already been a celebration in Chicago, with 200 people that included, apart from the Rivera family and activists, elected officials and religious leaders.
“It was a moment to reflect on all these years of struggle, and remember my parents, sister and brother-in-law, who died without having seen Oscar released. It saddens me that they could not partake this politically triumphant moment physically,” says José.
José is also unsure of the details of what comes next, but he does plan to visit his brother, along with the mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan and New York City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Both have been campaigning for Rivera’s release.
“The colonialism of the US on Puerto Rico is more evident today, with a board appointed by the US Congress in the face of the economic crisis on the island. We can gloss over or deny it, and this may seem like my personal problem, but colonialism is a historical problem. But if my brother could deal with incarceration for 35 years, I have much faith that his role in the Puerto Rican society will be so crucial, in the road towards independence,” says José.
Even though only a small segment of Puerto Ricans support independence from the United States, it is clear that when Rivera returns to his homeland in May this year the conversation about the island’s identity will continue. Amid a fractured society still in the throes of an economic crisis, and the push to make it the 51st state of the US, Rivera’s role as the freedom fighter, like Gandhi and Mandela, could have critical implications on Puerto Rico’s future.