On January 5, Oscar López Rivera, imprisoned since 1981 for fighting for Puerto Rican independence, appeared before the U.S. Parole Commission in Terre Haute, Indiana. López, 68, is considered a political prisoner and a patriot by a broad spectrum of Puerto Ricans. His supporters range from activists in the Puerto Rican independence movement to U.S. Congress members to officials from Puerto Rico’s New Progressive Party (PNP), which advocates that Puerto Rico, a U.S. “commonwealth,” become the 51st state.
Demands for López’s release, both on the island and stateside, have intensified in recent months. Ahead of the parole hearing, more than 16,000 letters supporting his release were sent to the Parole Commission, thanks to the combined efforts of two organizations, the National Boricua Human Rights Network and the Comité Pro Derechos Humanos. Moreover, several Puerto Rican elected officials are on record in support of his release—including U.S. representatives Luis Gutiérrez (Ill.), José Serrano (N.Y.), and Nydia Velázquez (N.Y.). Even Puerto Rico’s congressional resident commissioner, Pedro Pierluisi—a member of the PNP and hardly sympathetic to the cause of independence—has publicly called for López to be released.
López is the last of the 16 Puerto Rican political prisoners arrested in the early 1980s to remain in prison. All were arrested in the Chicago area and accused of being members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), a clandestine pro-independence organization that emerged in 1974. Classified as a terrorist organization by the FBI, the FALN carried out more than 100 bombings between 1974 and 1983 in its campaign to end U.S. colonial rule in Puerto Rico. Most of the FALN’s actions are best characterized as “armed propaganda,” since property, not people, were the targets. But there were two important exceptions: In 1975 the FALN bombed the Fraunces Tavern in New York, killing four people, and in 1977 a night watchman was killed when an FALN bomb exploded at Mobil corporate headquarters in New York.
All 16 Puerto Ricans arrested in 1980–81 declared themselves prisoners of war and, drawing on international law, rejected the U.S. government’s right to try them. They refused to participate in their trials or defend themselves in court; instead, they demanded to be tried before an international court. Although evidence linking them to a specific crime was slight to nonexistent, their refusal to defend themselves allowed the government to convict them of criminal charges, like armed robbery and the more overtly political charge of “seditious conspiracy,” or conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government by force. (The one exception was Haydée Beltrán Torres, whose fingerprint linked her to the Mobil bombing. She was released in April 2009.)
López was never convicted of hurting anyone. Yet his 70-year prison sentence, like the punishments meted out to the other independentistas, was wildly disproportionate to his conviction. As his attorney, Jan Susler, pointed out in an essay published in 2006: “In 1981, the year most of the political prisoners were sentenced, the average federal sentence for murder was 10.3 years. Puerto Rican political prisoners—who were not convicted of hurting or killing anyone—were sentenced to an average of 65.4 years—six times longer than the average.”1
Evidence of López’s public support was not allowed at the parole hearing. For example, the hearing officer refused to let Eduardo Villanueva, the former president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association and the spokesperson of the Comité Pro Derechos Humanos, attend the hearing as an observer. Villanueva had planned to travel from the island expressly to present his testimony and petitions favoring López’s freedom.2 Yet at the same time, one of the former FBI agents who investigated the Fraunces Tavern bombing was allowed to attend, taking notes on López’s testimony. Over Susler’s protests, one survivor and three family members of the victims of the tavern bombing addressed the hearing and spoke about what the bombing and the deaths of their loved ones meant to them.3 Their presence was inappropriate since López was not convicted of the bombing and no evidence links him to it.
