After nearly 40 years in prison, Oscar López Rivera – considered by many as the longest-serving political prisoner in United States history – is a free man. In 1981, the government found him guilty of seditious conspiracy and other non-violent crimes after linking him to a Chicago weapons storehouse. Originally sentenced to 55 years, he received 15 additional years after attempting to escape from prison in 1988. President Barack Obama commuted his sentence – along with Chelsea Manning’s – at the beginning of the year. OLR served most of his sentence at a Terre Haute, Indiana prison. But three months ago, he arrived in Puerto Rico to finish out the sentence under house arrest.
In 1999, President Bill Clinton commuted the sentence of López Rivera and several other FALN members. But López rejected the offer because it included language painting him as a terrorist. López is a divisive figure around the world, including among Puerto Ricans. Some view him as a political prisoner, but others indeed see him as a terrorist. As part of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN) – a paramilitary organization advocating for the independence of Puerto Rico – some believe he partook in the bombing attacks on more than 120 sites that occurred between 1974 and 1980. FALN claimed responsibility for them, but López Rivera was never tied to a specific bombing.
Today’s not a day of celebration for everyone. Six months into her pregnancy in 1975, Diane Berger Ettenson lost her husband because of a still-unsolved explosion in New York City. “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,” the 70-year-old woman said, according to Al Jazeera.
But today, he’ll be celebrated in Puerto Rico, followed by an event honoring him in Chicago on Thursday. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, OLR will arrive in Humboldt Park on Thursday to commemorate the occasion. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez and Ald. Roberto Maldonado will join OLR. Next month in New York City, organizers of the Puerto Rican Day parade, which takes place on June 11, will pay tribute to López as well.
López Rivera’s release comes at a time when activists have been very active in Puerto Rico. The island is beginning what’s bound to be a years-long bankruptcy process. According to Reuters, PR has spent the last decade in recession and the poverty rate currently stands at 11 percent. Back in June 2016, the US Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability (PROMESA) Act in order to address the island’s more than $70 billion debt. The bill authorized a seven-member control board – not elected by those who’ll most feel the effects – to make decisions, with the power to supersede the Puerto Rican government.
And it seems López Rivera is gearing up to join the fight. As he told El Nuevo Día, “I want to enjoy Puerto Rico, my family. But I like to work. I have some skills – organizing, helping young people – that I want to share with people.” In a video interview (check it out below) with Periódico Claridad, he stated, “My commitment [to Puerto Rico] won’t end until my last dying breath. Puerto Rico could be independent, and I would still keep fighting.” After 36 years in prison, OLR’s love for la patria has only grown stronger.