After the 1898 Spanish-American War, the US took over the Philippines, Guam, Samoa, Hawaii, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Canal Zone, assorted other territories, and Puerto Rico. On September 29, its Governor-General, Manuel Macias y Casado (a Spanish general), ceded control to Washington, its current status today as a colony.
In 1966, then University of Puerto Rico economics associate, Dr. Antonio J. Gonzales said:
The Puerto Rican Independence Party bases its struggle in favor of the independence of Puerto Rico on the conviction that we continue to be a (US) colony, thus being denied (our) right to freedom and sovereignty.
After taking over in 1898, America “never granted Puerto Ricans the total control of their lives and destiny. Sovereign powers have never been transferred to us in order to be able to decide in all those areas that affect the collective life of our nation.”
For over 112 years, America’s had total control, Puerto Ricans virtually none, forced to “accept the dispositions of laws imposed” by a colonial power. In its relationship with America, Puerto Rico is called “Estado Libre Asociado” (Free Associated State or Commonwealth). Under international law, it’s a colony, seeking independence. Therein lies the roots of its struggle, Oscar Lopez Rivera imprisoned for supporting it.
A collective 1981 statement by Puerto Rican Independentistas, convicted of “seditious conspiracy,” said the following:
Our position remains clear: Puerto Rico is a nation intervened, militarily conquered and colonized by the United States….We are prisoners of war captured by the enemy. Our actions have always been and continue to be in the nature of fighting a war of independence, a war of national liberation….The US interventionist government has absolutely no right, no say so whatsoever in regards to Puerto Rico, ourselves, or any Puerto Rican prisoner of war. The US interventionist government has only one choice….and that is to GET OUT! It is our right to regain and secure our national sovereignty. Nothing will stand in the way of achieving our goal.
The struggle continues, Rivera one of its victims. The web site prolibertadweb.com calls him and others like him:
“workers and professionals, students and teachers, community organizers, artists, mothers, and fathers of families. They are fighters (for) Puerto Rico’s Independence and social justice.” They reject colonization and exploitation. They’re committed activists for justice, struggling to end it.
Each year for decades, the UN Decolonization Committee approved a draft resolution for Puerto Rican independence, the latest one on June 21:
calling on the Government of the United States to expedite a process that would allow the Puerto Rican people to exercise fully their right to self-determination and independence, and for the General Assembly formally to consider the situation concerning Puerto Rico, which the world body had not formerly taken up since the Territory’s removal from the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories in 1953.
….a majority of petitioners expressed dissatisfaction today with the commonwealth’s treatment by the United States, arguing that the administering Power was hampering Puerto Rican decolonization initiatives and those of civil society….(America) continue(s) acting as a colonizing Power over a country with its own cultural identity.
Background on Rivera
Born in 1943 in San Sebastian, Puerto Rico, he moved to America at age 12, then two years later to Chicago to live with his sister. A decorated Vietnam veteran, he returned home to his Puerto Rican community, plagued by unemployment, drugs, police brutality, and dire levels of healthcare, education, and other essential social services – issues he was determined to address.
He helped create the Puerto Rican High School and Cultural Center. He co-founded the Rafael Cancel Miranda High School (now called Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School). He worked for public school bilingual education, for universities to admit more Latino students and hire Latino faculty and staff, and for Chicago area corporations, like Illinois Bell, People’s Gas and Commonwealth Edison, to end discriminatory hiring.
He became an organizer for the Northwest Community Organization (NCO), ASSPA, ASPIRA, and Chicago’s First Congregational Church. He also helped found FREE, a half-way house for convicted drug addicts, and ASAS, an educational program for Latino prisoners at Illinois’ Stateville Prison.
He also worked for Puerto Rican independence. In 1974, he helped organize the committee to “Free the Five” (Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irwin Flores, Oscar Collazao, Lolita Lebron, and Andres Figueroa Cordero). In 1975, he was forced underground with other comrades after the Justice Department named him an FALN leader (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional – Armed Forces of National Liberation).
On May 10, 2001, FBI Director Louis Freeh described the organization as follows to the Senate Committees on Appropriations, Armed Services, and Select Committee on Intelligence, under the heading: “Left-wing and Puerto Rican extremist groups,” saying:
….left-wing (domestic terrorists) generally profess a revolutionary socialist doctrine and view themselves as protectors of the people against the ‘dehumanizing effects’ of capitalism and imperialism. They aim to bring about change in the United States through revolution rather than through the established political process.
