Rivera, a Puerto Rican independence activist who has been imprisoned since 1981, will walk free this May after having his sentence commuted by outgoing President Obama.
During his last week in office, outgoing President Barack Obama announced the commutation of over two hundred federal prisoners, bringing Obama’s total number of commutations granted while President to 1,385. Though the most famous and controversial of these pardons was the commutation of military whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s sentence, Obama also recently commuted the sentence of one of the nation’s longest-held political prisoners, Oscar López Rivera. López has been held at a federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas for nearly 35 years, a sentence that dwarfs those of other well-known political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela. López, an activist for Puerto Rican independence, was convicted in 1981 on conspiracy charges due to his association and work with the militant group Las Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (the Armed Forces for National Liberation), known in the US by its acronym FALN. However, thanks to Obama’s commutation of his sentence, López will be released on May 17th of this year as opposed to his pre-commutation release date in the year 2052. If his sentence had not been commuted, the now 74-year-old would have likely died in prison.
López’ imprisonment has been a point of controversy for decades as well as a rallying cry for the Puerto Rican independence movement. Born in Puerto Rico in 1943, he served in the Vietnam War on behalf of the United States where he was decorated for his valor in combat. Upon returning from military service, López settled in Chicago where his family had relocated. There he became an activist for the liberation of Puerto Rico from US colonial rule where he orchestrated and participated in acts of civil disobedience and “pacifist militancy.” He joined FALN in 1976 where he continued to fight for Puerto Rican independence up until his capture by the FBI in 1981.
After his capture, López declared himself a “prisoner of war,” arguing that he was protected from prosecution as he was arrested for resisting colonial occupation. Though López’ right to avoid prosecution under this rationale is ostensibly protected by the first protocol of the 1949 Geneva Convention, the US government failed to recognize it as such and sentenced him to 55 years in federal prison. Not long after entering federal prison, López and 12 other FALN activists were convicted for an alleged escape attempt that added another 15 years to López’ sentence, bringing its total length to 70 years. López has served 12 years of sentence in solitary confinement. Leaders from throughout the world, including Bernie Sanders, Desmond Tutu, and leaders from various Latin American nations, have demanded López´release in recent years as have several human rights organizations.
Though the news of López’ imminent release will likely galvanize activists working for Puerto Rico’s independence, it is unlikely that it will do much to change the situation in which the island territory finds itself. Puerto Rico has been a US territory since 1898 and, as all other US territories, its citizens are politically disenfranchised at the national level as they cannot vote in national elections and have no representation in the US Congress. A 2012 referendum showed that a majority (54%) of Puerto Ricans disagreed with the “present form of territorial status,” though that number has likely increased in recent years due to a severe economic crisis on the island that led its local government to default on its debt in May of last year. Given their limited representation over their own affairs, sentiments that the US establishment and private corporations are exploiting the island’s economy and resources while impoverishing its residents have gained traction in the aftermath of its economic default. López, for his part, has vowed to continue to stand up for Puerto Rican independence upon his release, despite his age. Though any actions he may take after receiving his freedom are unlikely to have much of an effect, he will surely inspire a new generation of Puerto Ricans to fight for a future free of US imperialism.
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