Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera has served more than 30 years in prison, convicted of seditious conspiracy for his commitment to the independence of Puerto Rico, though he was not accused or convicted of causing harm or taking a life.
Serving a sentence of 70 years, he is among the longest held political prisoners in the history of Puerto Rico and in the world. No other country keeps its political prisoners behind bars for as many decades as does the United States.
Born in 1943 in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico, at age 14 he moved to Chicago, as part of “Operation Bootstrap,” a mass migration of Puerto Ricans to U.S. cities in search of work. He quickly learned English and helped his Spanish-speaking neighbors. Graduating from high school and entering college, he soon had to abandon his studies to help support his family.
Drafted into U.S. Army
Like many young Puerto Rican men, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam. It was there that he began to understand his identity as a Puerto Rican, seeing other Puerto Rican soldiers with Puerto Rican flags on their helmets and talking about independence and self-determination for Puerto Rico. He began to see that he had more in common with the Vietnamese people, fighting for their own independence and self-determination, than he had with the U.S. armed forces. He was decorated with the Bronze Star for his courage and valor.
Worked to improve
conditions in the community
Honorably discharged from the Army, he returned home to find the plight of the Puerto Ricans in Chicago in dire straits: many close friends and neighbors had succumbed to the drug epidemic; the problems of education, housing, unemployment and health had reached catastrophic levels; and the power structure responded with negligence and bigotry.
Unwilling to ignore these unjust conditions, he became a talented community organizer, helping to implement bilingual education; integrate the universities; offer educational programs in the prisons; found alternative schools, health and drug rehabilitation clinics and other community institutions; and convince the government and utility companies to hire people of color.
He came to understand the importance of a people’s self-determination, and also worked for the release of five Puerto Rican Nationalist Party prisoners serving the equivalent of life sentences in U.S. prisons for their commitment to Puerto Rican independence. Learning that hundreds of Puerto Ricans had suffered prison for this just cause, he could little imagine that one day he would become the longest held of them all.
Disproportionately sentenced, torturous prison conditions
In 1981, after his conviction for seditious conspiracy and sentence of 55 years for being part of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, prison authorities began to single him out for more onerous treatment. In 1986, following a government sting operation, he and others were accused of conspiring to escape from prison, and he was sentenced to an additional 15 years.
The government used the sting operation as justification for placing him in supermax prisons under torturous conditions of isolation for more than 12 years, during which he saw his family only through a glass barrier, with no human contact. His granddaughter was nine years old when he was finally able to hug her for the first time. When his mother died from Alzheimer’s, he was not allowed to attend her funeral.
In prison, the other prisoners affectionately call him “El Viejo” (old man). He has taught many of them to read and write, and to speak English. A self-taught artist, his paintings and drawings were collected into Not Enough Space, an exhibit that traveled throughout the U.S., Puerto Rico, and Mexico. He now teaches fellow prisoners to draw and paint. A voracious reader, he tries to keep abreast of current world events. A vegetarian and exercise enthusiast, he works hard to maintain his health.
In 1999, President Clinton commuted the sentences of eleven of his co-defendants after they served from 16 to 20 years, having determined that their sentences were disproportionately lengthy. He offered to commute Oscar’s sentence, on the condition that he serve an additional ten years of clear conduct. Oscar did not accept the offer, as it did not include all the Puerto Rican political prisoners, and since he knew, from his extensive experience at the hands of his jailers, that if he accepted they would never have allowed him to successfully complete the conditions. Under the president’s offer, he would have been released in September of 2009. Oscar has now served an additional 12 years of clear conduct in prison.
Those released in 1999 were received with a hero’s welcome, and went on to live productive, law-abiding lives, fully integrated into civil society.
President Clinton did not offer to commute the sentence of Oscar’s co-defendant Carlos Alberto Torres, also serving a sentence of 70 years, also never accused or convicted of causing harm or taking a life. In July of 2010, he was paroled after serving 30 years, and was also received with a hero’s welcome.
Oscar is now the only one of his generation still in prison.
The U.S. Parole Commission recently unjustifiably denied Oscar parole, ordering that he serve another 15 years behind bars before he would be considered again for parole, when he will be 83 years old.
A petition for commutation asking President Obama, to exercise his constitutional powers to grant Oscar immediate release, enjoys wide support.
Postal mailing address:
Oscar López Rivera
FCI Terre Haute, PO Box 33
Terre Haute, IN 47808