Puerto Rican Former Political Prisoner: “Colonialism Is a Crime Against Humanity”

Ricardo Jimenez talks about anti-conialism, prison abolition and LGBTQ liberation.

Sophie Drukman-Feldstein November 20, 2017

A group of people hold banners and shout slogans as they stage a demonstration in front of Trump Tower to protest against US President Donald Trump on the grounds that not giving enough importance to provide support aid to Hurricane Maria victims in Puerto Rico, on September 30, 2017 in Chicago, United States. (Photo by Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The dev­as­ta­tion of Puer­to Rico by Hur­ri­canes Irma and Maria, and the U.S. government’s inad­e­quate response, shed new light on the island’s long-stand­ing exploita­tion as one of five inhab­it­ed, unin­cor­po­rat­ed U.S. ter­ri­to­ries — essen­tial­ly, mod­ern-day colonies. The polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sub­ju­ga­tion of Puer­to Rico is espe­cial­ly dam­ag­ing now as the island faces a deep­en­ing cri­sis, fueled in part by human-made cli­mate change. As an indif­fer­ent Trump admin­is­tra­tion looks on, the voic­es of the Puer­to Rican inde­pen­dence move­ment are espe­cial­ly instruc­tive. Ricar­do Jimenez offers one such voice.

You not only have cultural imperialism, the imperialism of controlling other countries, but the imperialism of racism. Racism is the foundation of the United States.

Jimenez is part of a long his­to­ry of Puer­to Rican free­dom fight­ers. Born in San Sebas­t­ian, Puer­to Rico and raised in Chica­go, Ill., he became polit­i­cal­ly involved at an ear­ly age. Some of his first activism as a teenag­er focused on free­ing polit­i­cal pris­on­ers such as Oscar Col­la­zo and Loli­ta Lebrón, who had been incar­cer­at­ed for their roles in Puer­to Rican nation­al­ist struggles.

In 1981, Jimenez and 9 oth­ers were con­vict­ed of sedi­tious con­spir­a­cy” because of his involve­ment with the inde­pen­dence group Fuerzas Armadas de Lib­eración Nacional, or Armed Forces of Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion. Jimenez was sen­tenced to 90 years in prison, and for­mer Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton grant­ed him clemen­cy in 1999.

Jimenez came out as gay soon after his release, becom­ing the first open­ly gay Puer­to Rican for­mer polit­i­cal pris­on­er. Today, in addi­tion to advo­cat­ing for Puer­to Rico’s inde­pen­dence, he is deeply involved in LGBTQ rights activism and HIV pre­ven­tion. In August, he deliv­ered an address at the nation­al gath­er­ing of the queer prison abo­li­tion­ist orga­ni­za­tion Black and Pink. While there, he spoke to In These Times about incar­cer­a­tion, impe­ri­al­ism and queer rights.

Sophie Druk­man-Feld­stein: Could you tell us about yourself?

Ricar­do Jimenez: I’m a for­mer polit­i­cal pris­on­er who was incar­cer­at­ed for 20 years, and the first open­ly gay Puer­to Rican pris­on­er of war. I’m a free­dom fight­er, a per­son fight­ing against U.S. impe­ri­al­ism — par­tic­u­lar­ly the colo­nial sta­tus of Puer­to Rico. Colo­nial­ism is an inter­na­tion­al crime against human­i­ty, and Puer­to Rico has been a colony of the Unit­ed States since 1898.

I’m first and fore­most a Puer­to Rican and a free­dom fight­er — a polit­i­cal pris­on­er. I was a gay man, but with­in the con­text of soci­ety at the time, I couldn’t come out. I was clos­et­ed because of the cir­cum­stances in the 60s and 70s. The gay move­ment was not where it is today.

Sophie: How should com­mu­ni­ties approach safe­ty and justice?

Ricar­do: Pris­ons have a spe­cial role in the Unit­ed States against oppressed peo­ple, espe­cial­ly Black and Lati­no peo­ple. The abo­li­tion of pris­ons ties with the whole lib­er­a­tion of human­i­ty. There are dif­fer­ent ways to deal with the ills of soci­ety, instead of incar­cer­at­ing some­body for such out­ra­geous sen­tences and treat­ing them so inhu­mane­ly while incarcerated.

