History is generally written by the victors. Thus, the American Revolution is recorded as a just struggle for liberation by colonies formerly subject to the whim of the despotic King George III. The “Tories” who supported the king and opposed independence, even though they made up as large a percentage of the population as the revolutionaries who called for independence, are reviled in our text books for choosing the wrong side.
Puerto Rico is today and has been since the Spanish-American War in 1898 a colony of the United States. It took half a century, until 1948, before its people were allowed to elect their governor. In 1952, the US Congress declared it no longer a protectorate, but a “commonwealth.” But while the euphemisms changed, Puerto Rico’s colonial status did not. One might think that a country like the United States, incubated and born in the armed struggle against colonial authority, would show some empathy to those who chose the path of revolution against an occupier. One would be wrong.
I met Carlos Alberto Torres in 1985 after a National Lawyers Guild colleague from Chicago stayed at our home in Birmingham when she visited him in federal prison in Alabama. By then, he had served five years of his 78-year sentence for “seditious conspiracy,” the official charge for engaging, as a member of the Puerto Rican independence group, Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN), the Armed Forces for National Liberation, in revolutionary struggle for the liberation of the colony from the United States. Not entirely parenthetically, Judge Learned Hand referred to the charge of conspiracy as “that darling of the modern federal prosecutor’s nursery,” since it requires so little in the way of proof. Indeed, whatever Carlos was convicted and sentenced for, it was not for causing physical harm to a single person.
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After that visit and over the next several years until he was moved to a more remote federal prison, I was fortunate to see him periodically though, in retrospect, not often enough. Carlos never imposed on me and always assured me that knowing I was available if he needed help was enough for him. But he was far from friends and family and I was his one personal contact with the free world. His father was able to visit him once that I recall while he was in Alabama.
During the years he was in Alabama, his interest was rarely over his own fate. More often, he would want to talk to me about the needs of fellow inmates or matters of concern to the population as a whole. Still, I had the opportunity to discuss with him how he should reconcile his desire to get out of prison with his political principles. He had, at his trial, refused to recognize the jurisdiction of a colonial court to try him, insisting he be treated as a national of a free and independent country seized as a prisoner of war.
The man I remember was soft-spoken, reflective, serious and caring. He was certainly committed to the cause of his homeland’s independence and the betterment of the Puerto Rican people. One can debate his tactical choices and whether independence is the best course for Puerto Rico, though it seems odd that being a colony would ever be a preferable option to the colonized. What no one who has sat down and talked to Carlos can doubt is his fundamental decency and his sincerity. That is something President Clinton had not done before he offered clemency in 1999 to 12 other Puerto Rican political prisoners, but refused to include Carlos.
Despite his more than 30 years in custody, Carlos contributed much. He invested in his fellow prisoners, teaching them literacy in both English and Spanish, earned a college degree and mastered the skills of painting and pottery making, exhibiting his work throughout the US, Puerto Rico and Mexico. But he could have contributed so much more had he been freed sooner. Finally, he is about to be released on parole. Celebrations took place July 26 in Chicago and are planned for July 27 in Puerto Rico, to honor him on his release. It is indeed cause for celebration, but thoughts of what might and should have been in a world and a country that looked at the real individual and not the image portrayed by prosecutors and the media, lend a sobriety and somberness to the joy of the occasion.
Not quite a year ago, I became the president of the National Lawyers Guild. As such, I have the good fortune to boast of the remarkable work done by our members, which is to say to brag about what other people do. So, I take pride in the report that our International Committee presented to the UN Decolonization Hearings on June 21 of this year, even though I did not contribute a comma to it. The report exposed the ways in which the United States maintains colonial control over Puerto Rico and discussed the resistance to that control and the human rights violations that accompany it.
It then went on to discuss the (to coin a phrase) cruel and unusual sentences imposed on Puerto Rican independentistas. It mentioned two in particular who had spent decades in custody, Carlos and Oscar López Rivera, as well as Avelino González Claudio. The Guild, along with many other organizations, had previously passed resolutions calling for their release and, following the presentation, so, too, did the Decolonization Committee. Thus, our happiness over Carlos’ release is further tempered by the continuing incarceration of the other two prisoners. The campaign for their release continues. We will do our part, but we recognize that it will be – as it always has been – a larger movement than just the National Lawyers Guild that wins justice for the oppressed.
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