Musings on Oscar Lopez Rivera and the Struggle for Puerto Rican Independence

Let’s talk about Oscar Lopez Rivera and the struggle for Puerto Rican independence.

Lopez Rivera was set free today after 36 years in prison — an overwhelming chunk of which was spent in solitary confinement. In the 1970s Lopez Rivera was associated with a militant group known as the “Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña, ”FALN for short (it should be noted that Rivera has claimed that he was not officially part of the group). The use of the word “militant” here is not necessarily a negative value judgement, however. FALN chose to take up arms and use weapons as part of their political strategy which involved attacking government buildings in an attempt undo the structures that perpetuated Puerto Rican subjugation — actions that inevitably did lead to some casualties. In this way FALN followed the strategy of many contemporary groups — including movements for Native American Liberation (see for example the work of Leonard Pelletier). More broadly, however, FALN was in the legacy of armed insurrection against colonialism in Puerto Rico that reaches back to the 15th century with indigenous uprisings, slave revolts, El Grito de Lares, the Independentista movement (I.e. the work of Pedro Albizu Campos, Lolita Lebron, and others), and the Young Lords Party.

All that said, it’s important to note that Lopez Rivera was not imprisoned on murder charges. Indeed he was convicted for “Seditious Conspiracy,” a charge that stems all the way back to the Revolutionary War, used to imprison those whose actions or thoughts undermine the legitimacy and authority of the United States. Seditious Conspiracy, then, is a charge for a political crime, used to silence and punish dissent or contrarian thinking in the United States context. Taking this definition into account, Oscar Lopez Rivera was imprisoned for posing an ideological threat to the U.S. government in his fighting for Puerto Rican independence. Put differently, Lopez Rivera was imprisoned for opposing the colonialism that got Puerto Rico into the mess it faces today.

Some argue that Lopez Rivera should not be set free or venerated because he is, according to them, a murderer. I want to take seriously this claim and discuss it briefly. That the actions of FALN (and Lopez Rivera by association) took lives — even if unintentionally — is a fact. And, in my view, we need to hold that in tension with anything we say about Lopez Rivera — regardless of whether or not he himself planted bombs or took lives. But what really bothers me is that some of the most outspoken pundits who claim Lopez Rivera is a murderer do not, and have not, bat-an-eye at U.S. crimes domestically and abroad. While this might sound left-field, stick with me for a moment. In pursuit of its political agenda the US government intentionally murders people, abroad and at home, through the constant use of drone strikes, implementation of draconian policies, etc. When the US government murders for their political ends, some folks label it “democracy” or “the struggle for freedom,” etc., but don’t bat-an-eye at the taking of life in these situations. FALN also pursued a political agenda by strategically bombing buildings — an act which horridly led to casualties more than once. While I, personally, don’t condone or defend any actions that lead to death — by FALN, the US government, or others — it bothers me that people label Lopez Rivera a murderer but don’t question the murderous acts of the government that imprisoned him. This inconsistency in people’s labeling, to me, solidifies how Rivera’s crime can and should be interpreted as political and, indeed, ideological.

Further, I think we need to have a broader conversation about the fact that Oscar Lopez Rivera was in jail for 36 years with a large chunk spent in solitary confinement (a sentence longer than rape or murder charges in some states). The question I want to ask is if this is justice? Is it just that a man, charged with opposing a (violent) colonial regime, was placed in solitary confinement, let alone jail, for over three decades? Further, how does this connect to broader conversations about jailing and mass incarceration? I ask these questions because I find it ethically problematic that folks say Lopez Rivera should still be in jail and solidarity confinement therein. What is this meant to accomplish? (And we should all have this conversation vis-a-vis Chelsea Manning’s imprisonment).

Which leads to my final point, what I’ve been trying to get at in these musings. In my assessment — historically and analytically — Oscar Lopez Rivera’s crime was ideologically opposing the United States government who unjustly colonized a people — his people — for a hundred years. As a result, that Lopez Rivera was a political prisoner is not a question: it is a historical fact based on the reason for his arrest and subsequent sentencing. This, in my opinion, does not mean that we should not have a serious conversation about his connection to FALN and the lives lost in their struggle. Indeed, we can and must hold that in tension. But if we’re going to have an honest conversation lets remove language that obfuscates and get the facts straight. Let’s have an honest conversation about why Lopez Rivera was in jail for so long, and why people who don’t bat-an-eye at the U.S.’s violence are so upset he’s free.

Oscar Lopez Rivera was imprisoned for opposing the colonization and subjugation of HIS people. For this reason, many are happy that he is finally free, and many more yearn that Puerto Rico will too one day be free.