By Sam Levin
The Guardian UK
January 17, 2017
López Rivera, whose commutation was announced with 208 others, has been incarcerated for 35 years for his role in fighting for Puerto Rico’s independence
A mural dedicated to Oscar López Rivera in Puerto Rico. Photograph: Public domain
Barack Obama has commuted the sentence of Oscar López Rivera, a victory for the Puerto Rican independence activist who is considered to be one of the world’s longest-serving political prisoners.
In his final days in office, Obama has issued a record number of pardons and commutations, including granting the release of Chelsea Manning on Tuesday, the US army soldier who became one of the most famous whistleblowers in modern times.
López Rivera, whose commutation was announced on Tuesday along with those of 208 others, has been incarcerated for 35 years for his role in fighting for Puerto Rico’s independence.
The 74-year-old, who has spent more than half of his life behind
bars, was convicted of “seditious conspiracy” for plotting against the
US. The US government had also classified him as a terrorist.
If Obama had not intervened, he would have remained in captivity until 26 June 2023, five months after his 80th birthday.
Jan Susler, López Rivera’s lawyer, said the prisoner’s release is a
huge win in the ongoing fight for Puerto Rican independence, adding that
she was grateful that Obama understood “there wasn’t any legitimate
reason to keep Oscar in prison.
“We have to celebrate every victory,” she said. “We have a lot of work left to do, and now Oscar will be able to join us, and we can work side by side.”
Susler broke the news to López Rivera.
“He said, ‘Can you imagine a better birthday present for my daughter?’” Susler told the Guardian by phone, adding: “He’s a very centered, peaceful human being, and that’s how he received the news.”
In a recent interview with the Guardian, he said he still believes in what he described as the “noble cause” of full sovereignty for his Caribbean birthplace, which is classified as a US “territory”.
López Rivera was born in 1943 in San Sebastián in Puerto Rico, where he lived until his family moved to Chicago when he was 14 years old. He was later drafted to serve in the Vietnam war, and when he returned he became deeply involved in community activism among Puerto Ricans in Chicago.
López Rivera eventually became a member of a clandestine group called Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, which argued that armed force was a justified tactic in the fight for Puerto Rican independence.
US prosecutors accused the group of carrying out 140 bombings on military bases, government offices and financial buildings, but López Rivera has repeatedly denied involvement with fatal attacks.
The prisoner has repeatedly insisted that he was focused on actions that did not endanger people’s lives.
“For me, human life is sacred. We called it ‘armed propaganda’ – using targets to draw attention to our struggle,” he told the Guardian last year.
Protesters call for the release of Oscar López Rivera in October outside the White House. Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press
The group was dismantled in 1983, and López Rivera and his fellow Puerto Rican independence fighters eventually renounced violence and embraced peaceful reform tactics.
Asked about his decision to publicly renounce force, he said: “We realised other tactics to armed force could be more effective, mobilising people through peaceful campaigning. Morally, also, we came to see that we had to lead by example, that if we are advocating for a better world then there are things you cannot do. You cannot get a better world by being unjust yourself.”
In August of 1999, Bill Clinton used his final days in office to grant a pardon to 11 Puerto Rican independence fighters. López Rivera was offered a lesser deal that would have resulted in early release after a decade, but he turned it down because he said he did not believe the US government would stick to its side of the bargain, and he was upset offers were not made to fellow fighters.
“When I was in Vietnam I never left anyone behind. That’s not my practice, I couldn’t do it,” he told the Guardian last year.
Many prominent figures have aggressively lobbied for López Rivera’s pardon, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu; the governor of Puerto Rico, Alejandro García Padilla; the Hispanic caucus of the US Congress; former US president Jimmy Carter; former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders; and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the smash Broadway musical Hamilton
Miranda brought widespread attention to López Rivera’s case after confronting Obama during a White House visit.
“Sobbing with gratitude,” the performer tweeted on Tuesday. “OSCAR LOPEZ RIVERA IS COMING HOME.” Miranda also announced that he would play the role of Alexander Hamilton for a performance for López Rivera in the Chicago production.
Some have compared López Rivera to Nelson Mandela, labeling him the “Mandela of Puerto Rico”.
The commutation could have implications beyond López Rivera. The Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, said last year he would seek the release of the jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López if the US agreed to release López Rivera.
US congressman Luis Gutiérrez celebrated Obama’s decision on Tuesday, saying in a statement, “I am overjoyed and overwhelmed with emotion. Oscar is a friend, a mentor, and family to me … The long fight against colonialism in the Caribbean has had many chapters and we have all put violence behind us. Releasing Oscar López Rivera back to his homeland and his people is a step towards peace and reconciliation and is being celebrated by Puerto Ricans of all political stripes, classes, colors and geographies.” Advertisement
Obama has commuted the sentences of 1,385 individuals, more than any other US president. On a call with reporters, a White House official said more commutations are expected “most likely on Thursday”.