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Mandela, Oscar Lopez Rivera, and a Special Day Beyond the Myths

The privilege of knowing both Nelson Mandela and Oscar Lopez Rivera, as men and not just idealized, mythologized figures, has afforded me the opportunity to look beyond the rhetoric calling Oscar “the Mandela of the Americas.” An almost-transcendent vision, humanity, and depth can be found with a few others (Maroon Shoatz and David Gilbert quickly come to mind), already highly political people forced to spend torturous years under stultifying conditions of solitary confinement, decades in prisons despite their love of people – uniquely able to feel, see and call out the true criminals who walk free and continue to plunder the planet.

“Oscar’s centered calm,” I’ve written, “his ability to weigh the personal dilemmas of continued incarceration with the political needs and desires of the majority of his Puerto Rican compatriots, has been nothing short of Mandela-like in its scope and strength… Oscar has become the definitive symbol and champion of an entire people. More than any Puerto Rican, he personifies a special unity which values cultural integrity, justice for all, grassroots participatory democracy, and the power of love.”

It is no mere coincidence that Mandela’s major anti-apartheid colleague and fellow Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been such a consistent supporter of Oscar’s freedom. The Archbishop was driven to provide the Preface to Oscar’s book Between Torture and Resistance (PM Press, 2013) because of the parallels he saw in the cases of those two, steadfastly willing to live their lives shackled to spotlight the deep illegalities and injustices of racism and colonialism. Today it is especially fitting to note that just two days after Oscar Lopez Rivera was able to return to his homeland after 35 years in the colonizer’s dungeons, we can also commemorate the 27th anniversary of the freeing of Nelson Mandela. Mandela himself endured 27 years behind bars, so this special year reverberates in many respects. Let us mainly remember that Mandela did not come out of prison ready to rest in the midst of a complacent population. Madiba, as he is lovingly known among his people, came out to work, and to help South Africans more effectively meet the challenges of the hard work they had ahead.

We can, in our own ways and locales, do no less today. We owe Oscar at least that much. Pledging to carry on the work is, after all, the best way to celebrate his freedom.

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