Puerto Rico’s Longest-Held Political Prisoner Just Walked Out of U.S. Prison

Oscar López Rivera was welcomed home by large crowds in the Chicago neighborhood where he once lived.

Martín Xavi Macías

Oscar Rivera is flanked by supporters as he addresses a celebration in Chicago on May 18. (Martín Xavi Macías)

After 36 years as a polit­i­cal pris­on­er, freed Puer­to Rican inde­pen­dence activist Oscar López Rivera received a hero’s wel­come on May 18 in the streets of Chica­go, where hun­dreds con­verged at a wel­come-home cer­e­mo­ny in Paseo Boricua, a Puer­to Rican neigh­bor­hood in the city’s West Side. The pro­ces­sion came one day after Rivera walked out of prison, fol­low­ing for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s com­mu­ta­tion of the 74-year-old’s sen­tence and end­ing his sta­tus as the longest-held U.S. polit­i­cal pris­on­er from Puer­to Rican lib­er­a­tion movements.

That decolonization struggle continues today in Puerto Rico, where social movements are fighting austerity enforced by a U.S.-imposed junta.

The col­o­nized have a right to fight for inde­pen­dence,” Rivera declared from a plat­form fac­ing the crowd of sup­port­ers, some of whom had spent decades fight­ing for his release. Colo­nial­ism is a crime against human­i­ty.” Reflect­ing on his incar­cer­a­tion, Rivera said he’d nev­er lost the hope of see­ing the faces from his old neigh­bor­hood again. His mis­sion in life, to strug­gle against neo­colo­nial­ism in Puer­to Rico, had been renewed, he proclaimed.

Before he was incar­cer­at­ed, Rivera’s orga­niz­ing and vision was piv­otal for Chicago’s Puer­to Rican com­mu­ni­ty. When Rivera moved with his fam­i­ly to Chica­go at age 14, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion had pushed Puer­to Ricans out of Lin­coln Park and into intense­ly seg­re­gat­ed areas of the city, such as Hum­boldt Park. Puer­to Ricans faced ram­pant dis­crim­i­na­tion in pub­lic schools and lived in sub­stan­dard hous­ing oper­at­ed by slum­lords. Rivera began orga­niz­ing in Chica­go in the 1960s after return­ing from ser­vice in the Viet­nam War, join­ing the vibrant Puer­to Rican lib­er­a­tion move­ments that were sweep­ing the country.

Rivera was arrest­ed in 1980 and con­vict­ed in 1981 for charges includ­ing sedi­tious con­spir­a­cy” relat­ed to the activ­i­ties of Fuerzas Armadas de Lib­eración Nacional (FALN), a rev­o­lu­tion­ary group that advo­cat­ed for self-deter­mi­na­tion and auton­o­my for Puer­to Rico, one of five remain­ing U.S. colonies. The group claimed respon­si­bil­i­ty for bomb­ings of U.S. gov­ern­ment and eco­nom­ic tar­gets in major U.S. cities in the 1970s and 80s.

Rivera refused to rec­og­nize any court that treat­ed him as a crim­i­nal. He assert­ed his right, under inter­na­tion­al law, to engage in strug­gle against colo­nial­ism, thus declar­ing him­self a pris­on­er of war. Rivera’s sup­port­ers have con­sis­tent­ly main­tained that his heavy charges con­sti­tut­ed polit­i­cal pun­ish­ment aimed at quelling large-scale Puer­to Rican lib­er­a­tion movements.

Rivera was ini­tial­ly sen­tenced to 55 years in prison and was lat­er hand­ed a 15-year term for con­spir­a­cy to escape after he was tar­get­ed by a plot con­ceived and car­ried out by gov­ern­ment agents and informants/​provocateurs,” accord­ing to the People’s Law Office, which rep­re­sent­ed Rivera. In 1999, for­mer Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton offered Rivera and oth­er FALN mem­bers a clemen­cy deal, but Rivera reject­ed on the offer, his lawyers say, on the grounds that it did not extend to all Puer­to Rican polit­i­cal prisoners.

When Oba­ma, in one of his final acts, com­mut­ed Rivera’s sen­tence, the for­mer pres­i­dent secured the free­dom of the last Puer­to Rican polit­i­cal pris­on­er. Since his com­mu­ta­tion in Jan­u­ary, Rivera’s long­time attor­ney Jan Susler says he has expressed sol­i­dar­i­ty with polit­i­cal pris­on­ers of oth­er move­ments, par­tic­u­lar­ly from the anti-impe­ri­al­ist, Amer­i­can Indi­an, and Black free­dom move­ments. Leonard Pelti­er and Dr. Mutu­lu Shakur are among those still locked up.

