After 35 Years in Prison, Puerto Rican Activist Oscar López Rivera on Freedom & Decolonization

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Today we spend the hour with longtime Puerto Rican independence activist Oscar López Rivera, who was in prison for more than 35 years, much of the time in solitary confinement, before President Obama commuted his sentence in January. On May 17th, 2017, less than a month ago, López Rivera was released. Today he joins us in our New York studio.

Oscar López Rivera was born in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico, and moved with his family to Chicago when he was a boy. He was drafted into the Army at age 18 and served in Vietnam, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star. Upon his return in 1967, he became a community organizer who fought for bilingual education, jobs and better housing.

During the 1970s and 1980s, he was a leader of the pro-independence group FALN, the armed liberation—the Forces of Armed National Liberation. Its members set more than a hundred bombs, including one attack on Fraunces Tavern in New York City that killed four people. He was never charged, however, with setting those bombs. Instead, in 1981, López Rivera was convicted on federal charges that included seditious conspiracy—conspiring to oppose U.S. authority over Puerto Rico by force. In fact, seditious conspiracy is the same charge Nelson Mandela faced. López Rivera described his charges in a rare prison interview in 2006.

OSCAR LÓPEZ RIVERA: I think that the fact that I was charged with seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States speaks for itself. But the charge in reference to Puerto Ricans has always been used for political purposes. It goes back to 1936. The first time that a group of Puerto Ricans was put in prison was by using the seditious conspiracy charge. And this is—has always been a strictly political charge used against Puerto Ricans.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In 1999, President Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of 16 members of the FALN, but López Rivera refused at that time to accept the deal because it did not include two fellow activists, who have since been released.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Oscar López Rivera’s first visit to New York City since his release last month, and it coincides with New York’s long-standing Puerto Rican Day Parade, which always takes place on the second Sunday of June. This year’s organizers chose to honor López Rivera as the parade’s first “National Freedom Hero.” This prompted the city’s police chief and a number of corporate sponsors to boycott the event, including Goya Foods, Coca-Cola, Univision and Telemundo. As Juan reported in his column for the New York Daily News, a boycott campaign to condemn López Rivera as a terrorist “was quietly organized by a right-wing conservative group in Washington, D.C., the Media Research Center, that receives major funding from donors close to both President Trump and to Breitbart News,” unquote. Well, Oscar López Rivera says he will still march, but not as an official honoree, simply as a humble Puerto Rican and grandfather.

Over the years, one of Oscar López Rivera’s strongest supporters has been Archbishop Desmond Tutu. On Wednesday, Tutu issued a statement in support of his participation in the parade, noting, quote, “Had South Africans and people of the African diaspora allowed others to determine who we would embrace, Mandela would still be in prison and have been stripped of the stature we gave him and that he deserved,” unquote.

All of this comes as Puerto Rico is in the midst of a bankruptcy process and is preparing to hold a referendum on its political future on Sunday—the same day as the parade.

For more, we’re joined in studio by Oscar López Rivera. While in prison, he wrote two books, Between Torture and Resistance and Letters to Karina. We’re also joined by Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Oscar López Rivera, how does it feel to be free?

OSCAR LÓPEZ RIVERA: It feels wonderful. It feels completely, completely different than being in prison. For the first time, I can hear the roosters sing early in the morning. I can see—I can see my family. I can see my friends. I can see my granddaughter. I recently went to California just to spend a few days with her. I can move around Puerto Rico. So it feels wonderful. It feels a world completely, completely different than the world of prisons.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And all of these years that you were not only in prison, but in solitary for a good portion of that time, I’m wondering: Did you have an expectation that you would eventually be freed? And was it a surprise when, in early—early this year, you finally got the word that President Obama had commuted your sentence?

OSCAR LÓPEZ RIVERA: Well, one of the things that I never allowed myself to do was to fall into what I call illusory optimism. You know, so I tried my best to keep my hope that I will come out of prison, but at the same time prepare for the worst. So, on May—on January 17th, when President Obama commuted my sentence and I was told that my sentence had been commuted, my reaction was not one that was expected, because I was prepared for the worst. And it took me about four days to really, really realize that I was on my way out of prison. But it was not a very, very exciting moment when I was told that President Obama had commuted my sentence.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, this wasn’t the first commutation. I mean, Bill Clinton also did this, along with a number of your compatriots—right?—16 Puerto Rican independence activists. But you chose not to leave at that time. You could have left more than a decade ago, two decades ago.

