We are joined in studio by longtime Puerto Rican independence activist Oscar López Rivera, who was imprisoned for about 35 years — much of the time in solitary confinement — before President Obama commuted his sentence in January. On May 17, 2017, less than a month ago, López Rivera was released. During the 1970s and 1980s, he was a leader of the pro-independence group FALN. In 1981, López Rivera was convicted on federal charges including seditious conspiracy — conspiring to oppose U.S. authority over Puerto Rico by force. López Rivera describes his time in prison, his youth in Chicago and how he became politicized. He also comments on Puerto Rico’s current political crisis and says as long as Puerto Rican youth are “struggling and doing something for the economy, doing something for themselves, doing something for Puerto Rico, there is hope.” We also speak with Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of Latino Justice, who was part of the campaign to free López Rivera.
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 Latino Justice.
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 Latino Justice, 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.