Puerto Ricans and other supporters are counting down days until Jan. 20, 2017, waiting to see if President Barack Obama will heed their pleadings to release Oscar López Rivera – a federal prisoner varyingly known as a terrorist, Puerto Rican nationalist freedom fighter, dangerous criminal, political prisoner, avowed enemy of the United States, or a conscience for a people.
López, who turns 74 in January, is serving his 36th year in U.S. prison, currently in the Terra Haute (Ind.) Federal Correctional Institution, on a 1981 conviction for several federal crimes, most notably seditious conspiracy, essentially conspiring to levy war against the United States.
López is a causa célebre in the Puerto Rican diaspora in Florida and throughout the United States, and for residents of Puerto Rico.
His support extends from the capitol of Puerto Rico, where Gov. Alejandro García Padilla; Gov.-elect Ricardo Rossell, and Secretary of Justice César Miranda all have written and called for his release; to the halls of Congress, where López has near-universal support among the Hispanic Caucus members including U.S. Rep.-elect Darren Soto of Orlando; on down to thetable talk in the cafeterías of Orlando and Kissimmee.
The support goes well beyond the Puerto Rican community to include Jimmy Carter, who was president during most of López’s alleged crimes, and who called last week for Obama to release him; U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who made a similar call; the New York City Council, which pass a resolution in 2015 calling for his immediately release; the late Coretta Scott King, who backed his release before her 2006 death; Archbishop Desmond Tutu; the presidents of the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and SEIU; the United Church of Christ; the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda; the Latino Victory Project, the ACLU, and several international human rights organizations, though not including Amnesty International.
A petition asking for his release, filed through the White House We The People program, has drawn more than 108,000 signatures. López also has petitioned on his own for clemency.
His most ardent supporters, including the ACLU, compare him with Nelson Mandela, portraying him as a jailed freedom fighter and prisoner of conscience. Soto compared his efforts with those of Boston Tea Party patriots. Even those who oppose López’s specific cause of national independence for Puerto Rico find him symbolizing their frustration at being second-class, under a political status imposed on the island.
“It’s important because it has a lot to do with Puerto Rico’s identity: as a U.S. territory we’ve been in the crossroads of our identities as Puerto Ricans or Americans,” said Orlando activist Phillip Arroyo, a former Obama White House intern who founded the Coalition for Puerto Rico Justice. “It’s a matter of justice and identity.”
“The overwhelming majority of the people of Puerto Rico, political leaders from all major political parties on the island, numerous members of the U.S. Congress including the congressional Hispanic Caucus, legal experts, the United Nations, and members of the international community have called on you to exercise your constitutional powers to commute Mr. Oscar López’s sentence,” Arroyo wrote Obama earlier this month on behalf of the coalition. “Today, I formally request the same.”
Not everyone agrees. Jay J. Rodriguez, an Orlando activist who is national president of the Hispanic Republican Organization, said too many people, including him, grew up in Puerto Rico being fed what he called propaganda and lies about being oppressed by the United States, and that López became the symbol of fighting that. Rodriguez argued that Puerto Ricans need to seek what López opposed, full statehood. López, he charged, is a criminal.
“Oscar López is not the voice of the people of Puerto Rico; it is our vote,” he said.
Partisan politics – many of the most visible individuals and groups supporting López are Democrats or Democratic allies – also is a factor at the moment. A full pardon or unconditional clemency from Obama [López already rejected President Bill Clinton‘s 1999 offer of conditional clemency] could do as much as anything to cement Puerto Ricans’ fragile loyalty to the Democratic Party. And, unlike solutions for Puerto Rico’s bigger problems such as its economic collapse, all it would take is a stroke of a pen.
But a pardon also likely would be seen by many outside the Puerto Rican community, most notably including the FBI and other officials in the U.S. Department of Justice [who aggressively opposed parole for López,] as undercutting law enforcement and anti-terrorism efforts. It would be easy, particularly for conservatives, to paint such a pardon as a final act of appeasement by Obama.
“Oscar López Rivera is not a political prisoner, he is not innocent of the commission of violent acts, and he is not guilty merely by association,” charged blogger Jeff Ingber in a recent column on TownHall.com, a conservative news site published by the Heritage Foundation. “López Rivera was a FALN leader who organized and personally led numerous FALN bombings, armed assaults, and hostage takings both in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.”
The case of López is complicated by conflicting reports.
Jan Susler, a lawyer with the People’s Law Firm in Chicago who said she is representing him, said that the only real opposition to his release comes from the FBI. And she charged the bureau has long been trying to destroy the Puerto Rican independence movement, that its pursuit of López is part of that, and that it has spread false statements about his case and his own positions. She argued that any suggestion that his release would be broadly controversial would be creating “false opposition.”
“The controversy in the eyes of many people is that he is still in prison after 35 years without having been convicted of hurting or killing anyone,” she said.
A decorated Vietnam War army veteran who lived much of his pre-prison life in Chicago, López was an acknowledged member and alleged leader in the 1970s and early ’80s of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, or the FALN. The armed, Marxist-leaning, Puerto Rican nationalist group was linked to a number of bombings, shootings, robberies and other violent acts in Puerto Rico and stateside, acts which federal authorities labeled as terrorist. The 1975 bombing of the Fraunces Tavern in New York City, claimed by FALN as a retaliatory act, killed four people and injured 60. There were other deaths and injuries in other incidents.
A series of FBI roundups took down the FALN in the early 1980s. López was arrested during a routine traffic stop. During his trial, he was characterized as a leader, recruiter, trainer and bomb maker for the FALN. However, he was never charged with any specific FALN-linked attacks that injured anyone. He was charged with and convicted of seditious conspiracy, use of force to commit robbery, interstate transportation of firearms and ammunition to aid in the commission of a felony, and interstate transportation of stolen vehicles. He was sentenced to 55 years.
In 1988 he was charged with and convicted of conspiring with others for a prison break, allegedly to be done with smuggled-in weapons, grenades and explosives. The escape attempt never went forward. He got another 15 years.
When López turned down Clinton’s offer of clemency in 1999, federal officials stated that he did so because he refused to accept the condition that he renounce violence against the United States. He has since denied that claim, saying he turned down the offer because he wanted other prisoners to be released with him.
In 2011 López came up for parole, but it was denied. Now he’s not due for release before 2023.
López has stated in interviews, most recently earlier this month with with El Nuevo Día, the largest newspaper in Puerto Rico, that his participation in the FALN did not result in anyone getting hurt or killed, and that he’d never even heard of the Fraunces Tavern before he read about its bombing. He also told the newspaper that he has personally sworn off violent methods.
He also contested that the U.S. government has any valid reason to imprison him, arguing that Puerto Rico is an occupied colony and that he is strictly a political prisoner of that situation.
“President Obama—who has spoken directly about Nelson Mandela—must understand that no Puerto Rican can seditiously conspire against the U.S. government because colonialism is a crime against humanity,” López said in the English translation of the story El Nuevo Día published Dec. 3. “International law makes that very clear. Every colonized person has the right to exercise his or her free will and independence, using all available methods, including violence.”
In 1998 he told the Associated Press he had no regrets.
“I cannot undo what’s done,” López was quoted as saying. “The whole thing of contrition, atonement, I have problems with that.”