How­ev­er, I don’t think that you can define jus­tice and safe­ty in one net. I think that each coun­try has to decide how to do it humane­ly. Not every soci­ety is devel­oped the same way. What would work in Puer­to Rico, in Latin Amer­i­ca, might not work in the Unit­ed States. Lib­er­a­tion move­ments are not the same in every place. We have to break that down. How do we deal with pris­ons, for exam­ple, in Puer­to Rico? In the Unit­ed States? There’s also the ques­tion of what prison is to soci­ety. If we abol­ish this, what alter­na­tives exist in the soci­ety that you specif­i­cal­ly are talk­ing about?

Sophie: What is the rela­tion­ship between impe­ri­al­ism and prisons?

Ricar­do: You not only have cul­tur­al impe­ri­al­ism, the impe­ri­al­ism of con­trol­ling oth­er coun­tries, but the impe­ri­al­ism of racism. Racism is the foun­da­tion of the Unit­ed States. That’s not going to change until we destroy what we have now. Racism is far from over. White peo­ple have to under­stand white priv­i­lege and the dif­fer­ence between prej­u­dice and racism.

Do I think impe­ri­al­ism is the fault of this coun­try? Of course it is. Do I see that their agen­da involves the oppres­sion of Blacks and Lati­no peo­ple? Yes. But into that equa­tion, we have to put the exis­tence of the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty. We have to look at how we are not includ­ed in the soci­ety, and how that is a vio­la­tion of human rights. We are talk­ing about a sys­tem in this coun­try that has to be changed. But unfor­tu­nate­ly, white priv­i­lege does not let you do that. Because peo­ple are very engaged in what’s going on, but with­out hav­ing any knowl­edge of what Unit­ed States is.

So, edu­ca­tion is of fore­most impor­tance. Why is Puer­to Rico a colo­nial pos­ses­sion? Because Puer­to Rican his­to­ry is not taught. Puer­to Ricans don’t know that Puer­to Rico is a colony of the Unit­ed States. So we have to see how we as a peo­ple are going to have a solu­tion. How are we going to get the youth of this coun­try, which is the foun­da­tion of any coun­try, to under­stand what is hap­pen­ing here? Impe­ri­al­ism, for the great major­i­ty of this coun­try, is not understandable.

Sophie: What steps need to be tak­en to begin to address racism and imperialism?

Ricar­do: We have to look at the eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion of this coun­try and the pow­er it has world­wide. This coun­try is based on mon­ey, where most coun­tries are based on humanity.

Why is it that this coun­try and its peo­ple are suf­fer­ing and not get­ting ser­vices, and don’t have access to uni­ver­sal med­ical care? Out of all the indus­tri­al­ized nations, only one doesn’t have uni­ver­sal med­ical care. Why is that? And why is it that you still don’t fight for that? Because the coun­try, through the means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, con­trols the thoughts. They actu­al­ly think that you have free press here, and don’t under­stand that the news that you hear on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN is all from the same perspective.

How do we engage peo­ple in the Unit­ed States to under­stand their own exis­tence — in a coun­try so advanced, the most pow­er­ful coun­try in the world, the rich­est coun­try in the world? And then you have some­body like Trump and his cohorts able to con­trol the men­tal­i­ty of this nation. What solu­tions do we have? How can we edu­cate? I think the future would be the youth. And I see the change. I can see it in the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty, which is much more accept­ing. Today, eople are freer to express them­selves, to come out at an ear­ly age.

I know that, because I could nev­er come out the way youths do now. I didn’t come out until I was 45. And not ful­ly out. And there had to be a strug­gle for that to hap­pen, because of who I was in my coun­try — a nation­al hero.

Then we look at mar­riage equal­i­ty. Peo­ple want to get mar­ried, and that’s fine. But for me, we have go to the root of this. Change the def­i­n­i­tion of fam­i­ly. This thing about mar­riage, it’s just about money.

Sophie: Did your expe­ri­ence being gay inform your politics?

