After a decades-long international campaign for his freedom, on Tuesday President Obama announced that Puerto Rican independence activist Oscar Lopez Rivera will be released in May.
The announcement is just the latest development in Lopez Rivera’s remarkable life, one dedicated to struggles for freedom, justice, and political integrity.
Born in Puerto Rico in 1943, Lopez Rivera moved with his family to the U.S. in 1952, just two years after Puerto Rican independence activists tried to assassinate President Truman in New York, and one year ahead of the largest ever wave of migration to the U.S. which saw almost 70,000 Puerto Ricans arrive on the mainland.
At age 14 Oscar Lopez moved to join his sister in Humboldt Park, Chicago, one of the city’s largest Puerto Rican communities, and at age 18, like many working class Latino men, he was drafted into the U.S. military to fight in Vietnam.
After several tours, during which he was awarded the Bronze Star for “heroic service”, he returned to Chicago in 1967 where he became a widely respected community activist, heavily involved in creating one of the first Latino alternative schools in the country.
In 1972 he was one of the founders of La Escuelita Puertoriiqueña, which started in the basement of a Chicago church, and was later renamed the Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School, after the founder of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party who was himself jailed by the U.S. for his independence activism.
Along with his brother Jose Lopez, he founded the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and waged groundbreaking anti-discrimination fights against local utility services. As an organizer with ASPIRA, which remains the only national Latino organization “dedicated exclusively to developing the educational and leadership capacity of Hispanic youth,” he played a prominent role in promoting bilingual education throughout the Chicago public school system and pushed universities to actively recruit both Latino students and faculty.
Through his activism, he became increasingly radicalized, going on to help start a transition house for former prisoners dealing with addictions issues and an education program for Latino inmates that the Statesville prison.
By the mid-1970’s Lopez Rivera had joined the Armed Forces of National Liberation, FALN, whose goal was to establish an independent socialist state in Puerto Rico. The FALN, founded in the late 1960’s after years of U.S. government attacks on Puerto Rican independence activists, declared that only through “clandestine armed struggles” could Puerto Rico free itself from its “colonial condition.”
After years of living underground, Lopez Rivera was arrested in 1981 and charged with “seditious conspiracy” for his role in a variety of FALN activities, including bombings and armed robberies. During his trial Lopez Rivera and other FALN activists told the court their actions were part of an anti-colonial war against the U.S., declaring themselves prisoners of war and requesting that their cases be handed over to an international court.
Once that request was turned down Rivera largely ignored the proceedings, arguing that his actions were legal under the geneva conventions which recognized the right to armed struggle against colonial occupation. He was eventually sentenced to 55 years in prison, a sentence almost 20 times longer than those handed down for similar offenses.
However neither that sentence nor decades of solitary confinement, in conditions which both Amnesty International and several U.S. federal courts rules as “cruel and unusual”, dampened Lopez Rivera’s commitments to solidarity and resistance.
While in prison he refused to work for UNICOR, the state-run prison labor corporation, citing their production of military component parts. He later organized a successful campaign to end an institutionalized harassment campaign by prison guards. In 1988 he was sentenced to another 15 years in prison for attempting to escape.
Perhaps his most famous act of solidarity came in 1999 when he was offered a clemency deal by President Clinton as long as he publicly renounced armed struggle. He rejected the promise of early release on the grounds that it was not being offered to other Puerto Rican independence activists, and because he refused to renounce the right of colonized peoples to armed resistance.
This enduring political integrity, and his unfailing commitment to the principles of solidarity and the independence of Puerto Rico inspired the decades-long campaign for his freedom, which saw 10 Nobel Peace Prize winners, U.S. politicians such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Luis Gutierrez, and artists such as Residente and Lin-Manuel Miranda, all calling for his release.
In an interview just weeks before the official commutation of his sentence Lopez Rivera remained defiant and unfailing in his commitment to the liberation of Puerto Rico, saying “whatever time I have left in this world I dedicate it to work and fight to help solve the biggest problem we face: the colonial status of Puerto Rico.”