Terrorist groups (like FALN), seeking to secure Puerto Rican independence from the United States through violent means, represent one of the remaining active vestiges of left-wing terrorism….they view….acts of terrorism as a means by which to draw attention to their desire for independence….Acts of terrorism continue to be perpetrated (by) violent” separatist groups like FALN.
Rivera’s Arrest and Imprisonment
On May 29, 1981, he was arrested, the FBI calling him one of America’s most feared fugitives. Accused of being an FALN leader, he neither confirmed or denied it, affirming only his nonviolent activism. At trial, he refused to participate, declaring himself a “prisoner of war.”
In 1981, he was convicted of armed robbery, miscellaneous charges, and seditious conspiracy – sedition pertaining to actions to incite insurrection or rebellion; conspiracy by working with others to achieve it.
Initially sentenced to 55 years, 15 more were added in 1988, based on spurious charges of participating in a conspiracy to escape, that sentence to begin when the original one ends.
In 1999, the Clinton administration offered him and 11 other Puerto Rican nationalists clemency. He declined, saying it required him to serve 10 more years with good conduct. Had he accepted, he’d have been free a year ago.
His sister, Zenaida Lopez, said he refused because on parole, he’d be in “prison outside prison.” Incarcerated at Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Terre Haute, IN, July 27, 2027 is his scheduled release date unless paroled and accepts or gets unconditional clemency sooner.
Punitive Sentencing and Treatment
The “ProLIBERTAD campaign for the freedom of Puerto Rican political prisoners and prisoners of war” called sentences given “Puerto Rican patriots excessive and punitive.” On average, men got 70.8 years, women 72.8, 19 times longer than average in the year they were sentenced, real criminals faring much better.
For example, from 1966 – 1985, average murder sentences were 22.7 years; rape, 12.5 years, and arms violations 12. Only 12.8% of all federal prisoners got over 20 years. Most often, only repeat offenders get longer sentences. No Puerto Rican “patriot” had a prior record at time of arrest.
Worse still, they’ve been harshly treated in prison, in violation of UN Minimum Uniform Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners (UNSMRTR), Rule A1 6(1). They’ve been held far from families despite facilities closer to home. Some have been sexually assaulted, Alejandrina Torres attacked in three different prisons, in one case by prison guards and a male lieutenant. She was then held in solitary confinement for complaining.
They’ve been denied adequate medical care. Some have been held in underground confinement, Rivera, in 1993, describing his treatment at Marion, IL maximum security as follows:
I am enclosed in a cell that is 8 feet wide by 9 feet long on an average of 22 hours each day. Today while I write this letter, I have been 36 hours without going out and tomorrow if they do not take us out it will have been three days without moving from this same space. In this little space I have everything. From eating my meals to taking care of my needs. So it is my dining room and latrine at the same time. My bed is a slab of cement. And the whole cell is painted the same dead yellow color. From an aesthetic point of view, it is as attractive as a jail for zoo animals.
In 1987, Amnesty International (AI) condemned Marion conditions, saying:
In Marion, violations of the (UN) Minimum Standard Rules (for treating prisoners) are common. There is almost no rule in the Minimum Standard Rules that is not broken in one form or another.
In 1988, AI called conditions in Lexington, KY’s Maximum Security Unit for women “deliberately and gratuitously oppressive.”
The same holds for all federal and state maximum security facilities and many others, prisoners routinely abused, especially political ones.1
From 1986-1998, Rivera was held in punitive maximum security confinement, and remained in max facilities until 2008. Only then was he transferred to a medium security prison on condition he report every two hours to corrections staff, an unheard of stipulation. Currently at FCI Terre Haute, his mailing address is:
Oscar Lopez Rivera
FCI Terre Haute
PO Box 33
Terre Haute, IN 47808
A Final Comment
In early January 2011, likely the first week, Rivera will appear before the US Parole Commission after nearly 30 years in prison. Supporters are urged to download, print and sign the attached letter and mail it to the following address:
Chairman Isaac Fulwood, Jr.
US Parole Commission
5550 Friendship Blvd.
Chevy Chase, MD 20815-7286
In addition, the National Boricua Human Rights Network urges signers to email gro.sthgirnamuhaucirobnull@rodracir so they can keep track of supportive letters.
“Together,” they say, “we can help free Oscar Lopez Rivera!”