Oscar López Rivera isn’t exactly a household name on the U.S. mainland, but that might change soon, if a group of activists and a growing number of Latino politicians continue to put López in the front-and-center position he’s been occupying lately at public events — even though López himself never shows up.
López, who has been in a U.S. prison for 34 years, has been popping up around New York City over the past few months, his face appearing on hand-painted posters, printed banners, silkscreened t-shirts and even giant papier-mâché heads carried and worn by demonstrators calling for his release.
From a May 30 march in Harlem and El Barrio that hoped to bring 5,000 supporters out to the streets (though the actual crowd seemed much smaller), to the Puerto Rican Day Parade last weekend, López has been remarkably visible for someone who is confined to a federal prison cell at FCI Terre Haute, a medium security facility in Indiana run by the Bureau of Prisons.
For the 72-year-old López, the landlocked Terre Haute provokes particular añoranza. In a 2013 letter to his granddaughter, published in the Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Día, and translated and reprinted by Global Voices, López wrote:
“For any Puerto Rican, living far from the sea is almost incomprehensible. It’s different when you know you are free to move anywhere and to travel to see it. It doesn’t matter if it is grey and cold. Even if you see the sea in a faraway country, you realize that it always starts again (as a poet once said), and that fish that drew close to your land may pass through this sea, bringing memories from over there…. I know that some day I will spend a whole night on the coast, and I will wait until dawn begins to appear.”
If López serves his full sentence, that “some day” won’t come until June 2023, when he will be 80 years old. If he survives his time, he will likely be the country’s longest-held political prisoner; in fact, some activists contend that López has already served more time than any other political prisoner in the world.
Confirming or contesting this claim, however, is difficult. In the United States alone, at least one other political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal, has also served 34 years.*
Support from all sides
Advocates for López, a Vietnam veteran who was convicted of seditious conspiracy and related charges of weapons possession and transporting stolen vehicles across state lines, hope he won’t have to spend eight more years in prison. They are stepping up efforts to intensify political pressure, agitating for his early release.
In a statement to Latin Correspondent, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is from Puerto Rico and supports López’s release, wrote, “Oscar López Rivera is a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran that has been imprisoned… because of his political beliefs. He was never convicted of harming or killing anyone.”
Mark-Viverito is just one among an expanding and diverse group of supporters making more visible and vocal calls for López’s freedom.
One of the most interesting developments in the movement to liberate López is the fact that politicians who are typically at odds with one another, both on the island and on the mainland, have united to draw attention to this cause. Mark-Viverito doesn’t find this surprising; López’s situation is one that transcends party lines.
“The plea for his release enjoys support from leaders across the political spectrum,” she told Latin Correspondent, “because, even if they disagree on his ideals, they recognize that he was fighting for what he believes.”
She further noted that López’s rejection of former President Clinton’s offer of clemency, extended in 1999, has inspired Puerto Ricans of all political stripes. López turned down the clemency deal, which some other political prisoners accepted, because one condition of the agreement was that López renounce terrorism. López reasoned that renouncing terrorism was tantamount to conceding he was a terrorist, and he believes staunchly that he is not.
If the timing of the increased efforts to call attention to López’s cause seems strange — Why now? — there’s an easy answer: the upcoming presidential election. As candidates representing both parties fight for votes, President Obama will likely draw up his own list of presidential pardons. While presidents can exercise the right to pardon or commute sentences at any time during their tenure, many tend to save particularly controversial cases for the end of their administration. Supporters of López realize that the Puerto Rican liberation leader falls into this category and are hopeful that President Obama will extend a clemency offer that has no strings attached.
In the meantime, expect to see more López-themed marches and calls to action in Puerto Rico and around the U.S. The next New York City protest in support of López’s release is planned for June 22.
*Another issue, of course, is how and by whom “political prisoner” is defined.