On Questions of Status: Puerto Rico's Relation to the U.S. and Oscar López Rivera's Fate

The next couple of weeks will mark two important milestones for the history of the Puerto Rican people. On August 1, the US Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold hearings about the island's status, responding to a recent non-binding plebiscite in which the majority of voters expressed their disagreement with the current status. These hearings will take place exactly one week to the day of the 115th anniversary of the event that paved the way to this status, the US invasion of Puerto Rico on July 25, 1898. Many look at the hearings full of expectations, hoping that they might allow the island to once and for all clarify its relation to the United States. Others are more cautious, assuming that this is just one of many other futile attempts to clarify a relationship that has been very complex from its origin and a catalyst for passions of different persuasions.

Much will be written about the hearings and their results. Today I'd like to address another aspect of the passions surrounding the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico that has been steadily gaining the attention not only of Puerto Ricans, but of the international community as a whole: the fate of Oscar López Rivera, who has already served 32 years in prison for the charge of "seditious conspiracy," a statute enacted on July 1861 to detain and punish Confederate rebells.

A Bronze Star decorated Vietnam veteran, he was arrested in 1981 for his association with the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN), a pro-independence organization responsible for a series of bombings between 1974 and 1983. López Rivera was convicted on conspiracy charges and was not linked to any deaths or injuries related to the bombings, circumstances that led President Clinton to pardon him along with 16 other FALN members in 1999. At the time López Rivera refused the pardon, as two of his comrades were not included in it. Ironically, these two, Marie Haydée Beltrán Torres and Carlos Alberto Torres, were released in 2009 and 2010 while Oscar López Rivera remains imprisoned.

President Obama's recent visit to Africa at a time close to the 32nd anniversary of López Rivera's imprisonment led many to make comparisons between him and Nelson Mandela. Mandela, after all, was a leader of an armed movement dedicated to the independence of his people, who, like López Rivera, refused on several occasions conditional releases which would break his principles. In an eloquent editorial, Manuel de J González wondered whether Barack Obama talked to his daughters about Mandela's armed struggle as they visited his cell in Robben Island, and whether he could link this Nobel Peace Laureate's trajectory to that of the Puerto Rican.

At around the same time Democracy Now! aired a 15-minute segment dedicated to his case. In it, another Nobel Peace Laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for his "immediate and unconditional release" in the spirit of "reconciliation and peace" (1:47).

Archbishop Tutu is not the only Nobel Peace Laureate to call for Oscar López Rivera's release. He has been joined by Northern Ireland's Mairead Corrigan Maguire:

And by East Timor's former president José Ramos-Horta:

A couple of days ago, aware of the approach of the Senate's hearings and the anniversary of the invasion of Puerto Rico, a friend of mine shared this video, a moving tribute to the many Puerto Ricans who dedicated their lives to the future of the island.

While I could not recognize his face in the video, I believe that Oscar López Rivera deserves to be remembered with the many figures who like Ramón Emeterio Betances, Eugenio María de Hostos, Lola Rodríguez de Tió, Luisa Capetillo and Pedro Albizu Campos have left their personal mark in the writing of Puerto Rico's history.

In a recent editorial, Mayra Montero wondered why many are unaware of Oscar López Rivera's case. In order to remember him, I must close with his own words, an open letter published on January 14, 2013, commemorating his seventieth birthday and, within the confines of his prison in Leavenworth, expressing gratitude for his life.

This post originally appeared on http://blogs.umass.edu/marentes/.