Susler argued at the hearing that López met the criteria for parole: First, and most importantly, he has never been accused of violating a single prison rule; second, his release would not depreciate the seriousness of the offense or promote disrespect for the law; and third, his release would not jeopardize the public welfare. But in the end, hearing examiner Mark Tanner opted not to recommend that López be released.4 Instead, he recommended that López, who will have served 30 years in prison as of May 28, should not be eligible for another parole hearing until 2023; by then, he will be 80 years old and have spent 42 years in prison.5
Demands for López’s freedom have run especially high in Puerto Rico. On December 27, the small, mountainous town of San Sebastián, where the López family comes from, held an event to demonstrate its solidarity with him. Mayor Javier Jiménez Pérez, a member of the PNP and a friend of the family, gave a speech, as did Congressman Gutiérrez and Resident Commissioner Pierluisi. Three of the former political prisoners, Edwin Cortés, Luis Rosa, and Adolfo Matos, who were dressed as the Three Magi, distributed presents to the attendees. Gutiérrez, who has been at the forefront of the campaign to release the prisoners, also sponsored similar events in two other towns in Puerto Rico, Comerío and Mayagüez. Echoing the themes that have defined the campaign for the prisoners’ release since the early 1990s, both Gutiérrez and Pierluisi emphasized the need to fully embrace “the petition for the freedom of the patriot [López]” and the importance of “unity within the Boricua family.”6
Although the cause of López’s freedom enjoys public support, the FBI and other conservative forces oppose it. This is nothing new. In 1999, when President Clinton offered clemency to the political prisoners, the FBI issued an unprecedented condemnation of the president in a press release and later participated in, if not instigated, congressional hearings to investigate and criticize Clinton’s actions. Now a group of former FBI agents who worked on, but did not solve, the Fraunces Tavern bombing is attempting to prevent López’s release. Although they have not explained what motivates them, it is possible that their efforts to keep López in prison reflect the frustration that many agents feel following the 2001 terrorist attacks and the U.S. government’s subsequent failure to capture Osama bin Laden.
Despite the politically motivated and unjust sentences, support for the Puerto Rican political prisoners during the 1980s was weak among much of the North American left and sectors of the Puerto Rican independence movement. Individuals and groups in both these sectors disagreed with the use of armed struggle in the United States and the prisoners’ refusal to participate in their trials. However, other Puerto Ricans on the island and in Chicago, New York, and other U.S. cities, along with North American solidarity activists, worked to overcome the media and government definition of the prisoners as terrorists by linking them to the colonial reality of Puerto Rico.
In Chicago, where many of the prisoners hailed from, friends and family organized the National Committee to Free the Puerto Rican Prisoners of War and took to the streets of the city’s Puerto Rican neighborhood every Saturday to distribute the group’s newsletter, Libertad, get letters and petitions signed, and raise funds for the prisoners. They, along with supporters across the United States and Puerto Rico, traveled to the far-flung prisons where the prisoners were held and organized successful protests at the gates.
In the early 1990s, the political climate changed, and so did the politics of the campaign to release the prisoners. Up until that point, the campaign’s main slogan had been “They Are Freedom Fighters, Not Terrorists,” and much of the work had emphasized their position as prisoners of war. Although this stance had gained some support, it was clear that in order to secure their release, a much broader movement had to be built. At that point Luis Nieves Falcón, a sociology professor at the University of Puerto Rico–Río Piedras, joined the campaign and led the organization Ofensiva ’92, dedicated to freeing the prisoners. Ofensiva ’92 and the National Committee in Chicago increasingly identified the prisoners as unjustly imprisoned national heroes and patriots. The campaign replaced a call for radical support for armed struggle with an appeal to nationalist sentiment and humanitarian understanding.
The concept of family gained greater prominence in the campaign, which used a dualistic understanding of family to represent both the nuclear family and the Puerto Rican people/nation. By emphasizing the prisoners’ ties to their children, parents, and other family members, it appealed to humanitarian concerns to make the family whole again by restoring the prisoners to their loved ones. It simultaneously evoked the image of the prisoners as members of the larger Puerto Rican family who should be allowed to return to Puerto Rico—their home, where they belong. Two examples capture this projection of the prisoners. Headlines in Libertad read “18 Years Later: They Are Patriots, Not Terrorists! It’s Time to Bring Them Home!” while a column in the same publication urged readers to “Write to the Patriots.”7
The reframing bore fruits, as did the increased emphasis on building international support for the prisoners’ release and work in the religious community and among elected officials. By the late 1990s, an impressive list of international figures—including Nelson Mandela, former Nicaraguan diplomat and UN General Assembly president Miguel D’Escoto, Mexican politician Rosario Ibarra, and Northern Irish politician Gerry Adams, together with nine Nobel Peace Prize winners—had joined the growing clamor for their release. A large number of religious figures and congregations passed resolutions calling for their freedom, as did all the Puerto Rican U.S. Congress members and a number of other elected officials. Of perhaps even greater significance, leaders of all the political parties in Puerto Rico, including both the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party and the pro-statehood PNP, signed on to the calls for the prisoners’ freedom.