OSCAR LÓPEZ RIVERA: Well, I believe in principles, and I have never left anyone behind, whether it was in Vietnam, whether it was in the city of Chicago, whether it was in Puerto Rico. And for me, it was important to stay in prison while two of my co-defendants were in prison. Both of them came out by 2010. Both of them were out of prison. And finally, on May 17th, I was finally, finally out of prison. The sentence was commuted the 17th of January, but I had to be under home confinement until May 17th. So, it was May 17th when I started to walk on the streets of Puerto Rico and to enjoy Puerto Rico.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Juan Cartagena, I wanted to ask you about the campaign to free Oscar López Rivera, because it really included the—a cross-section of all political persuasions, religious groups in Puerto Rico, and it lasted for a long time. I remember when we were covering the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, there was a very strong contingent from Chicago and other cities that had come to demonstrate at the Democratic convention about the issue of finally freeing him. Your sense of the importance of that campaign?

JUAN CARTAGENA: Oh, critically important. Many of us thought that one last hope would have been the Obama administration. Like we were hoping for a long time that the president, Obama, would actually commute his sentence. We were—I was following how President Obama was eulogizing Nelson Mandela when he went to the wake in South Africa, talking about how, by freeing Mandela, the system also freed itself. And in many ways, we kept—I kept using that, and others kept using that kind of quote.

We also recognized that this—this incredible unity that happened in Puerto Rico is hardly ever seen that many times, right? In my own lifetime, I’ve seen it around Vieques. But rarely have we seen so many political parties, so many faith, union members and activists of all persuasions, of all types, really line up to make sure that Oscar López Rivera was freed, and, you know, have the happiness, the joy and the pride that we have that we finally we were able to achieve that, because, as he said, he’s a man of principle, and to work on behalf of a man of principle has always been an honor.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to our discussion with Juan Cartagena, who’s president and general counsel of LatinoJustice, and with Oscar López Rivera, Puerto Rican independence activist, freed last month after serving 35 years in prison. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “From a Bird the Two Wings” by Pablo Milanés, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest is Oscar López Rivera, Puerto Rican independence activist, freed last month after serving 35 years in prison. We’re also joined by Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice. This is the time here in New York City that the Puerto Rican Day Parade is taking place on Sunday. It is also the day, Sunday, that the Puerto Rican referendum will take place in Puerto Rico. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Oscar, I’d like to ask you about how you see Puerto Rico now, having come out of prison. The last time you were there was over 35 years ago, and now you’re seeing a situation with total economic collapse and bankruptcy, an imposed control board by Congress. What do you see as the situation on the island right now and how it could possibly get out of its enormous crisis?

OSCAR LÓPEZ RIVERA: Puerto Rico is suffering an enormous crisis. Puerto Rico, as I see it, has been set up in a way that there is no way for Puerto Rico to lift itself up economically. First of all, the junta de fiscal control, fiscal control board, has already spent a lot of money without offering Puerto Rico any—any remedy to resolve its economic problem. What it has done thus far is extract money from programs such as the University of Puerto Rico, such as the public education system and other—pensions from workers, that will definitely, definitely make Puerto Rico’s economy worse, much worse than it was last year or the year before. And Puerto Rico cannot—cannot pay that debt. It’s impossible for Puerto Rico to pay a debt, except if every dollar, every last dollar, that the Puerto Rican worker has in his pocket is taken out of his pocket. That is the reality from the economic point of view.

Besides that, we have a government in Puerto Rico, a colonial government in Puerto Rico, that has no way—offer any incentives to the Puerto Rican people. On the contrary, it offers incentives to foreigners to invest in Puerto Rico. Whoever—whoever invests in Puerto Rico is not a Puerto Rican. What happens is that the money that is made in Puerto Rico is taken out of Puerto Rico. That money does not stay in Puerto Rico. It does not help the economy of Puerto Rico. So, my way of looking at it is, Puerto Rico is in trouble economically, and the junta de control fiscal, the control board, that is imposed or has been imposed on Puerto Rico, is really a detrimental—I will dare say, a criminal—act on the Puerto Rican people.

Now, there other things in Puerto Rico that I see being positive. For example, I see the students at the university struggling. I see the university—the students at the university trying to do something to preserve or at least protect the university. That is positive. The youth, the Puerto Rican youth, represent the future of Puerto Rico. And as long as they are struggling and doing something for the economy, doing something for themselves, doing something for Puerto Rico, there is hope.

