WASHINGTON - It is zero hour for his plea for clemency to President Barack Obama, and political prisoner Oscar López Rivera is mentally preparing himself for six more years behind bars.
His plea for clemency is backed by important figures of the international community, as well as the highest-ranking government leadership, and the political, religious and labor class in Puerto Rico. If President Obama ignores this plea, López Rivera may have to wait until 2023 to be set free. By then, he will have spent 42 years in prison.
His right to a conditional release will be official in May 2023, although it may happen a few months earlier due to good behavior. By then, López Rivera, who turns 74 this upcoming January 6, Three Kings Day, will have turned 80.
His supporters are nervously counting the days. However, López Rivera does not think about something he has no control over, not even when President Obama only has 47 days left in the White House.
López Rivera was mainly convicted for seditious conspiracy for his ties to the former underground group Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN, by its Spanish acronym.) These days, he is reading “Gratitude,” a book of essays by deceased US neurologist Oliver Sacks. In it, the author also writes about the significance of reaching 80 years of age.
Nonetheless, in a telephone interview with El Nuevo Día that took place on Thursday, López Rivera recalled how Sacks tells the story of a patient that became blind. The patient continued to recreate scenes through the images that had been previously acquired and retained.
For a political prisoner that has spent 426 months in US prisons and twelve years in solitary and sensory deprivation, recovering memories from the past is a fundamental exercise.
You have told me before that you do not think about time. On June 2013 you told me, “time will be mine.” Yet, how can you not be vigilant at this time when President Obama only has (47) days left in the White House?
–The main thing for me is to not fall into a delusional optimism. I have to think I have six more years in prison and prepare myself to face them. If President Obama decides something good, then I will face that.
You have acknowledged that your big chance with President Obama is this post-election period so that a favorable decision would not carry great political consequences.
–We have all been aware of that. The only thing is that President Obama is very cautious and he protects himself a lot. That is how he handled undocumented students.
If President Obama offers clemency, do you expect him to impose conditions?
–I do not have the faintest idea. I imagine he will.
Is there any condition that would be unacceptable?
–I would have to deal with that once I know what he is asking for.
What is Obama’s legacy?
–He has done positive things. I think he wasted the years when the Legislative Branch was controlled by Democrats and he could have passed a positive law for (undocumented) immigrants. He could have also worked better on the issue of infrastructure to create more jobs. However, he made the auto industry and banks, those deemed ‘too big to fail,’ a priority. The healthcare reform could have been more comprehensive.
Do you have a message for him today?
–If he were willing to listen, he would see I can still be productive. There is nothing about me that says I am a bad person. The lengthy sentences we received were unnecessary. None of the comrades that left prison in 1999 have caused this country problems. I think having me imprisoned is a waste of money. They spend $40,000 a year per prisoner. Letting me go would be a positive thing.
There is currently a petition on the White House website demanding a response from President Obama on the plea for clemency you filed in 2011. If it reaches 100,000 signatures by December 11, the White House must respond.
–President Obama—who has spoken directly about Nelson Mandela—must understand that no Puerto Rican can seditiously conspire against the US government because colonialism is a crime against humanity. International law makes that very clear. Every colonized person has the right to exercise his or her free will and independence, using all available methods, including violence. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico, has never been violent. We Puerto Ricans have been very tolerant.
There are still those who erroneously argue that you rejected the clemency offered by President Bill Clinton in 1999 because you refused to renounce the armed struggle. You have told me you did so because two comrades, Carlos Alberto Torres and Haydee Beltrán, were not offered the same at the time, and you distrusted the system due to the additional decade you would have to spend waiting in prison.
–We were very clear about our decision to not practice or advocate violence. Historically-speaking, it no longer made sense. The Vieques struggle showed us we could accomplish goals without resorting to violence.
You have also told me there is no blood on your hands. Is the federal record not clear on that? Were you asked about the attack on January 24, 1975 in New York’s Fraunces Tavern—where four people died—during the 2011 federal Parole Board proceedings?
–If federal agencies had my fingerprint tying me to anything where people died, I would be sentenced to life. They know where I was.
Are you referring to the date of the Fraunces Tavern attack?
–Yes. We held a meeting of the Hispanic Commission in Isabela’s Episcopal Church. They have the log of the hotel where I stayed, when I returned the car I rented, the plane ticket. Up until January 26, 1975, when I heard the news in Puerto Rico, I had never heard of the Fraunces Tavern. I did not even know it existed. There is one thing federal agencies have had against me and that is that they could never catch me. I spent five years underground and they were not the ones who caught me. That also explains their behavior towards my family.
To what are you referring?
–My two brothers were called before the Grand Jury. They both refused. My younger brother spent 13 months in prison for refusing to testify. My older brother was fired from his job. My brothers knew absolutely nothing about what I did. I never involved them in anything. One of their ugliest habits was that agents would visit my mother. They broke into her house when she was out. When she would return, they were waiting for her and told her I would be killed if she did not hand me in. During those five years I never saw a single family member. When my mother told me that, it was painful.
