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More Than 25 Years: Puerto Rican Political Prisoners

by Jan Susler, from Third World Resurgence, issue 207-208, Nov/Dec 2007

In 1999, President Bill Clinton commuted the prison sentences of 12 of 15 Puerto Rican men and women arrested in the early 1980s, all of them long considered political prisoners and prisoners of war. Convicted of seditious conspiracy (that is, of conspiring to use force against the authority of the United States over Puerto Rico), they had served 16 and 19 years of prison sentences ranging from 35 to 90 years. Most were convicted of being members of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (Armed Forces of National Liberation), a militant, clandestine pro-independence group that between 1974 and 1980 claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings, mainly in Chicago and New York, aimed at corporate, military, and government targets. None of the 15 were charged with or convicted of hurting anyone. As a 1980 Chicago Tribune editorial noted, they had been “out to call attention to their cause rather than shed blood.” Nonetheless, their sentences averaged together amounted to 70.2 years—about seven times the average murder sentence at the time. That is why the president said he was moved to act: because they were “serving extremely lengthy sentences . . . which were out of proportion to their crimes.” 1 Their supporters said then, and continue to say now, that they were punished not for what they did but for who they are and what they represent.

Puerto Ricans have fought and gone to jail for their resistance to colonialism since the days of the Spanish empire. Under U.S. rule beginning in 1898, there have been some 2,000 political prisoners whose sentences added together come to 11,116 years.2 And there have always been campaigns for the release of those in custody. In the 20th century, successful campaigns led the 1952 presidential commutation of the death sentence given to Nationalist Party member Oscar Collazo, convicted after the 1950 attack on Blair House in Washington; the release of hundreds of Nationalist Party members detained as a result of the 1950 uprising; the 1979 presidential commutations of the Nationalist Party prisoners Lolita Lebrón, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irving Flores, and Andrés Figueroa Cordero, convicted after the 1954 attack on U.S. Congress and held in prison for 25 years, and Oscar Collazo, who served 29 years; and finally the 1999 presidential commutations. Puerto Rico has welcomed the former prisoners with open arms, and each has not only successfully integrated into civil society, but has joined the ongoing campaign for the release of those who remain imprisoned.

Today, two of the original 15 pro-independence militants arrested in the early 1980s remain in prison: Carlos Alberto Torres and Oscar López Rivera, who have now served 27 and 26 years of their 70-year sentences. They have broken every record for the longest-held Puerto Rican political prisoners, except one: that of Collazo, who served 29 years. When they and the others were arrested and charged, they immediately invoked international law, which provides that colonialism is a crime, that a colonized people may use any means at its disposal to combat this crime, and that the courts of the colonizing country may not criminalize anti-colonial militants. They thus claimed prisoner-of-war status and refused to recognize the court’s jurisdiction. They mounted no defense and did not challenge the government evidence against them. Neither the state nor the federal authorities recognized this argument. At sentencing, one of the accused pointed out to the court that the hearing was taking place on the U.S. holiday commemorating George Washington’s birthday, and likened the cause of Puerto Rican independence to that of Washington and his anti-colonial efforts. The judge retorted that if the British had captured Washington, they would have killed him on the spot, adding that he regretted there was no federal death penalty in effect, since this would have been his preferred sentence.

During their time in prison, both Torres and López Rivera have endured mistreatment, including sleep deprivation and total isolation. From 1986 to 1998, López Rivera was held in the highest-security facilities in the federal prison system, in conditions not unlike those at Guantánamo under which “enemy combatants” are held, conditions the International Red Cross, among other human rights organizations, have called tantamount to torture. In 1988, he was convicted of conspiracy to escape in an FBI sting operation. His additional 15-year sentence is more than eight times longer than the average sentence for actual escape. At long last he was transferred to a general-population maximum-security prison, only to be moved seven years later to a new, harsher penitentiary that houses death row inmates and the federal execution chamber.

After the September 11 attacks, Torres was segregated from the rest of the medium-security prison population, which puzzled the prison staff, given his spotless record. But they said they were unable to do anything, since the order came from Washington. Personnel made it quite clear that his segregation had nothing to do with his prison conduct and everything to do with “national security” and his being convicted of seditious conspiracy. The Bureau of Prisons uses the same justification each time they deny them something other prisoners are entitled to, like family visits and attendance at funerals.

Despite these hardships, both men, thirsting to express themselves, found art. Never having painted, drawn, or worked with ceramics before prison, they taught themselves the skills and patiently worked to hone them. In anticipation of the 25th anniversaries of their arrest and imprisonment, Torres conceived Not Enough Space, a traveling exhibit of his ceramics and paintings, and López Rivera’s paintings and drawings, as a way to once again call attention to the case of the Puerto Rican political prisoners. The colorful portraits, as well as the masks, bowls, and plates, draw on Puerto Rican folkloric images and draw attention to the island’s rich history, as well as to its continuing colonial status. But beyond that, the works also say to us, unequivocally, “Estamos vivos y coleando” (we are alive and well), and 25 years of prison cannot rob us of our culture or extinguish our commitment to our people and their right to determine their own destiny.

The National Boricua Human Rights Network (NBHRN, is coordinating Not Enough Space, which has already opened in Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Morelia, Mexico, as well as in several cities in Puerto Rico, sponsored by the Comité Pro Derechos Humanos. Not Enough Space will also travel to Venezuela, then return to Puerto Rico for additional exhibitions. The Comité, working nationally and internationally, is actively garnering support for their release. In addition to sponsoring the exhibit, the work includes collecting signatures on letters to President Bush; advocating with religious, civic, labor, and governmental entities to pass resolutions supporting their release; convening educational seminars and conferences; holding vigils, marches, and pickets; and presenting at international forums, including the United Nations.

Jan Susler is a partner with the People’s Law Office in Chicago. Representing the Puerto Rican political prisoners for more than two decades, she served as lead counsel in the efforts culminating in the 1999 presidential commutation of their sentences. She continues to represent Torres and López Rivera.

1 Robert Friedman, “Clinton: Clemency Was Humanitarian Act,” San Juan Star, September 22, 1999, p. 5, citing President Clinton’s letter to U.S. Congressional Representative Henry Waxman.
2 José F. Paralitici, Sentencia Impuesta: 100 Años de encarcelamientos por la independencia de Puerto Rico (San Juan, Puerto Rico: Ediciones Puerto Histórico, 2004).

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