After 36 Years Behind Bars, Oscar López Rivera is Still Committed to Puerto Rican Independence

By Sameer Rao May 18, 2017

Nearly four decades of incarceration did not extinguish Oscar López Rivera‘s desire for Puerto Rican independence. He promised to tour the island in support of that cause during a press conference soon after his release from house arrest yesterday (May 17).

"I come here to fight and work, that’s what I know how to do," López Rivera told TelesurTV and other assembled media outlets in the capital city of San Juan. "We can make Puerto Rico the nation that it has the potential to be." He added that he would visit the island’s 78 provinces, elaborating to The Associated Press (The AP) that he wishes to "share ideas and promote unity" during the tour.

López Rivera, 74, spoke to media mere hours after leaving his daughter’s San Juan home, where he spent three months under house arrest since leaving Indiana’s Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex in February. He served nearly 36 years of a 55-year sentence for treasonous conspiracy, armed robbery, a weapons offense and interstate transportation of stolen vehicles. President Barack Obama commuted the remainder of López Rivera’s sentence in the final days of his presidency.

The AP notes that López Rivera’s 1981 conviction and incarceration were linked to his membership in the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN), a leftist group that advocated for Puerto Rico’s independence from U.S. control. FALN claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings of government and private buildings in Puerto Rico, New York City and Chicago—where López Rivera lived as a child—during the 1970s. López Rivera maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration (and during a new Spanish-language interview with Univision), but did discuss the group’s mid-1970s violent actions with anchor Jorge Ramos:

The United Nations recognizes that every colonized people has the right to fight for their decolonization, for independence of the country, using all means at their disposal. … I believe that in the precise moment in 1975-76, it was one of the options we had, and which we Puerto Ricans still have, to fight for the independence of Puerto Rico.

He went on to say that he personally opposes violence for Puerto Rico’s liberation and that the U.S. government failed to conclusively support violent charges against him and other imprisoned FALN members: "The FBI has investigated this case for 38, 39 years and has never been able to say so-and-so carried out that crime."

According to TelesurTV, he also commented on the island’s ongoing debt crisis during his post-release press conference, criticizing the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act for promoting international companies’ enterprise at poor Puerto Ricans’ expense: "They made us their guinea pig to do experiments and make us poorer."

Univision reports that supporters will honor López Rivera on June 11 at Manhattan’s Puerto Rican Day Parade—a move that prompted criticism from relatives of people killed in FALN-linked violence. "I’ve had long hours in the middle of the night trying to figure out what I am missing, why he has all this support," Diane Berger Ettenson said in an interview with Univision. Ettenson’s husband Alex Berger was one of four people killed in a 1975 bombing at New York’s Fraunces Tavern, a restaurant and historical landmark used by George Washington during the American Revolution. FALN took responsibility, but no one was ever charged.

López Rivera’s high-profile supporters include former President Jimmy Carter, Senator Bernie Sanders and "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who gave The AP a statement: 

He has his champions and his critics, but this much is true: He served a lifetime in prison, including 12 years in solitary confinement. Don Oscar will spend his twilight years on the island for which he sought independence, and this feels fitting.