Do you think that, if you are not released now, you will have to wait until May 2023?
–That is the mandatory date of my release, serving 42 years out of an (70) year sentence. Oftentimes they must also calculate the time one accumulates without an infraction.
As part of a criminal justice reform program, President Obama has commuted the sentences of 1,000 people convicted for drug crimes. Do your supporters protest that your case is not being looked at?
–They are two different things. President Obama decided to develop a specific program for drug-related cases. I have met some of the people whose sentences he has commuted. I imagine it is something he has to do because the majority of people sentenced as a result of the law Bill Clinton passed in 1995 were focused on the African American and Latino communities. Many of them were young people and they were given very long sentences. I think he felt compelled to respond to something that had adversely impacted his own community.
Have people from your prison been released under those commutations?
–A Puerto Rican, a Mexican, and various African Americans. I knew the Puerto Rican pretty well. He is from Lares.
Donald Trump is the president of the United States. Were you surprised?
–During the las three days (before the election) I thought it was possible he could win. Trump is an expert in using hate and fear. He spread racism for five years before he was a candidate. He is the biggest and best prepared con-man in the world. He is a con-man; it’s what he has done his entire life. Racism exists in this country. The guards in this prison prefer to give any available job to anon-Hispanic white man with whom they identify, rather than an African American or Latino prisoner.
Trump won, but he lost the popular vote.
–The difference was over two million. What kind of democracy allows the person receiving the majority of votes to lose the election? The other issue is the amount of money that has to be invested in these campaigns. Last year, the Koch brothers had over $900 million available for the political campaign, while the Republican Party had $450 million.
Speaking of democracy. We have a sitting Oversight Board controlling fundamental government matters in Puerto Rico.
–We can see the power of Wall Street. Obama could have made a different decision. Nonetheless, he passed the law and we have the Oversight Board. Our people do not understand this board’s role yet. Poverty in Puerto Rico will increase.
The main political parties in Puerto Rico lost support. Ricardo Rosselló and the NPP won, but independent candidates exhibited strength.
-I was mainly impressed by Dr. José Vargas Vidot’s victory (in the Senate.) He campaigned by himself, no organization, based on his record. I respect him immensely.
Fidel Castro passed away. How did you find out?
–I leave the radio on, it was two or three in the morning when I went to use the bathroom and I heard it. Later, I sat down in front of the television to confirm it.
What did Fidel Castro represent to you?
–Out of all the Latin American heads of government, he was most aware of the Latin American reality. He created compassionate solidarity, a habit the Cuban people have of responding to (others’) needs with no interests of their own.
Fidel Castro was criticized, among other things, for not allowing multi-party elections.
-I do not know whether parties are democracies. Democracy lies in the citizen’s participation. I have not been to Cuba. I know many Cubans. I had the privilege of spending five years with Fernando González, one of the five national Cuban heroes (of the Wasp Network case.) I have an idea of why Cuba has that system, but I believe it is a decision for the Cuban people. In Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan we see the results of meddling in other countries’ affairs. I am a veteran of the Vietnam War and I experienced the war first hand. I can guarantee that the Vietnamese people did not accept us.
You say you there is no blood on your hands. Did you not kill anyone in Vietnam?
-I spent seven months as infantry. It was two or three days at the base and three or four weeks in operations. I fired. Bullets are directional. One goes over and looks. People in war take credit for killing people. I am very sure I did not kill anyone.
We spoke of your Chicago Cubs last spring and you told me you are a fan of the team even from prison. They won the World Series 108 years later.
-I was very pleased. There was an incredible celebration in Chicago. (Javier Báez) has a lot of potential. I liked the Series because Cleveland had two Puerto Ricans and the Cubs had one.
Is Christmas in the air in prison?
– Media commercials on the radio and television bring the Christmas message. However, as to one enjoying Christmas, no. That is something we Puerto Ricans do not forget and we almost always sit together to spend Christmas Eve. My birthday is on Three Kings Day so we also sit together for a while.
How did you celebrate it before?
–I come from a very close family. We always tried to spend Christmas together. If I was in Puerto Rico, I would go with whoever held parrandas (a type of caroling.) In Chicago, we would start the parrandas and it became tradition. There was even a movie made about it. (“Nothing Like the Holidays.”)
How would you celebrate it now?
–I would like to be with family and my close friends.
Before ending the interview, López Rivera—who has stated he intends to return to his hometown of San Sebastián, even if he does stop in Chicago to see family and friends—talks of returning to Wrigley Field to watch a Chicago Cubs game.
In the midst of the support he is receiving, he requested to send a message to the Puerto Rican people:
“I am deeply grateful to my people and for having been born in Puerto Rico. I have not lacked the love and support of the Puerto Rican people in all the years I have spent in prison. I want to let the people know I am grateful.”
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