“It is much easier not to struggle, to give up and take the path of the living dead. But if we want to live, we must struggle.” Oscar López Rivera, 1991
On May 29, 1981 Oscar López Rivera, a Puerto Rican independence fighter and community organizer and leader, was arrested during a traffic stop outside of Chicago. As of 2016, Oscar has now spent 35 years held unjustly in United States prison for his support and organizing for the independence and self-determination of Puerto Rico, a country that continues its struggle against U.S. colonization to this day.
Who is Oscar López Rivera?
Oscar López Rivera was born in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico, but moved to the United States with his family when he was a young man. When he was 18, Oscar was drafted to the U.S. military and sent to the Vietnam War. According to a recent book about his life, “Between torture and Resistance” the Vietnam War was also when Oscar began to become a radical and question the United States government, and also to “see the fragility of life.”
When Oscar returned to Chicago he saw the poverty and oppression in his own community and began to get involved in the struggle for the Latin American and Puerto Rican community, organizing for basic rights like education, housing and healthcare. He also joined an organization fighting for Puerto Rican independence called the Armed Forces of National Liberation (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional – FALN).
What are the Charges Against Oscar López Rivera?
Oscar López Rivera was arrested in 1981, following the arrest and imprisonment of 11 other members of the FALN. They were all charged with and convicted of “seditious conspiracy to oppose the legitimate authority of the United States government in Puerto Rico by force,” essentially with conspiracy to overthrow the colonial government of the United States in Puerto Rico. Although at that point the FALN had taken public responsibility for around 100 bombings of military, government and economic targets in the United States, none of the independence fighters that were arrested were charged with hurting or killing anyone.
All of the sentences imposed, including that of Oscar López Rivera, were extraordinarily long and unjust. Oscar was given a sentence of 55 years for sedition as well as other more minor charges such as transporting stolen vehicles across state lines, or possession of unregistered fire arms. Other defendants received sentences from 35 up to 90 years. Meanwhile, at the time the average sentence for murder was 10.3 years (People’s Law Office).
As Oscar López Rivera explained on the news program Democracy Now in 2013, they were not the first Puerto Rican independence fighters charged with sedition, “I think the fact that I was charged with seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States speaks for itself. But the charge in reference to Puerto Ricans has always been used for political purposes. It goes back to 1936. The first time that a group of Puerto Ricans was put in prison was by using the seditious conspiracy charge. And this has always been a strictly political charge used against Puerto Ricans.”
When sentenced, the Puerto Rican independence fighters also continued to stand by their convictions and refused to recognize the legitimacy of the U.S. government “asserting that under international law, U.S. colonial control over Puerto Rico was a crime against humanity, that the courts of the U.S. had no jurisdiction to try him as a criminal, and that he should be remanded to an impartial international tribunal to have his status judged.” (Peoples Law Office) This stand meant that Oscar López Rivera, and the other Puerto Rican independence fighters refused to participate in the trail and did not provide a defense or appeal their sentences.
Further Injustice Against Oscar López Rivera
The harassment and political targeting of Oscar López Rivera has continued through the over three decades he has been imprisoned in the United States. This includes the 12 years that he has been forced into solitary confinement, where he was denied not only contact with other humans, but also tortured with sensory and sleep deprivation, spending 22.5 hours a day in a prison cell 6’ wide and 9’ long.
In 1986 Oscar López Rivera was also charged with conspiracy to escape from prison, following a FBI and police sting operation. He was convicted of this charge in 1988, given an additional 15 year-long prison sentence and then transferred from solitary confinement in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago to the Maximum Security Prison in Marion, Illinois and the Super Maximum Security Prison in Florence, Colorado. His 15 year sentence for “conspiracy” to escape prison was eight times longer than the average sentence for actually escaping prison (Jan Susler, People’s Law Office in Chicago)
Since 1995 Oscar López Rivera has been imprisoned in Terre Haute, Illinois where he continues to face further harassment as a political prisoner, including a special condition that requires him to report to prison guards every two hours. As of 2012 this special condition had been in place for 14 years. Both in the prison in Terre Haute and before, Oscar López Rivera has also faced denial of medical treatment, denial of family visits, confiscation of his art and art supplies and he was refused the right to attend his mother’s funeral, among other further injustices.
Where is the Case of Oscar López Rivera Today?