Ricar­do: No. My pol­i­tics were defined, first and fore­most, by my anti­colo­nial deci­sion on Puer­to Rico. I became active­ly involved as a Puer­to Rican activist at the age of 14 because in my com­mu­ni­ty I was not accept­ed. My par­ents couldn’t rent a place. I was looked at dif­fer­ent­ly, because of my lan­guage, how I ate and how I cel­e­brat­ed my holidays.

Because of the colo­nial expe­ri­ence that I had, I involved myself in a strug­gle for bet­ter hous­ing, bet­ter edu­ca­tion, for being treat­ed humane­ly. That devel­oped my con­science. I was always not gay — I grew up but I would not accept it. I would say, This is a phase I’m going through.” Lat­er on, I become a human rights activist, and then the def­i­n­i­tion for gay, for LGBT, was a human rights issue. After I come out and get more involved, I get more in tune with myself and accept­ed me for who I am. I become then an LGBTQ activist.

After most of us polit­i­cal pris­on­ers were released, there was one left — Oscar Lopez Rivera. He was released on May 17. So now, the biggest issue for me, besides the Puer­to Rican inde­pen­dence move­ment, is LGBTQ rights. It’s not about accept­ing or tol­er­at­ing: It’s about inclu­sion. We are going to be respected.

The inde­pen­dence move­ment used to be very homo­pho­bic, I have to say. It always has been. But once they found out I was gay, they changed com­plete­ly around. Now, they have tak­en the lead for LGBTQ human rights — because of who I am as a polit­i­cal pris­on­er, because I was for 20 years incar­cer­at­ed, because I’m respect­ed at that lev­el. So, if you can­not accept me for who I am and the strug­gle I am, you tell me I’m not a man, then do the 20 years that I did and see how much of a man you are.

Now, you see an activism in Puer­to Rico that’s much more accept­ing, where big names are com­ing out.

Sophie: What issues do LGBTQ pris­on­ers face?

Ricar­do: It’s sick­en­ing. In prison, gay peo­ple are treat­ed as piece of prop­er­ty. You know, when I was in prison in the 1980s, I saw the begin­ning of HIV epi­dem­ic, what was called the gay plague. I saw peo­ple in prison who had HIV, and how inhu­mane­ly they were treat­ed. There were also peo­ple who sup­pos­ed­ly were not gay, but at that time we didn’t know that one of the modes of trans­mis­sion was intra­venous drug use. So we had oth­er peo­ple who were dying, who were not from that cat­e­go­ry, but also treat­ed so inhumanely.

Some oth­er con­victs and I took ini­tia­tive. We devel­oped a pre­ven­tion and edu­ca­tion inter­ven­tion pro­gram in order to edu­cate not only the pris­on­ers, but also the staff. That became a source of sup­port and a ref­er­ence for a lot of gay peo­ple there, who were being treat­ed so out­ra­geous­ly. Because of edu­ca­tion, we were able to human­ize their con­di­tion a lit­tle bit.

Sophie: Any­thing else you’d like our read­ers to know?

Ricar­do: One of the biggest things is that peo­ple under­stand the plight of the Puer­to Rican peo­ple. There’s no voice from our coun­try. There’s no voice from any­body. Even the leg­is­la­ture, which is a pup­pet any­way, even they don’t have pow­er now.

You have a jun­ta con­trol­ling Puer­to Rico — a hand­ful of peo­ple con­trol the des­tiny of Puer­to Rico. What have they done so far? They cut and close more than 180 pub­lic schools. Edu­ca­tion is in the hands of the rich. We have peo­ple leav­ing Puer­to Rico, and too many in foreclosure.

And, since Puer­to Rico’s a colony, we have no solu­tion, because we don’t con­trol our econ­o­my. Who con­trols our econ­o­my is Unit­ed States, because we can­not trade with oth­er countries. 

I think a lot of the North Amer­i­can Left has for­got­ten Puer­to Rico. Peo­ple in this coun­try must know that Unit­ed States, which calls itself the pro­tec­tor of human rights, in real­i­ty is our biggest violator.

Sophie Druk­man-Feld­stein is an edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times.
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