In Light of Oscar López Rivera’s Pardon, UN Stresses Puerto Ricans’ Right to Self-Determination

The commutation of the Puerto Rican nationalist’s prison sentence has been welcomed by the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonisation.

mural in puerto rico

A mural in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Credit: Tito Caraballo/Flickr.

New York: The United Nations Special Committee on Decolonisation has welcomed the commutation of the prison sentence of Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar López Rivera, the world’s longest-serving political prisoner confined in a US federal penitentiary since 1981.

Puerto Rico – Spanish for ‘Rich Port’ – is an “unincorporated territory” of the US, located in the northeastern Caribbean Sea, with a population of about 3.4 million and San Juan as the most populous city.

Rich history, tropical climate, diverse natural scenery, renowned traditional cuisine and attractive tax incentives make the main island of Puerto Rico – and a number of smaller ones such as Mona, Culebra and Vieques – a popular destination for travellers from around the world.

The decision to commute the sentence of López Rivera permitting his release in May was announced by former US President Barack Obama on January 17, three days before Donald Trump’s inauguration president.

The jubilation over the commutation – not a pardon – after López Rivera had served 35 years of a 70-year sentence 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 UN Special Committee on the Situation with regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples said in a communiqué issued on January 24 that it “shares Puerto Rico’s joy over the release of independence leader Oscar López Rivera thanks to the united struggle and solidarity of the Puerto Rican people joined by various international personalities, including Pope Francis.”

The Special Committee on Decolonisation had requested of the US government the release of López Rivera by its decisions on the question of Puerto Rico, approved by consensus on June 16, 2015, and June 16, 2016. The Special Committee transmitted the latter decision to the United States Mission to the United Nations in New York by communication No. 000627 of November 3, 2016.

The communiqué said, “As part of the annual consideration of the question of Puerto Rico, for almost 40 years the Special Committee has been continuously requesting the release of Puerto Rican independence activists serving sentences in United States prisons, while at the same time reaffirming the inalienable right of the Puerto Rican people to self-determination and independence, in accordance with General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV), and the applicability of the fundamental principles of that resolution to the question of Puerto Rico.”

The communiqué added, “The Special Committee on Decolonisation, in response to the general outcry of the Puerto Rican population, coupled with the requests of prominent personalities, was unceasing in its demand that justice be done in the case of Oscar López Rivera, who became the longest-serving political prisoner in the world. In that connection, the Special Committee trusts that the release of Oscar López Rivera will take place within the established time frame.”

In the light of this important decision of the US government, and in line with the need to guarantee the legitimate right of the Puerto Rican people to self-determination and the protection of their human rights, the Special Committee on Decolonisation reiterated its unequivocal commitment to the fulfillment of its mandate with regard to the implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.

Writing in Jacobin, Ed Morales stated, “The widespread support for someone like López 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.”

López Rivera had joined the FALN after working as a community organiser in Chicago and serving in Vietnam. The latter has been cited as a key element in his radicalisation, writes Morales. “As the US tried to inherit the burden and spoils of France’s occupation of Southeast Asia, he witnessed firsthand the colonial racism at work and connected it to what he viewed as the internal colonialism hindering Puerto Ricans, other Latino groups, Asians and African Americans in the United States.

“Political radicals of colour like López Rivera saw 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.”

While López 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 – he was convicted in 1981 of seditious conspiracy (essentially a thought crime) and sentenced to 55 years. He spent more than twelve of those years deprived of all human contact.

In 1999, López Rivera turned down a release deal from President Bill Clinton, because (a) it would have required him to serve an additional ten years and (b) it would have left some of his fellow FALN prisoners languishing in prison. (Clinton’s deal ultimately set free 11 of López Rivera’s co-defendants.)

“For the last 20 years, López Rivera and his remaining FALN comrades have renounced violence – a path borne out by other Puerto Rican militants like Dylcia Pagán and Elizam Escobar – making it easier to attract broad swaths of support from Puerto Ricans as well as high-profile supporters like Representative Luis Gutiérrez, Lin Manuel Miranda, San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, LGBTQ activist Pedro Julio Serrano and rapper René Pérez Joglar [Residente],” notes Morales.

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