Drums sounded and tears flowed in Chicago, New York, Florida and Puerto Rico on January 17, 2017 when a page in our history was turned and a painful chapter ended: Oscar López Rivera, the last Puerto Rican political prisoner who has served 35 years in a federal jail, was pronounced free and his 70 year sentence commuted.
The decision by former President Barack Obama came days before the end of his presidency. It feels like a ray of light at a time when the US is divided and the future for many seems unclear. What it does signal is that a new chapter for Puerto Rico and its people, on the island and in the Diaspora, is possible.
How It All Began
The Nelson Mandela of Puerto Rico, Oscar López Rivera, 74, was a Chicago community organizer who migrated from Puerto Rico to Chicago as a teen. He was drafted to the Army and fought in the Vietnam War. The experience changed him as it did many veterans. He returned to Chicago and worked as a community organizer and eventually joined the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), a Puerto Rican paramilitary group that fought for the island’s independence. During the 1970s and 1980s the FALN took responsibility for over 100 bombings in US cities including Washington DC, New York and Chicago. López Rivera was charged in connection with the Chicago bombings and seditious conspiracy, an attempt to overthrow the US government. While some of the attacks were fatal, the specific events he was arrested for were not. It called into question his lengthy sentence.
Once upon a time, López Rivera was one of several dozen Puerto Ricans political prisoners. As the years passed, he alone remained in part because of his loyalty. He was offered a clemency deal in 1999 by then President Bill Clinton, but rejected it because it was not extended to all of the other prisoners according to Natasha Bannan, Associate Counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF and a coordinator of the 35 Mujeres NYC x Oscar.
This time, López Rivera will jump into life as a free man. His lawyer has requested that the last four months of his sentence be spent in a halfway house in Puerto Rico or Chicago to ease his transition. Although that step is unlikely because the process to secure it is lengthy, his homecoming will be joyous nonetheless. When he is released on May 17th he’ll first go to Chicago to see family. His ultimate destination is Puerto Rico to settle into a new normal with his daughter and family and begin working thanks to the mayor of San Juan who has offered him employment.
López Rivera’s release is a victory for all of us. In the literal sense for him, his family and friends that worked tirelessly to gain his freedom for 35 years and as a symbolic victory that change really does happen with tenacity. The idea that a community can come together to demand better. In many ways, his incarceration united the island nation. No matter the political stripe people wore, they cast their differences aside knowing that keeping someone imprisoned for their political beliefs instead of actions, was simply wrong.
The other victory is a bigger one with a much larger impact. This man’s plight has brought the larger topic of Puerto Rico and its political status–not just its issues–to a global stage. The fight for His freedom attracted support from Nobel Peace winners such as Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter, Pope Francis and even celebrities like Lin-Manuel Miranda. In the end, you cannot tell his story without telling the history of the island and what brought López Rivera to where he is.
With hopes of mentoring young people and continuing to pursue self-determination for the island, a new energy is arriving when the independence movement, needs it most. “Oscar’s vision for an economically and politically dependent Puerto Rico is all the more relevant and necessary now that there is a federal fiscal control board governing the island, which is strongly opposed by most,” Bannan said. “Oscar has spoken openly about the need to unite Puerto Rico around a different vision for the island, and I know that many are eager to hear what he has to say.”
It also signals that anything is possible when we stand together. “A community united around the liberation of one, or the liberation of all, can never be defeated,” Bannan said. “Our long and sustained work in securing Oscar’s release has deeply united the community and allowed for so many people who may not have otherwise been involved to join the campaign, find their voice and unite with others. And that kind of work and activism can translate to long-term change.”