The release of Oscar Lopez Rivera and what it means for Puerto Rican Statehood
One of former President Obama’s last acts in office was commuting the sentence of 74-year-old Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera. Rivera, currently under house arrest in San Sebastian, Puerto Rico, is serving the last three months of his term and will be freed in May. The reduced sentence was just one of a total of 1,715 commutations granted by the Obama administration over his eight years, the most in American history. Eligibility for a commutation under Obama’s initiative required that inmates had already served 10 years, behaved well and were considered nonviolent offenders. The last point in the requirement for commutation was the source of controversy in Rivera’s reduced sentence. Rivera was a member of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (Spanish: Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional-FALN) a Puerto Rican clandestine military group that vied for total independence for Puerto Rico during the 1970s and 1980s. The group committed violent acts including bombings, killings and kidnappings. The FALN claimed responsibility for more than 120 bombings of military and government buildings, financial institutions, and corporate headquarters in Chicago, New York, and Washington DC, killing six people and injuring dozens more. Although the group committed blatant acts of terrorism on US soil, Rivera himself was not convicted of a violent crime. His charges of seditious conspiracy, use of force to commit robbery, interstate transportation of firearms and ammunition to aid in the commission of a felony brought him a sentence of 55 years with an additional 15 add later for conspiracy to escape prison.
Obama’s decision was greeted in the US and in Puerto Rico with both celebration and controversy. The decision was ubiquitously met with joy in Puerto Rico. All across the political lines in Puerto Rico, from the Popular Democratic Party to the New Progressive Party, there was celebration at Obama’s decision. For many on the island, Oscar Lopez Rivera had been unjustly held for too long. In the US a positive response was also visible, as US Representative Luis Gutiérrez (D) of the 4th District of Illinois said, “I am overjoyed and overwhelmed with emotion… Oscar is a friend, a mentor, and family to me and he and his brother José have been friends and mentors for my entire adult life.” Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders also applauded the decision as did former president Jimmy Carter and Pope Francis. Concerns about his release were articulated by the likes of Mike Gonzalez, senior fellow of the Heritage Foundation, Charles Lane of the Washington Post, and Matthew Hennessey of NY Daily News.
Oscar Lopez Rivera’s release comes at an interesting time for Puerto Rico and the US. Rivera posits an anti colonial ideology and a strong position towards self-determination for Puerto Rico and his release coincides with the June 11, 2017 status referendum, so he will undoubtedly provide a notable public voice in the debate to come. A question now exists as to whether President Trump will pursue a similar policy as Obama. President Trump expressed concern over one of Obama’s other pivotal sentence commutations, that of former army private and whistleblower Chelsea Manning. He also pleaded with Obama not to release Gitmo detainees when he was still President-Elect in January. President Trump has yet to be asked specifically on his stance on reducing sentences for political prisoners, so time will tell what his administration’s strategy will be in regard to long held prisoners held here and abroad. Oscar Rivera’s release marks the end of one of the longest imprisonments with political associations in the US and will shape the social narrative surrounding Puerto Rico in the coming years.