There is also one—another element that I see. Puerto Rico, as has been mentioned, is going into or is celebrating a plebiscite, another—another colonial act. And to justify what? Puerto Rico is not going to become a state, definitely not. And only one political party in Puerto Rico is going on this plebiscite, is participating in this plebiscite. The rest of Puerto Rico is boycotting the plebiscite. That money, $10 million that will be spent on the plebiscite, could go into at least the education system. We could preserve some of those schools that are being closed. A hundred and sixty-nine public schools are going to be closed. Why not use that money to help those schools? That will be one of the questions that I will ask the governor of Puerto Rico right now. He has been asked. He has no answers.

AMY GOODMAN: I was wondering if we can go back in time to your history, what politicized you, where you were born, how you came to head up the FALN, and then your 35 years in prison, how you survived there?

OSCAR LÓPEZ RIVERA: Well, I was born in a very small farm in Puerto Rico. At age 14, I was sent to Chicago to live with my sister. I entered high school. I’m going to make a little story here, so you will probably see my politics.

When I was in high school in Chicago, the teacher asked the students to define a hero and why that person was a hero. So, I had been—when I entered elementary school in Puerto Rico at age 5, every day we would sing a song that would say George Washington was to be celebrated because he never, never said a lie. OK, so on that particular day, I said that George Washington was my hero, because he had never, never said a lie. And the students started laughing. I thought it was because of my English accent. When I stepped—when the class was over, a fellow student pulled me to the side, and he said, “Don’t you know that George Washington was a liar? You shouldn’t have said that.” So, indoctrination was taking place in Puerto Rico in a very sophisticated, subtle way. I was deeply and profoundly, profoundly indoctrinated into believing that Puerto Rico could never be an independent country, that Puerto Rico could not be self-sufficient, that we will starve to death if the United States will walk out of Puerto Rico. That’s how I was influenced for the first 14 years in my life.

Then, in Chicago, I found myself facing things that I had never thought I would face—for example, discrimination for the first time, finding racism for the first time, a real, real blatant racism, and discrimination when I was trying to find a job. In the military, I also found the same, same practice. Yeah, there was racism. There was discrimination. So, when I came back home from Vietnam—and for some reason, Vietnam changed my way of life, my way of thinking. I came back from Vietnam, and I found myself obligated to find out what was the reason for being for the war in Vietnam. I found myself more sympathetic with the Vietnamese people than I thought that I would ever be. And little by little, I was starting to discover what Vietnam had done. For example, I discovered Dien Bien Phu, how the Vietnamese fought against the French, how they decolonized themselves. I came back to Chicago, and I found a community of Puerto—

AMY GOODMAN: You got a Bronze Star when you were there.

OSCAR LÓPEZ RIVERA: I got a Bronze Star for that.

AMY GOODMAN: What was your brother doing during this time?

OSCAR LÓPEZ RIVERA: Who?

AMY GOODMAN: Your brother.

OSCAR LÓPEZ RIVERA: My brother? My brother was studying. But when I came back from Vietnam, I found a community, a Puerto Rican community, that was beginning to wake up, to demand to be seen, to be heard, to transcend its marginalization. And I started organizing in the community. At that time, the Young Lords were coming up out of Chicago. It was a street gang that became political. A lot of things were happening in 1967. For example, it was 1967 when Dr. Martin Luther King pronounced himself against the war in Vietnam and called it a criminal war. 1967 was when Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted. And he paid a big price.

And 1967 was the first time that I was invited by a nationalist, a Puerto Rican nationalist, to go to his house and listen to some tapes of the nationalists. And one of the tapes—one of the tapes was Lolita Lebrón, who had gone to Washington the 1st of March, 1954. And she said in that interview that she came to Washington not to kill anyone, but to give her life for Puerto Rico. And when I heard that woman say that, I was amazed. I was amazed. And from that moment on, we started working on the campaign to free the five. There were five Puerto Rican political prisoners. And from 1967 on, in Chicago, we started to organize a campaign for their release. By that time, Lolita Lebrón, Irvin Flores, Andres Figueroa Cordero, Rafael Cancel Miranda had been in prison for 13 years, and and Oscar Collazo López had been in prison for 17 years. And we believed that we should do something to win their release. And finally, in 1979, they were released from prison.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you, when you were in Chicago, you helped to start a school, didn’t you, in Chicago, that did—do I have it right? Luis Gutiérrez was a student at that school?

