Mr. Luis Alejandro Molina, National Boricua Human Rights Network. https://boricuahumanrights.org/ (Chicago)
Interview dated 17th Aug 2011 on telephone
Mr. Molina is part of the Network from 2001, as that’s when it was formed, but he was a founding member of the original organization, the National Committee to Free Puerto Rican Prisoners of War and Political Prisoners, in 1979. He was involved with these issues from 1976 and has always been interested in Latino rights issues (ever since he was 16/17 years old) because of the influence of his family background. His mother, in particular, was moved by social justice issues and influenced him. His parents had to go to college a second time in the U.S. as their BA’s from Mexico were not accepted in the States. The struggles for civil and human rights in the university were also rooted in the Latino community. Mr. Molina has lived in the same community for the last 40 years.
Everything has changed as far as the organization is concerned (not just the name). The political context has changed, community-based campaigns have changed (in the 1990s), and there is much more outreach work now. Today the network’s primary campaign is to release the prisoners. Three prisoners are still in U.S. prisons. Right now the focus is on the campaign for releasing Oscar López Rivera, who has just served his 30th year in US federal prisons. The network serves as a center of activity, planning for the campaign (in the US) as well as initiates letter-writing campaigns, prepares newsletters, conducts community educational drives, etc.
1976 was the beginning of the apex of the campaign to Free the Five Nationalists of the 1954 attack on the House of Representatives. 1972-1976 there was a lot of civil society mobilization in Puerto Rico. President Jimmy Carter issued pardons for the Nationalists in September of 1979. Lawyers have always played a central role in the struggle of the prisoners. People’s Law Office – primarily Michael Deutsch and after 1982, Jan Susler – took on the cases. Lawyers had important roles as they had access to the prisoners and could work with them on legal strategies. Lawyers also contributed to movement strategies and to defending the human rights of the broader Puerto Rican population.
The movement was approached by and has consulted with big law firms, but these were not fruitful, as these lawyers could not understand the political approach that was the desire of the prisoners. The political approach was difficult as the prisoners were revolutionaries and it certainly adversely affected their sentencing. But the prisoners wanted this political approach. The group of prisoners changed over the years – many more were added. In 1980, 11 persons were arrested in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago; in 1983, 4 persons were arrested in Chicago; in 1981, 2 persons were arrested in Glenview, a suburb of Chicago, and lots of arrests in Puerto Rico. But even though the group enlarged, there was no disagreement on the basic strategy of a political approach in the legal cases. This is the most amazing fact about this particular movement.
In terms of results, the movement has had much greater success in the release of the prisoners than any other comparable movement (whether of American Indians or Black movements). Until their release in 1999, all 14/15 prisoners were united in their political approach to their cases even though with time both people and events had changed. In Oscar López Rivera’s case, parole has been denied and appealed as well rejected. So the only hope is to use the political landscape, but that is quite bleak. However, the movement finds creative ways to highlight the issue. E.g. July 14 this year when Obama visited Puerto Rico in a fundraising visit for only 4 hours, there were signs demanding free Oscar/the prisoners everywhere “Yes, you can.” A New York Times article and several popular blogs also highlighted the issue.
The campaign has won support from academics, in terms of signing public letters of supports and ads. International and faith-based organizations have also signed these. The National Lawyers Guild has been very supportive, and also ACLU chapter in Puerto Rico. National ACLU has been involved on specific issues such as the 1987 lawsuit to close the Lexington Control Unit (one of the FALN women prisoners was being held here). Jan worked with Dr. Richard Korn (psychologist and criminologist).
But national ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International (AI), etc., did not politically support the movement, as the prisoners were armed revolutionaries (and self-declared ones). As a matter of policy, AI does not take up such cases. In the Puerto Rican community in the beginning as well, it was very difficult to publicly support the movement. So often in the 1980s, the “war on terror” headlines were in the press and there were anti-terror media campaigns. Richard Hahn (FBI special agent at that time) said that the FALN were the originators of terror in the U.S. So at that time the FALN were really unpopular, homes were raided, grand jury subpoenas were served, and the FBI conducted surveillance of educational institutions and people. There was an overwhelming sense of repression in the community.
The Guantanamo situation is very different, as there is no popular movement for the prisoners. The government could do all kinds of things (extra-judicial renditions, interrogations in black sites, etc.), and the people do not claim to be armed revolutionaries but are labeled “terrorists” and therefore dehumanized. The political context of Puerto Rico is quite different because of the colonial repression. At one point, 4 % of the Puerto Rican population was on a list of subversives.
In the 1980s the prisoners referred to themselves as anti-colonial combatants and used UN resolutions on self-determination. The idea was to turn the courtrooms into classrooms about the struggle. Mr. Molina finds it very similar to the Northern Ireland trials (e.g. of Bobby Sands). He remembers a movie on the conflict — Some Mother’s Son — where the people attending the trial wore t-shirts of solidarity similar to what people did in the FALN trials.
The prisoners are alive in the memories of people as living heroes (e.g. 19-year-olds write poems in their honor even though they have been in jail longer than the lifetimes of these kids). There is a need to educate communities about Cointelpro. There is much more movement support today and much more human rights rhetoric because the times have changed. The cold war context has changed in the 1990s and now Latino issues are more about North-South issues now. Seven Presidents are themselves ex-guerrillas and in the 1970s several dictatorships have been shaken off in Latin America. Human rights concepts have more meaning now.
The release of Carlos Alberto Torres (downloadable pdf of supporters on the website) is a major event which Mr. Molina suggests I should read more about.
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