Puerto Rico Celebrates Political Prisoner Oscar López Rivera's Release

Image by Kike Estrada. Used with permission.

Image by Kike Estrada. Used with permission.

Jubilant celebrations began the same day that Oscar López Rivera, Puerto Rico's longest held political prisoner, had his sentence commuted by former President Barack Obama on January 17.

López Rivera was convicted of seditious conspiracy in 1981 and sentenced to 55 years in federal prison. He has spent 35 years incarcerated, 12 of those in solitary confinement.

José López Rivera, Oscar's brother living in Chicago, affirmed that this was a special day for Puerto Rico, which is a US territory. He expressed his amazement for all the support that his brother has received from different sectors in various parts of the world. The movement to demand the release of López Rivera attracted politicians, activists and artists of diverse political positions and backgrounds, from pro-independence supporters, like US Congressman Luis Gutierrez, and pro-statehood advocates like Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló.

Campamento contra la Junta, a grassroots organization of activists who established a campsite outside the Federal Courthouse in the capital city of San Juan as a symbol of civil disobedience against the Fiscal Control Board that the US recently imposed on Puerto Rico, were among several groups that documented the celebrations that took place on the streets of San Juan with traditional Puerto Rican music.


People celebrating at the Placita de Santurce in San Juan the night of the announcement by the press. Photo by Rafael A. Ortiz Mendoza. Used with permission.

López Rivera's release occurred only two days before the annual San Sebastián Street Festival, and San Juan major Carmen Yulín quickly announced that the city will be preparing a special event for his arrival in May. The San Juan major also assured that López Rivera will be given a position in the municipality as a community organizer, and that his release represents a day of justice and dignity for the people of Puerto Rico.

In the US, however, not all reactions to his sentence being commuted were positive. US conservative political commentator Glenn Beck expressed his disapproval, and several news outlets have referred to López Rivera as a “terrorist.”

López Rivera was convicted of seditious conspiracy due to his links to the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN-Armed Forces of National Liberation), which was a group that carried out several bombings in the US in the 1970s and early 1980s to advocate Puerto Rico's independence from the US. López Rivera maintains he was never involved in any violence, and he was never directly accused of plotting the bombings.

He has also never renounced his support for Puerto Rico's independence.

Clarissa López Rivera, Oscar's daughter, responded to her father's critics, stating, “My father does not have any blood on his hands”, adding that he was awarded a Bronze Medal for his service in the US Army during the Vietnam War and that he was one of Chicago's most dearest community organizers.

Historian Jorge Nieves Rivera published in the digital magazine 80grados a brief essay on the first political prisoners in Puerto Rico under Spanish rule in the 19th century, establishing parallels between them and López Rivera. On October 1896, 27 active members of secret societies that plotted to separate Puerto Rico from Spain were arrested. The major of Cadiz in Spain ordered their imprisonment, but after a year, they were pardoned. Nieves Rivera writes:

Como maestro de historia se me hizo inevitable comparar y contrastar estos prisioneros políticos puertorriqueños finiseculares con el prisionero político Oscar López Rivera. Son sobrados los paralelismos en estas dos historias, tanto en los prisioneros políticos de Arroyo como en Oscar López. En ambos sucesos encontramos que tanto los presos políticos de Cádiz como López Rivera pertenecían a sociedades secretas que conspiraban con fines separatistas, fueron sentenciados por los mismos cargos y enviados a cárceles extranjeras a cumplir sus condenas. Por otro lado, contrastan los elementos de la condena entre ambos casos. A ninguno de los prisioneros políticos por los sucesos de Arroyo se les sentenció a más de diez años de prisión, ni por los cargos de conspiración para la rebelión, ni por los cargos de ataques a las fuerzas armadas.

As a history teacher, it was inevitable for me to compare and contrast these turn-of-the-century Puerto Rican political prisoners with Oscar López Rivera. There are many parallels between these two stories, with the political prisoners [from the town of] Arroyo and with Oscar López. In both cases, we see that both the Cadiz prisoners and López Rivera belonged to secret societies with separatist goals, faced the same charges and were sent to foreign prisons. On the other hand, the sentences were different. None of the prisoners from Arroyo were sentenced to more than 10 years of prison, and they did not face any charges related to seditious conspiracy, or charges related to attacking the armed forces.

