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The most recent one-on-one with Oscar López Rivera

by José A. Delgado, El Nuevo Día
April 11, 2016

Only when it’s raining does Oscar López Rivera reject the opportunity to go out to the yard during the only hour in the day he is allowed to be outside the four walls of the prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

The rest of the time, it’s either freezing cold or insufferably hot, between eight and nine o’clock in the morning, López Rivera is breathing the fresh air of the U.S. midwest.

López Rivera, who has served 35 years in prison, avoids thinking about how much time he still has left to serve, in spite of the fact that president Barack Obama’s term is coming to an end. His petition for executive clemency has been pending for four and a half years.


When he was arrested on May 29, 1981, López Rivera, a former militant in the clandestine group Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), never imagined he would have to spend 35 years in U.S. prisons.

The overwhelming consensus in Puerto Rico and internationally in support of the release of the longest serving political prisoner in American has not managed to accelerate a decision by president Obama.

After turning 73 years old last January, he thinks that under the Obama presidency the opportunity to be granted clemency and return to his hometown of San Sebastián won’t happen until after the November elections.

In 1999 López Rivera rejected president Bill Clinton’s offer of clemency, mainly because it did not include two of his compañeros. If he had accepted, he would have been freed in 2009.

Once Haydee Beltrán and Carlos Alberto Torres were released, in September of 2011 López Rivera submitted a petition for clemency to president Obama, an admirer of Nelson Mandela’s struggles for the liberation of Black South Africans.

López Rivera spoke with El Nuevo Día by telephone on March 31, after the Bureau of Prisons once again denied the request for an in-person interview.

Who has visited you recently? “My brother and Congressman Luis Gutiérrez were here on March 20.”

What did Gutiérrez say about your case? “We talked about a plan for activities (in support of his release) for September in Washington, including a concert. We also talked about the Puerto Rican government’s debt.”

Other visits?
“Wilma Reverón – co-chair of the National Hostosiano Independentista Movement (MINH) – and Noel Colón Martínez were also here. My daughter also came the following day.”

Did you think you would end up serving 35 years in prison? It’s almost half your life.
“I do not pay attention to the time. For me the important thing is how I use my time on a daily basis. I do not think about time like a prisoner.”

Did you think you would be in prison for 35 years?
“I never imagined it would last so long. I thought maybe 20 years at most. But you come to realize how the system functions.”

Will the window for your release be closed after the elections?
“We can go back to Jimmy Carter. I felt sure that Carter would release the five Nationalist heroes when he became president. First he freed Andrés Figueroa Cordero because of his medical condition. When Rafael Cancel Miranda’s father died, he allowed him to attend the funeral. When things like that happen, they give us an idea that the person is sensitive. Bill Clinton never refused to discuss the issue of the release of the political prisoners. With president Obama, it has been different; he always leaves
the topic ambiguous.”

The artist Lin Manuel Miranda advocated for your release when he was recently with president Obama. Different from other occasions, Obama said the issue is on his desk, which leads some to believe that the issue is already out of the Department of Justice. “I would not speculate. The president and the first lady admire this young man’s creativity. I have never heard of a show that has had such an impact
on the media as Hamilton has had.”

He’s a special kid. “I’ve followed what he has done since “In the Heights.” He seems like a
person who is very sure of himself, really creative, and who loves his profession.”

Previously, film maker Tito Román recorded a video of all the gubernatorial candidates supporting your release. “These are really creative things that have an impact on the media and touch a lot of people.”

Like many, resident commissioner Pedro Pierluisi thinks that now the opportunity for your release is after the November elections, to soften the possibility of a very bitter partisan battle.
“He is going to look for the moment when he will be the least compromised and least subject to attack. If he takes up the issue, he will do so after the elections, because he will definitely be strongly attacked. He is a person who doesn’t like to be attacked.”

On March 30, president Obama pardoned 61 people with drug convictions. As on other occasions when the president grants clemency, people are bothered that he hasn’t released you.
“I have been able to talk with a lot of people who have been convicted or released. I have seen their documents and the crass injustices done to people who did not deserve to spend so much time in prison. I understand the concern of people in Puerto Rico. It was very frustrating for me as
well during the time the Nationalists were in prison.”

Did you watch television coverage of Obama’s historic visit to Cuba?
“It is so very important that he went to Cuba. I think it is going to take some time, but the economic interests very strongly support opening that door. The future is going to be much better.”

It is said that the Cuban government has mentioned your case. Do you think they also called for the release of the Puerto Rican Ana Belén Montes? (Montes was convicted of espionage in 2002 for passing secrets to Cuba when she was an analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)).

“I am sure that Cuba will raise (the subject) or already raised it in their conversations. What she did was great for Cuba. She is in prison for helping Cuba, and Cuba has been faithful to people who have helped.”

There is much controversy on the Island about the Republican proposal to create a federal fiscal control board, which would limit local autonomy even further.
” I am completely opposed to it. It is the highest expression of colonialism and a sign of disrespect for the Puerto Rican people. This is a problem created by Washington. The problem is in Washington and Wall Street. The Puerto Rican people should not accept it. No Puerto Rican should doubt that we can solve our problems. To solve the economic problem, Puerto Rico needs to create an internal market.”

All this reflects a lack of political defenselessness.
“What a fiscal board is going to do is impose conditions that are going to affect even more the economy of Puerto Rico. For Puerto Rico to move ahead there must be an internal market controlled by Puerto Ricans. That board does not at all change the colonial relationship with Washington, but it is
also not an economic benefit for Puerto Rico. We need for them to respect the right of self-determination, and we need not to depend on the crumbs Washington gives us. John Paulson is in Puerto Rico because he knows he can extract huge profits. The same can be said for the hedge funds. What Puerto Rico should do is not accept the fiscal board.”

Do you perceive any interest in Washington to resolve the colonial problem?
“Washington’s practice is ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’.” I do not think they see any reason to make changes in Puerto Rico.”

But could this debate set off a movement for change in the political-juridical relationship with the U.S.?
“I think there is that possibility, if we get it together. It is a good moment for a change. The colonial relationship has become transparent. The Estado Libre Asociado (Commonwealth) was not created to resolve Puerto Rico’s problems. But neither the (federal) legislative or executive branch
is willing to take a position on statehood. I think that (resident commissioner) Pierluisi has been honest in this sense. He has said either annex Puerto Rico or decolonize Puerto Rico. I think there are a lot of
people like him in both principal parties.”

In December in the U.S. Supreme Court, the attorney general recognized that the ELA (free associated state) never changed Congress’ plenary powers over the Island. Isn’t that a vindication of the clandestine independentistas movements that struggled against colonialism?

“Sure. But the problem is that it is still Washington that defines us. But if Washington does not think that (the colonial relationship) is broken, they are not going to move. They are not proposing the creation of a Puerto Rican structure so that Puerto Ricans are the ones who will deal with the

Will the U.S. Supreme Court, now divided between four liberals and four conservatives, solve it? “I do not see how the four conservative justices are going to make a decision that would be beneficial to deal with the status or that they can take a position against Congress.”

You are a fan of the Chicago Cubs in the U.S. major league baseball, and they say this year will be your team’s year. Your defenders say this year will also be your year.
“I hope that early in the season, as they have done, they show that they are a good team. Now I am a Cubs fan even though they are doing poorly.”

What other message would you like to send to Puerto Rico?
“That people should stay strong, as we are a creative people. If we struggle, we can transform Puerto Rico, decolonize it and create a nation worthy of our people. I have no doubt about it. Puerto Rico has enough human resources to emerge from this crisis.”

Read in Spanish Here:

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