OSCAR LÓPEZ RIVERA: No, Luis Gutiérrez was a tutor at the school.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Oh, tutor.

OSCAR LÓPEZ RIVERA: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: The now congressman.

OSCAR LÓPEZ RIVERA: Yes, yes. In 1972, we started an alternative high school for high school dropouts. I have been involved in the issue of education since 1967. We fought to get schools built in the community. We fought to bring bilingual education into the schools. We fought to open up the doors at the universities, especially University of Illinois Chicago Circle and Northeastern, universities where programs were implemented to allow Latino students, because it was not only Puerto Ricans, we were also involved in helping the Latino population in general. So, those programs still exist, the programs at University of Illinois, the program at Northeastern University and our high school. Our high school is a really, really, really interesting project. It was based on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. And we were hoping that we would get dropouts, put them through a very rigorous educational system, and do it without any funds. What we did, we asked college professors to give us three hours for a class. And we—the students that were at the university, that we had helped to get into the university, we asked them to be tutors. And that’s how Congressman Gutiérrez got to be a tutor at the high school.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about going to prison and what it meant for you in prison. You were in solitary confinement for over 12 years?

OSCAR LÓPEZ RIVERA: I was in solitary confinement for 12 years, four months. And first, from 1986, June 1986, in Marion, USP Marion in Illinois, up ’til 1994, and then, from 1994 to November 1996 in ADX. In ADX, for the first 58 days, I was awakened every half-hour, 58 days straight. So that will give you an idea what it is to be in prison, to be under those conditions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to ask you, in terms of the reasons for your being in prison, I mean, clearly, the big narrative that you’re seeing in the commercial media is this was a terrorist, this is a person who’s unrepentant, this is a person who never should be allowed to be out free again, is certainly not celebrated as a hero. The issue of the FALN’s campaign of bombings that occurred in that period of of time, your retrospectively looking back at that, how you view that campaign and how you feel about it now, and also the criticisms that some people have that you—that the organization participated in the killing of many innocent people?

OSCAR LÓPEZ RIVERA: First of all, yeah, I want to make this point clear. I have never—for me, human life is precious. I was in Vietnam. I hope and I pray that I never—I never killed anyone. Now, we know. We know. But if you’re a soldier, you know when you have shot somebody, because there is a field of range that you’re covering. And on my path, I never saw anyone being wounded or killed. So, I can say that I came home from Vietnam without blood on my hands. I hope so. For me, the issue of human life, human life is precious. Now, I’ve been asked over and over about the bombings. I’ve been asked over and over what took place. I can guarantee one thing: that I have never participated in an act where a human life—where we knew that a human life was going to be put in jeopardy. OK?

Now, one thing that I want to make a very, very clear: Puerto Rico—Puerto Rico, as a colony, has every right—every right—to its independence. To its independence, it has every right. And by international law, Puerto Rico—Puerto Rico can use—Puerto Ricans who want to decolonize Puerto Rico can use all the means at their disposal, including the use of force. I’m not advocating for that. Let’s make that clear. By 1992, by 1992, all of us who were in prison had taken a position that we will not—we will not promote violence, that we will not—we were not going to be active in violence. In 1999, mostly all my co-defendants were released. Up to this time, up to this time, almost 20 years later, there has not been a minute, not a single act, a criminal or any kind of violation committed by my co-defendants. That really should be the measuring point for anything. That should be the way that we should be seen. We left prison. We committed ourselves not to act violently. And thus far, no one can accuse us of doing so.

Now, had there been any evidence against any of us—any of us—I guarantee you that I wouldn’t be here today, because the federal judge, the federal judge we faced, he told us that if the law would allow it, he would sentence all of us to death, if the law would allow it. And that sometimes—that narrative is never talked about. But there’s a narrative. There’s a narrative. Colonialism is a crime against humanity. We have to be clear on that. And Puerto Ricans—Puerto Ricans, to tolerate colonialism, we are tolerating a crime. So, I think that it’s important to understand that we love Puerto Rico. I love my homeland. That’s my homeland. That’s my promised land. And the way I see it is that we have to decolonize Puerto Rico. Now, the issue of violence is no longer one that we will ever entertain or that we’ll ever promote. And let’s be clear on that, because I think that it’s important for people to know who we are, who we are as people, as human beings, because we love—we love our homeland. We also—we also love justice and freedom for the whole world.

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