Any student of history could and should be able to communicate that what is placed in one’s school books is far from objective. Historical events walk along the lines of power and influence. In our contemporary society, what is considered notable to tell future generations must reaffirm (and be repackaged to fit the) status quo, even if it appears to be one of dissent. That is why very few people in the United States know about Oscar López Rivera, a Puerto Rican political prisoner for the last 29 years.
There are very few people who could argue that Puerto Rico is not a colony of the United States. In a 1922 case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the island belongs to but is not a part of the Union. Moreover, the U.S. Congress (which only has one non-voting representative from Puerto Rico) can exercise full powers over the possession, including overriding any laws adopted by the local legislative body. This, among other reasons, is why Oscar López Rivera, in the 1960s and 1970s, struggled for independence in a long trajectory of other movements and figures.
Born in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico on January 6, 1943, López Rivera was a part of the massive migration of islanders in the 1950s, and settled in Chicago. By the advent of the Vietnam War, he was drafted into the military and earned a Bronze Star for bravery. Like many other servicemen of color who returned to their communities, he witnessed extreme forms of poverty, substance abuse, and other manifestation of racism and inequality. This motivated López Rivera to organize other community activists and build institutions, initiatives, and programs that still exist today, like the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School, and the Latino Cultural Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Furthermore, he advocated for fair housing, bilingual education, and an end to police brutality and racist practices in public utilities. Following the international spirit of the times, by the mid-1970s he joined a guerilla organization to step up the pressure on the U.S. government to address the colonial question of Puerto Rico.
By 1981, he and other alleged members of the organization were arrested for seditious conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government in Puerto Rico and were sent to prison with disproportionate sentences. All but two of his compatriots were released by 1999 due to an international campaign that persuaded President Bill Clinton to offer them clemency. The remaining two were released on parole. Oscar López Rivera remains in prison despite, like his fellow prisoners, denying being a part of any acts that killed or injured anyone. More importantly, he was never charged with such actions.
What is interesting is the fact that many U.S. citizens are absent-minded about this country’s imperial history, while elevating towards sainthood those whose background are very similar to that of López Rivera. Nelson Mandela, the famed South African hero of racial equality, is a great example. In the early 1960s, Mandela was one of the founders and leaders of an armed guerilla group that took responsibility for multiple bombings on civilian and military installations, resulting in many deaths. He also spent 27 years as a political prisoner of the white, apartheid system that sought to destroy the spirit of the black indigenous population. Mandela was never charged with attacks on human lives, but with seditious conspiracy, just like López Rivera and his compatriots. Ironically enough, President Barack Obama is slated to write the forward of Mandela’s new book while ignoring the plight of his government’s own political prisoners and colonies. Therefore, it is safe to say that if anyone believes Nelson Mandela is a historic figure of great stature and justly represents global struggles of national liberation (which, he indeed, does!), then Oscar López Rivera should also be out of prison.
On January 5, the U.S. Parole Commission hearing examiner, Mark Tanner, recommended to the parole board that López Rivera serve his full sentence (slated for 2023) or serve another 15 years before being released. This was done despite the fact that thousands of people signed petitions asking for his release, including three Congress people, the Archbishop of Puerto Rico, the Resident Commissioner of the island (who does not believe in independence, but in statehood!), and numerous elected officials in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City, and even Haiti. In an act that uncovers the political nature of López Rivera’s case, the parole board never responded to the Puerto Rican Bar Association’s request to be at the hearings, but victims of the bombings that López Rivera was never charged with conducting, were allowed to testify – unbeknownst to his own lawyer until the day of.
Nonetheless, the parole board still needs to make a final decision and could do so as early as February 1. The National Boricua Human Rights Campaign is asking for petition signatures and phone calls to the U.S. Parole Commission everyday, between 9-5pm at (301) 492-5990. Everyone’s voice can be influential.