Oscar López-Rivera’s release from federal prison through an executive pardon granted by President Obama in the closing days of his final term, is symbolic in ways that cannot be fully understood separate from the social and economic challenges facing Puerto Rico.
Arrested in 1981 and charged with seditious conspiracy, a rarely used criminal charge, López-Rivera was sentenced to 55 years in prison for belonging to the Armed Forces for National Liberation, Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional or FALN, an armed group responsible for several bombings in the United States. He was never directly linked to any acts that resulted in death or injury, but was tried for trying to overthrow the US government’s control of the island.
In his defense, he claimed to be a political prisoner and demanded that his case be tried in an international tribunal, something the US government flatly rejected. In 1985, he was convicted of planning an escape, and 15 years were added to his sentence.
Shortly before finishing his second term in 1999, President Clinton extended a conditional clemency offer to Lopez-Rivera and 13 others convicted in the same case, judging the sentences they were serving in prison to be excessively long. López-Rivera rejected this offer because it did not apply to other Puerto Rican prisoners tried with him who would remain imprisoned. The result was a long incarceration that made him one of the oldest political prisoners in the world.
Despite this long incarceration — which included 12 years of solitary confinement — López-Rivera became a model prisoner, whose solidarity and generosity to his fellow inmates earned him widespread recognition. He went from being a common inmate to becoming a symbol of dignity for people demanding social justice inside and outside of Puerto Rico. Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, and Pope Francis have been among those pleading for his release as a testament to compassion, decency, and common sense. Some went as far as calling him a Latin American Nelson Mandela but, for his compatriots he was simply Oscar.
Why do Puerto Ricans celebrate his imminent return to the island? Because it’s a modest triumph of justice in conditions of profound injustice.
Puerto Rico is the oldest colony, owned by the empire that claims to defend freedom and democracy in the world. To make matters worse it’s a colony inhabited by US citizens who cannot fully exercise the rights granted in virtue of that same citizenship. The result is an extreme form of inequity, evidenced by the imposition by Congress in 2016 of a Fiscal Management and Control Board under the PROMESA Act to solve the island’s financial crisis. The unelected board will exercise total over public finances to ensure repayment of $72 billion to bondholders and other creditors while implementing radical austerity measures that shall inflict considerable pain.
That is the context in which President Obama acted to release a prisoner unfairly condemned for demanding self-determination for Puerto Rico. A modest act not only of clemency but of justice, one in keeping with the values that the United States swears to protect but whimsically denies to Puerto Ricans in the island. This is a fatal contradiction that will only get worse as public spending and pensions are drastically reduced. And yet, Puerto Rico will welcome Oscar López-Rivera with joy. A breath of fresh air before an impending storm.
Pedro Reina-Pérez is a professor at the University of Puerto Rico and a visiting scholar at Harvard University.