The widespread jubilation when it was announced that Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera would be released in May shows that liberation struggle still resonates in the Caribbean island that remains a United States colony.
The campaign to free Lopez Rivera, held in a US federal jail since 1981, has dominated various sectors of Puerto Rican activism for the past decade. Campaigning for Lopez Rivera has been a fixture at Union Square Park and other locations around New York for years. When the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage in 2015, posters of Lopez Rivera festooned with a rainbow-pride flag around San Juan were ubiquitous.
So when outgoing president Barack Obama announced in January that he was commuting Lopez Rivera’s sentence and permitting his release in May, it set off an outpouring of emotion on the island and the many urban centres in the US where the diaspora lives.
The jubilation over Lopez Rivera’s commutation — not a pardon, but a curtailing of his sentence — has cut across all political tendencies in Puerto Rico, from the socialist left, to the Green-ish Independence Party, to the centrist Popular Democratic Party, to the increasingly hard-right Statehood Party.
The widespread support for someone like Lopez Rivera, a former leader of the militant leftist group, the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), is a reflection of the colonial yoke that Puerto Ricans have suffered under for centuries.
The roots of the FALN lie in Puerto Rico’s violently repressed nationalist movements in the 1930s and ’40s. These movements were led by the Harvard-educated Pedro Albizu Campos, who spent years in jail for his role in fomenting uprisings and labour strikes across the island in protest of colonial rule.
A 1954 attack on the House of Representatives in Washington led to the jailing of four nationalists, including the legendary Lolita Lebron.
When the FALN burst onto the scene with a series of bombings of corporate buildings in 1974, one of its demands was for the release of Lebron and her fellow prisoners.
Yet the FALN also embodied a different kind of nationalist militancy. It was one forged by the experience of Puerto Rican migrants and their children, who grew up in cities like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia and were directly impacted by racism, segregation, and social injustice.
The FALN believed in armed confrontation with the US government and multinational corporations. Like the Irish Republican Army engaged in conflict at the same time, it argued its members had the right to militarily struggle for national sovereignty, distinguishing them from the nihilist pursuits of so-called “terrorist” groups.
The FALN’s first action was coordinated bombings of Exxon, Union Carbide and Federal Reserve Bank buildings, among other targets. It came the day before a pro-independence rally to be held at Madison Square Garden and three days before hearings about Puerto Rico’s colonial status at the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation.
The Puerto Rican Socialist Party initially objected to the FALN’s use of violence, but in the early ’80s Puerto Rican nationalist movements warmed to the idea that jailed FALN members were “freedom fighters” and “patriots”. Eventually, the group began to garner sympathy from the broader Puerto Rican community.
Lopez Rivera joined the FALN after working as a community organiser in Chicago. He had served in Vietnam, which has been cited as a key element in his radicalisation.
As the US tried to inherit the burden and spoils of France’s occupation of South-East Asia, he witnessed colonial racism first hand, connected it to what he viewed as the internal colonialism hindering Puerto Ricans and other peoples of colour in the US.
Radicals like Lopez Rivera saw the anti-racist struggle as part of a global confrontation with class-based imperialism and colonialism. Linking up with the FALN was a logical, if not inevitable, next step.
Lopez Rivera was never charged with or found guilty of direct involvement in any of the FALN’s violent acts, which included various bombings, some lethal, in New York and Chicago. But he was convicted in 1981 of seditious conspiracy (essentially a thought crime) and sentenced to 55 years in jail. He has spent more than 12 of those years in jail entirely deprived of all human contact.
In 1999, Lopez Rivera turned down a release deal offered by then-president Bill Clinton, because it would have required him to serve an extra 10 years and left his fellow FALN prisoners in jail. Clinton’s deal ultimately set free eleven of Lopez Rivera’s co-defendants.
For the past 20 years, Lopez Rivera and his remaining FALN comrades have renounced violence — a path borne out by other Puerto Rican militants like Dylcia Pagan and Elizam Escobar. This has made it easier to attract broad swaths of support from Puerto Ricans.
Yet the deep support for Lopez Rivera among mainstream Puerto Ricans is still notable. What does it mean that the average Puerto Rican sees the colonial reality as so unjust that they can embrace someone who once believed in violent confrontation?
On some level, it has to mean understanding that despite the US’s purportedly anti-colonial foundation, it has blatantly held and exploited an island as a de facto colony for more than 100 years.
At the same time, the US has artificially constructed its colony’s economy as a dry run for free-trade extraction of corporate profit long before the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Indeed, even as the island prepares a huge celebration for Lopez Rivera’s release, Puerto Rico faces harsh austerity measures. These come courtesy of a fiscal oversight board whose imposition was signed, sealed and delivered by Obama and the Senate Democratic majority as the island’s last, best hope to manage its US$72 billion debt crisis.
In January, a labour reform law passed by the Puerto Rican House of Representatives. It was pushed by the newly installed Statehood Party, whose governor was among those calling for and celebrating Lopez Rivera’s release. It proposes a series of cuts to salaries, benefits and overtime pay for thousands of employees in an effort to show the board its willingness to impose austerity.
On January 18, as a crisis in health care funding looms and doctors and specialists continue to leave the island, the union for one of the island’s largest hospitals, Auxilio Mutuo, called a 24-hour work stoppage.
Meanwhile, Trump has named as one of his close economic advisers the billionaire hedge-fund owner John Paulson, a major player in Puerto Rican real estate.
Despite Lopez Rivera and the FALN’s flawed strategy of violent confrontation, the explosion of support for his release demonstrates his popular purchase as an anti-colonial freedom fighter.
As Puerto Rico faces down multiple crises, the island will need a considerable dose of that anti-colonial spirit to win a measure of freedom and sovereignty.
[Slightly abridged from International Viewpoint.]