Global Voices has been following Oscar López Rivera's story and the movement calling for his release for various years. Stay tuned for more details regarding his anticipated return to Puerto Rico in May.

1 comment

  • Willie Sanchez


    In 1998, López Rivera told a reporter, “The whole thing of contrition, atonement, I have problems with that.” The following year, he turned down President Bill Clinton’s clemency offer because the deal required López Rivera to foreswear armed struggle against the United States. Twelve other FALN members accepted Clinton’s pardon.

    In 1974, the FALN began planting booby-trap bombs around New York. While most of these early explosions caused only property damage, the group’s clear intention was to kill and maim. In December 1974, an NYPD officer responding to a report of a dead body in an abandoned building on 110th St. was seriously injured by an FALN incendiary device.
    In January 1975, a 10-pound dynamite bomb killed four people and injured dozens at Fraunces Tavern. The powerful blast was felt blocks away. In an eerie foreshadowing of 9/11, dust-covered victims staggered through downtown streets. The FALN quickly took responsibility for the deadly deed.


    In 1977, a warrant was issued for Oscar Lopez for the possession and storage of explosives.

    That same year, Lopez was indicted in Chicago for receiving 200 sticks of dynamite from Colorado and concealing them in his Chicago apartment.

    In April 1980, the arrest of several other FALN members lead authorities to a house in Milwaukee rented to Lopez that was loaded with bomb-making material. Lopez was present at their arrests but hid until the arrests were complete, narrowly escaping arrest himself.

    In May 1981. Lopez was arrested after being stopped for a traffic violation. The following day, the FBI discovered bomb- making material in a Chicago apartment rented by him.

    During his trial, FALN member Alfredo Mendez, who was co-operating with the government, stated that Lopez taught him how to make a bomb using dynamite; convert a battery and a wrist watch into timed bombing-detonation devices; and how to make gun silencers.

    Mendez also quoted Lopez as saying that, “everybody in the organization has to know how to make bombs…in case they have to survive and keep the organization alive.”

    After his conviction, Lopez said to Judge Thomas McMillen that, “I am an enemy of the United States government…I show respect for human beings, but I don’t think it is reciprocated.” McMillen called Lopez an “incorrigible law-breaker”, and sentenced him to 55 years in prison.

    On March 19, 1983, while incarcerated at Leavenworth, Lopez had feigned illness in order to be transferred to a local VA hospital, and three other heavily armed FALN members would then attempt to affect a rescue. The FBI, however, was able to thwart the plot.

    In 1985, Lopez plotted a second escape attempt with a small group of individuals, two of whom had links to the Weather Underground. A list that Lopez had made up of materials to be used in the plot included grenades, rifles, plastic explosives, bulletproof vests, blasting caps and armor-piercing rockets. The FBI once again thwarted that plot.

    At his trial in 1987, prosecutor Deborah Devaney said that Lopez and his co-defendants were “terrorists who operated without conscience.” Judge McMillen sentenced Lopez to 15 more years in prison, bringing the new total to 70 years. In 1995, McMillen told the Chicago Tribune that the FALN had “used weapons and bombs…they should serve out their sentences.”

    In June of 1998, Lopez told the Houston Chronicle that, “I have no regrets for serving a noble cause, but…there has been lot of pain and suffering.” A month earlier, Lopez told the AP that, “the whole thing with contrition, atonement, I have problems with that.”

    The following is a list of felonies that Oscar Lopez-Rivera has been convicted of:

    Seditious conspiracy (to conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States).

    Interference with interstate commerce by threats of violence.

    Possession of an unregistered firearm.

    Carrying firearms during the commission of seditious conspiracy and interference with interstate commerce by violence.

    Interstate transportation of firearms with intent to commit seditious conspiracy and interference with interstate commerce by use of violence.

    Interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle.

    Conspiracy to escape, to transport explosives with the intent to kill and injure people, and to destroy government buildings and property.

    Aiding and abetting travel in interstate commerce to carry on arson.

    Using a telephone to carry on arson.




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