Oscar López Rivera is the last of the Puerto Rican independence fighters to remain behind U.S. prison bars. In 1998, U.S. President Bill Clinton offered clemency to Oscar, as well as 13 other Puerto Rican political prisoners. Oscar López Rivera refused to accept the offer, stating that he did not want to leave other Puerto Rican political prisoners that had not been offered clemency behind. Since then the remaining political prisoners have been released, the most recent being Carlos Alberto Torres, who was released on parole in 2010 and Norberto Gonzalez Claudio, who was released in 2015.
After being denied parole in 2011, it is the certain intention of the U.S. government and prison system that Oscar López Rivera will remain in prison until at least 2023, when he will be 80 years old.
International Support for Freedom of the Oscar López Rivera
Ever since the arrest of Oscar López Rivera and the Puerto Rican independence fighters, they have received international support for their case for freedom. This includes the support of international organizations such as the Non-Aligned Movement and CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization, Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Máiread Corrigan Maguire, Rigoberta Menchú, José Ramon Orta, Jody Williams and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, and also the recently released Cuban 5 political prisoners.
Calls for the freedom of Oscar López Rivera have also come from people and organizations around the world, including in Puerto Rico and the United States. As one example of this support, during the 2011 campaign for his parole, the National Boricua Human Rights Network sent over 10,000 letters of support from people in the United Stated to the parole board. City governments, and state and federal congress people have also called on U.S. President Barack Obama to grant clemency to Oscar López Rivera. As well, there are frequent mobilizations demanding that Oscar López Rivera be released, including a protest of thousands of people in streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico on the 35 anniversary of his arrest, May 29, 2016.
“The Crime is Colonialism”
In a 1998 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Oscar López Rivera stated “I have no regrets for what I've done in the Puerto Rico independence movement," … “The onus is not on us. The crime is colonialism.”
For over 500 years the people of the island of Puerto Rico have been fighting for their independence, beginning with Spanish colonization and the landing of Christopher Columbus in 1943, through French, British, and Dutch attempts to control the island, and ending with their status as a Unites States territory.
The United States invaded Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War in 1898, and since then Puerto Rico has been a colony. In 1917, the government of the United States allowed Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship and then immediately drafted 20,000 Puerto Ricans into World War I. However, to this day, Puerto Ricans have no right to vote in Federal elections and have only a single, non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress.
The people of Puerto Rico also face many more devastating effects of colonization including a 45% poverty rate (U.S. Census Bureau) and an 11.8% unemployment rate (more than double that in the United States). Despite years of implementing tight austerity measures against the people of Puerto Rico, today, Puerto Rico is facing a debt crisis that is furthering poverty and desperate living conditions in Puerto Rico, including big cuts to healthcare and education. These horrible conditions are no surprise given that Puerto Rico as a popular tax haven for many foreign and U.S. corporations, especially manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies, who profit tremendously from the huge tax incentives.
The United States has also continued their military occupation of Puerto Rico, through various military on the island. This included the military base on the island of Vieques. Beyond just a military base, although 10,000 Puerto Ricans call Vieques home, the U.S. military used the island as a weapons testing ground and toxic waste dump. According to a U.S. navy brief from 2002, for two decades, the U.S. military dropped nearly 1500 tons of bombs and explosives each year. Even the U.S. government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has documented “Almost 2 million pounds of military and industrial waste—oil, solvents, lubricants, lead paint, acid, and other refuse—were disposed of in different sites in mangrove swamps and sensitive wetland areas.”
Following a campaign and protests, the he U.S. military was forced to leave Vieques in 2003, although they still maintain a military presence on other parts of Puerto Rico, as well as operate a U.S. Coast Guard and National Guard.
Free Oscar López Rivera NOW!
As the case of the freed Puerto Rican political prisoners, and the case of the Cuban 5 political prisoners released in 2014, has shown, oppressed people around the world can and will win when we organize a consistent, creative and unified campaign for justice!
For over three decades, political prisoner Oscar López Rivera has been locked unjustly behind U.S. prison walls for fighting for the independence and self-determination of Puerto Rico. As people who believe in human rights and justice, we must organize for his freedom!
Ya Basta! Enough is Enough! As Oscar López Rivera said, “Agitation, organization, resistance, struggle and love are the ingredients that will guarantee us victory!”
To write Oscar López Rivera:
Federal Bureau of Prisons
Oscar Lopez Rivera
PO Box 474701
Des Moines, IA, 50947-0001
On the 29th of each month the ProLibertad Freedom Campaign also organizes a Twitter campaign for the freedom of Oscar López Rivera. To participate tweet: “@BarackObama I add my voice to the thousands demanding: Free Oscar Lopez Rivera NOW! #FreeOscarLopez”
Follow Alison on Twitter: @alisoncolette
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