PAUL DOBSON writes on the life, struggle and release of Oscar Lopez Rivera, the Puerto Rican freedom fighter and longest-ever held political prisoner anywhere in the world
FORMER president Barack Obama has liberated some high-profile inmates of the US prison system, including the Cuban Five and Chelsea Manning. However, in the same decree as Manning there was another man promised his long-due freedom who didn’t make quite so many headlines.
He is one of the most important modern-day anti-colonial fighters, a flag bearer of the struggle of an entire continent and a man who has been described as “Latin America’s Mandela.”
Little is known in the west of Puerto Rican independence fighter Oscar Lopez Rivera, but for Latin American patriots, anti-imperialists and those who today are constructing another, better world, he is a household name.
His 36-year imprisonment in the US for his role in the struggle to overthrow their colonial rule in the small Caribbean island holds symbolic importance for all Latin Americans. It is a relic of an outdated, exploitative relationship between the US and their “backyard” which is being thrown out to the dustbin of history.
As the longest standing political prisoner in the world, millions have called for his release including 10 Nobel Peace Prize winners; US politicians such as Jimmy Carter and Bernie Sanders; musicians such as Grammy winners Calle 13, Andy Montanez, Chucho Avellanet and Ricky Martin; film producer Jacobo Morales; novelists; journalists; Major League Baseball players; Archbishop Desmond Tutu and even Pope Francis.
Rivera was imprisoned in 1981 for 55 years (which was later extended to 70) but is due to be released on May 17 after Obama commuted his sentence.
His crime? “Seditious conspiracy” and belonging to the Puerto Rican National Liberation Armed Forces (FALN), dedicated to fighting for the self-determination of Puerto Rican people and against one of the longest standing colonial rules.
Puerto Rico has been a US colony since 1898, when, following a failed attempt to buy the island off the Spanish, it was ceded it the US along with Guam and the Philippines as part of the culmination of the US-Spanish War. Spain’s sovereign interests over Cuba were also relinquished in this agreement.
Despite reforms giving Puerto Ricans the right to natural US citizenship (1917) and to elect their own Governor (1947), Puerto Rico continued to be part of the US.
The economic, political, and social impact of colonial rule on Puerto Rico has been devastating. Atrocities such as the 1948 Gag law which outlawed all national symbols, songs, and culture; the Jayuya uprising and Utuado massacre in the 1950s; severe economic exploitation and a dual-society for Spanish speaking dark skinned Latinos and white US invaders paved the way for some Puerto Ricans to choose the path of armed insurrection in their efforts to shake off the shackles of repression. A 2012 consultative vote showed 54 per cent support for a change in status.
Under these material conditions the FALN, a Marxist-Leninist underground vanguard organisation which used direct action both in Puerto Rico and on US soil, was born in 1974.
As soldiers in an anti-colonial struggle, those captured, including Rivera, invoked the Geneva Agreement and declared themselves to be prisoners of war. Such appeals fell on deaf ears.
Ironically, Rivera, who moved to Chicago at a young age and was influential in standing up for the large and hyper-exploited Latino working-class community, was drafted to defend America’s imperialist interests in Vietnam, where he won a Bronze award for heroic service. His experience of US colonial barbarism in Vietnam only deepened the anti-colonial sentiment which ran through his blood.
Rivera’s commutation is a hugely symbolic victory for the peoples of Latin America. Unsurprisingly, leaders such as Hugo Chavez, Nicolas Maduro, Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega had been some of the most vocal in pressing for Rivera’s release.
Since Jose Marti’s proclamation to fight for Puerto Rican independence at the foundation of Cuba’s Revolutionary Party in 1892, Cuba’s and Puerto Rico’s paths have been entwined ever since.
Revolutionary Cuba has pressed for Puerto Rican independence in the UN Decolonisation Committee with 38 resolutions passed since 1970, with the most recent of these (2012) calling on the US government to release all political prisoners. It was blatantly ignored.
Venezuela has also championed Rivera’s case on numerous occasions, with Maduro saying: “his only crime was to want the independence of Puerto Rico […] to defend the beautiful banner of Puerto Rico with its unitary star of dignity.”
Following Obama’s announcement, prisoner 87651-04’s daughter, Clarisa Lopez Ramos, told reporters: “My father told me how grateful he was to — and was very emphatic that I manifest it publicly — all the Puerto Rican people, the Latin American people, and especially to Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.”
“Whatever time I have left in this world I dedicate to work and fight to help solve the biggest problem we face: the colonial status of Puerto Rico” pronounced Rivera on his 74th birthday just before Obama’s decree.
“If we dare to live and if we dare to fight, we can eradicate colonialism and transform our beloved homeland into the Edenic garden it has the potential to be and live as free people without colonial chains.”
Questions remain for Rivera with the handover of power to Donald Trump. Sources inside the Republican Party were quick to express horror at Obama’s decision and in some ways Rivera represents everything that Trump has attacked.
Why did Obama wait so long to commute his sentence? Will Trump reverse the order? These are questions that only time will answer.
But what is certain is that until Rivera is back in the arms of his family and comrades, nothing can be taken for granted and until Puerto Rico is a free, independent nation, the cancer of colonialism persists on the doorstep of the most powerful nation on Earth.