January 19, 2017


'I'm no threat' - will Obama pardon one of the world's longest-serving political prisoners? (Ed Pilkington, 16 October 2016, The guardian)

López Rivera was born in 1943 in San Sebastián in the north-west of Puerto Rico. His childhood was spent living in the constitutional limbo that has defined the island since it was ceded to the US by Spain in 1898. Neither a sovereign country, nor the 51st state of the union, Puerto Rico is caught betwixt and between. Its people are US citizens, hold US passports, and can be drafted into the US military as López Rivera would soon discover. Yet when it comes to voting for the US president or a representative in the US Congress, a Puerto Rican is persona non grata. Quite rich, you might think, coming from a nation such as the US, which was founded upon the anti-colonial principle of no taxation without representation.

"The only thing we are good for is to be cannon fodder," López Rivera says in a rare display of chagrin.

Not that he had a clue about any of that when he was growing up in San Sebastián and Chicago, where his family moved when he was 14. He was just an ordinary kid for whom the concepts of self-determination or shrugging off the Yankee yoke were as alien as nuclear physics. "Before I got drafted I was a happy-go-lucky Puerto Rican. I enjoyed life. I wasn't paying attention to anything other than me."

Then along came Vietnam. "I arrived thinking we were bringing freedom to Vietnamese people but as soon as I hit the ground I realised that wasn't happening. We did sweeping operations lasting 30 days, getting villagers out of their homes, moving them off the rice paddies, body-searching them."

By the time he returned to Chicago a year later, sporting a Bronze Star for meritorious achievement, he says he had undergone a transformation. "I felt an obligation to change, to look at life from a totally different perspective. Now I could see what colonialism did to people."

He threw himself into community work among the Puerto Ricans of Chicago. That brought him into contact with the families of imprisoned nationalists and, without ever suspecting that he would one day join their ranks, he was sucked into the movement and eventually became a member of the clandestine Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional.

As the name suggested, the FALN believed armed force was justified as a means to an end. Between its foundation in 1974 and its effective demise in 1983 as a result of mass arrests, the FALN was said by prosecutors to have carried out about 140 bombings on military bases, government offices and financial buildings across the US, especially in Chicago and New York. Targets were chosen for being symbols of "Yankee imperialism", such as oil companies with offshore rigs in Puerto Rican waters.

López Rivera insists that the focus was always on bricks and mortar, not people. "For me human life is sacred. We called it 'armed propaganda' - using targets to draw attention to our struggle."

That may have been the case, but the results were, to put it politely, inconsistent. In 1975 the group claimed responsibility for a bombing at the historic Fraunces Tavern in Lower Manhattan, the scene of George Washington's farewell to troops after the American revolution. The attack killed four people and injured more than 50. Two years later an employee at the Mobil building in New York was killed by another FALN device.

López Rivera has denied involvement with these fatal attacks. But when I asked him if he ever committed acts of armed force such as planting a bomb, he replied: "I cannot comment on that." Interestingly, he still claims justification for violence under international law, using the present tense: "I believe we were adhering to international law that says that colonialism is a crime against humanity and that colonial people have a right to achieve self-determination by any means, including force. "

But he is also adamant that the decision to renounce force was real and permanent. By 1990, the movement was already changing with the times. "We realised other tactics to armed force could be more effective, mobilising people through peaceful campaigning. Morally, also, we came to see that we had to lead by example, that if we are advocating for a better world then there are things you cannot do. You cannot get a better world by being unjust yourself."

When I ask him if he would pose a threat to the public were Obama to set him free, he replies: "I don't think I could be a threat. We have transcended violence - it's crucial for people to understand, we're not advocating anything that would be a threat to anyone."

He was picked up in 1981 at a traffic stop in Chicago and charged with seditious conspiracy - a very rare count of plotting against the US state that was first used after the civil war against southern refuseniks and then applied to anarchists and socialists before being turned against Puerto Rican independistas like himself.

At trial, prosecutors presented no evidence that tied him to any deaths or injuries, or even specific attacks. For his part, he and his comrades refused to recognise the judicial process, calling himself a prisoner of war, offering no defence and declining even to attend the trial. He still describes seditious conspiracy as an "impossible crime". He told me: "How can a Puerto Rican be seditious towards the US state when we never had any part in electing a US government?"

He was sentenced to 55 years. By contrast, as his lawyer Jan Susler has pointed out, the average federal sentence for murder in 1981 was 10.3 years.

Posted by at January 19, 2017 5:40 PM