Speak­ing as a free man, Rivera addressed a crowd that includ­ed stu­dents from the alter­na­tive high school he helped found, Dr. Pedro Albizu Cam­pos High School, who lined his path with Puer­to Rican flags in hand. Tony Williams, an 18-year-old senior at Albizu Cam­pos, was part of a group of stu­dents that trav­eled to Wash­ing­ton D.C in Jan­u­ary to deliv­er let­ters to then-Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma, peti­tion­ing for Rivera’s release. Williams told In These Times that Rivera’s release was a big step” but not the end of” the strug­gle for jus­tice. It goes to show we can make a dif­fer­ence when we unite,” he underscored.

Bar­bara Rans­by, Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go pro­fes­sor and direc­tor of the Social Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive, called the event a moment of reunion, vin­di­ca­tion, and recla­ma­tion” in an address to the crowd. Glob­al move­ments for jus­tice had not for­got­ten Rivera, bring­ing his name and strug­gle into spaces of resis­tance, she empha­sized. Even if you were not with us, you were with us,” said Ransby.

The pro­ces­sion was speck­led with Puer­to Rican, as well as Pales­tin­ian and queer pride flags. Ras­mea Odeh, a Pales­tin­ian activist and for­mer polit­i­cal pris­on­er, told the crowd that the strug­gles for the lib­er­a­tion of Pales­tine and inde­pen­dence in Puer­to Rico are con­nect­ed by sol­i­dar­i­ty move­ments in Chica­go. He has not just been your leader,” Odeh told the crowd. He’s been our leader too.”

Odeh start­ed her sen­tence in an Israeli prison a decade before Rivera began his. She will soon be forcibly deport­ed as a con­di­tion of a plea deal with the U.S. gov­ern­ment, a deci­sion she made with the back­ing of a move­ment who helped her resist legal per­se­cu­tion. Address­ing the crowd, Odeh declared that Rivera taught move­ments what it means to be prin­ci­pled and committed.”

Like Odeh, Rivera has been smeared in the press. Ricar­do Jiménez, a vet­er­an of the Puer­to Rican inde­pen­dence move­ment and a for­mer polit­i­cal pris­on­er, was upset with the fram­ing in news arti­cles ques­tion­ing whether Rivera was a ter­ror­ist or hero,” argu­ing that the sto­ry is being framed as if U.S. colo­nial­ism is not part of the con­text. The def­i­n­i­tion of what a ter­ror­ist’ is belongs to the nation,” he told the crowd. In Latin Amer­i­ca, we define our heroes.”

Susler was the one who called Rivera to inform him about his com­mu­ta­tion. He was able to sur­vive all the puni­tive mea­sures the gov­ern­ment threw at him to try to break him,” she told In These Times. He sur­vived with his sense of humor, his pol­i­tics and his com­mit­ment intact.”

Susler declared that Rivera’s release is a win for peo­ple across the [Puer­to Rican] dias­po­ra, those who in the face of the injus­tice, said no, this can’t keep going on.’” Accord­ing to Susler, her work to free Rivera tran­scends the typ­i­cal client-attor­ney rela­tion­ship. She sees her­self as a com­pañera de lucha, a con­trib­u­tor to an inter­na­tion­al decol­o­niz­ing process.”

That decol­o­niza­tion strug­gle con­tin­ues today in Puer­to Rico, where social move­ments are fight­ing aus­ter­i­ty enforced by a U.S.-imposed jun­ta. In 2016, Con­gress installed a fis­cal con­trol board which osten­si­bly is set up to find ways to pay back more than $70 bil­lion in bond debt, much of which is owed” to Wall Street cred­i­tors. More than 40 per­cent of Puer­to Ricans live below the pover­ty line, while child pover­ty neared 60 per­cent in 2015.

Now that he is free, Rivera plans to trav­el across this aus­ter­i­ty-rav­aged island and, accord­ing to Susler, will vis­it each one of the 78 munic­i­pal­i­ties of Puer­to Rico. He’s missed his peo­ple,” she said. He is thirsty to hear what peo­ple want and fig­ure out where he best fits in with cur­rent movements.”

Rivera will be back in Chica­go on June 17, lead­ing the annu­al Puer­to Rican parade as grand mar­shal. Susler sees no rea­son why the gov­ern­ment would attempt to bring any fur­ther charges against Rivera. He’s done with his sen­tence,” she declared. He will live his life and con­tin­ue to strug­gle for free­dom and jus­tice for Puer­to Rico and for the world.”

Martín Xavi Macías is a mul­ti­me­dia jour­nal­ist and dig­i­tal media edu­ca­tor based in Chica­go. You can fol­low him on Twit­ter at @mxm_chi.
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