In 1997 the prisoners collectively renounced violence as part of their petition to the United Nations Committee on Decolonization, a position they reiterated in 1999, when Clinton offered 11 of the prisoners conditional clemency (and denied it for one of them, Carlos Alberto Torres). Unlike the rest of the prisoners, López rejected the offer both because he did not want to accept the conditions and, perhaps more importantly, because he refused to leave prison until all his comrades were released. Since their release, the former political prisoners, who live in Illinois, Florida, and Puerto Rico, have reintegrated into their communities, where they were welcomed as national heroes, and they remain active in public political movements and campaigns. Torres was released in July, after 30 years in prison, and is now living and working in Puerto Rico.
Reaction to the hearing officer’s recommendation that López be denied parole was swift and negative. José López, executive director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago and Oscar’s brother, said: “The parole hearing officer in the kangaroo court attempted to demonize my brother. But Oscar’s demeanor, his presentation, and his composure, his every word and deed became the embodiment of the best virtues of the Puerto Rican character: resilience, compassion, and solidarity and that is who Oscar López Rivera really is.”
In Puerto Rico, Rafael Cáncel Miranda, one of the five Puerto Rican Nationalist Party prisoners released by President Carter in 1979 after spending 25 years in jail, said, “Oscar López Rivera is a patriot with character and courage who has given himself to his community and his people. Now we must intensify the struggle and seguir pa’lante [continue onward].” Echoing this sentiment, Congressman Gutiérrez stated, “We will not rest until Oscar comes home. The examiner’s decision saddens us, but it does not deter us. In the end, we will obtain victory by being consistent and we are certain we will have the same consistency and determination in our efforts to obtain justice as does Oscar.”8
Activists in the Puerto Rican community of Chicago expressed similar sentiments at a meeting held on the Paseo Boricua, the main street that runs through the city’s largely Puerto Rican neighborhood of Humboldt Park, on January 15. Organized to inform supporters about what had happened at the parole hearing, the meeting served to organize the campaign to send petitions and make phone calls to the Parole Commission to grant López parole. In attendance was Irma Romero, a Mexican woman now confined to a wheelchair due to cancer, who has devoted the last 30 years of her life to lobbying for the release of the Puerto Rican political prisoners. Noting that she prays “my cancer won’t kill me until all the prisoners are out,” she called on the audience to do all it could to ensure López’s freedom.
Postscript: The U.S. Parole Commission denied López parole on February 18, stating that it would hold a “reconsideration hearing” in January 2026 or when his sentence expires, whichever comes first. In response, the National Boricua Human Rights Network has initiated a letter-writing campaign to the Parole Commission.
Margaret Power teaches history at the Illinois Institute of Technology. She is working on a book about the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. For more on the campaign to release Oscar López Rivera, visit boricuahumanrights.org.
1. Jan Susler, “Puerto Rican Political Prisoners in U.S. Prisons,” in Ramón Bosque-Pérez and José Javier Colón Morera, eds., Puerto Ri co Under Colonial Rule: Political Persecution and the Quest for Human Rights (State University of New York Press, 2006), 123.
2. Frances Rosario, “Recogen firmas por la liberación de Oscar López Rivera,” El Nuevo Día (Guaynabo, Puerto Rico), online article, January 20, 2011.
3. Jan Susler, “The Campaign for the Release of Puerto Rican Political Prisoner Oscar López Rivera,” unpublished paper (undated): 2.
4. Quoted in Ben Fox, “Examiner: No Parole for Puerto Rican Nationalist,” Associated Press, January 5, 2011.
5. Susler, “The Campaign,” 3.
6. Lourdes Lugo, “Pierluisi, Gutierrez y Jimenez exclaman; San Sebastian te espera Oscar,” La Voz del Paseo Boricua (Chicago) 7, no. 10 (January 2011): 10.
7. Libertad (spring 1998): 1–2.
8. Cándida Cotto, “Insisten en reclamo de libertad para Oscar López Rivera,” Claridad (San Juan, Puerto Rico), January 13, 2011.