Frontier | Vol. 49, No.32, Feb 12 – 18, 2017
LÓpez Rivera, whose commutation was announced along with those of 208 others, has been incarcerated for 35 years for his role in fighting for Puerto Rico’s independence.
The 74-year-old, who has spent more than half of his life behind bars, was convicted of “seditious conspiracy” for plotting against the US. The US government had also classified him as a terrorist.
If Obama had not intervened, he would have remained in captivity until 26 June 2023, five months after his 80th birthday.
Jan Susler, López Rivera’s lawyer, said the prisoner’s release is a huge win in the ongoing fight for Puerto Rican independence, adding that she was grateful that Obama understood “there wasn’t any legitimate reason to keep Oscar in prison”.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, he said he still believes in what he described as the “noble cause” of full sovereignty for his Caribbean birthplace, which is classified as a US “territory”.
López Rivera was born in 1943 in San Sebastian in Puerto Rico, where he lived until his family moved to Chicago when he was 14 years old. He was later drafted to serve in the Vietnam war, and when he returned he became deeply involved in community activism among Puerto Ricans in Chicago.
López Rivera eventually became a member of a clandestine group called Fuerzas Armadas de Liberation Nacional, which argued that armed force was a justified tactic in the fight for Puerto Rican independence.
US prosecutors accused the group of carrying out 140 bombings on military bases, government offices and financial buildings, but López Rivera has repeatedly denied involvement with fatal attacks.
The prisoner has repeatedly insisted that he was focused on actions that did not endanger people’s lives.
“For me, human life is sacred. We called it ‘armed propaganda’—using targets to draw attention to our struggle”, he told the Guardian last year.
The group was dismantled in 1983, and López Rivera and his fellow Puerto Rican independence fighters eventually renounced violence and embraced peaceful reform tactics.
Asked about his decision to publicly renounce force, he said “We realised other tactics to armed force could be more effective, mobilising people through peaceful campaigning. Morally, also, we came to see that we had to lead by example, that if we are advocating for a better world then there are things you cannot do. You cannot get a better world by being unjust yourself.”
In August of 1999, Bill Clinton used his final days in office to grant a pardon to 11 Puerto Rican independence fighters. López Rivera was offered a lesser deal that would have resulted in early release after a decade, but he turned it down because he said he did not believe the US government would stick to its side of the bargain, and he was upset because offers were not made to fellow fighters.
“When I was in Vietnam I never left anyone behind. That’s not my practice, I couldn’t do it”, he told the Guardian last year.
Many prominent figures have aggressively lobbied for López Rivera’s pardon, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu; the governor of Puerto Rico, Alejandro Garcia Padilla; the Hispanic caucus of the US Congress; former US president Jimmy Carter; former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders; and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the smash Broadway musical Hamilton.
Miranda brought widespread attention to López Rivera’s case after confronting Obama during a White House visit.
Some have compared López Rivera to Nelson Mandela, labeling him the “Mandela of Puerto Rico”.
The commutation could have implications beyond López Rivera. Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro said last year he would seek the release of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López if the US agreed to release López Rivera.
Obama has commuted the sentences of 1,385 individuals, more than any other US president.