“Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs.”—President Barack Obama
“But one prisoner remains, now a vivid reminder of the ongoing inequality that colonialism and empire building inevitably bring forth. After more than 30 years, Oscar López Rivera is imprisoned for the ‘crime’ of seditious conspiracy: conspiracy to free his people from the shackles of imperial justice.”—Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu
If you ask any American what is the first thing they think of when they hear the term “political prisoner,” the vast majority will say Nelson Mandela. To the millions who witnessed Mandela leading the South African liberation struggle and those who were born in its aftermath, Mandela has become a symbol of resistance to the worst form of political repression. The 27 years he spent imprisoned in Robben Island are an almost unimaginable punishment to people in the West, who like to think that nothing remotely similar could happen at home. Meanwhile, in a prison cell in Terre Haute, Indiana, out of the media spotlight and the history books, Oscar López Rivera on May 29 will mark his 33rd year spent behind bars (almost half in solitary confinement) as a political prisoner of the U.S. government for a nearly identical “crime” and a nearly identical cause.
López holds the distinction of being the longest-serving Puerto Rican political prisoner ever. He has already served six more years than Mandela. At 71 years old, he is not scheduled to be released for another 10 years. Convicted of “seditious conspiracy,” trying to overthrow the U.S. government by force, López was imprisoned for the same charge as Mandela. Although the government implied he was part of FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña), a Puerto Rico nationalist organization, he was never accused of any acts of violence that killed or injured anyone.
The 55-year prison sentence handed down to López was egregiously excessive. For comparison, in the mid 90s, the average time spent in prison by people convicted of violent felonies was four years; for those convicted of murder or manslaughter it was 10 years.
To Puerto Ricans and those who belong to the Puerto Rican diaspora around the word, the cause of justice for Oscar López has become a unanimous and ubiquitous pursuit. Tens of thousands gathered in San Juan to demand López’s release in November. There have been popular demonstrations that included musicians, athletes and politicians engaging in a symbolic lock up to bring attention to López’s cause. Ricky Martin made a public plea at the Latin Grammy’s and boxer Felix Verdejo did the same before his latest fight.
President Obama has recently received letters appealing for him to pardon López from fellow Nobel Peace Laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Máiread Corrigan Maguire and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel; from Pedro Pierluisi, the sole Puerto Rican (non-voting) member of Congress and from Puerto Rican governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla. Florida Representative Alan Grayson, spurred on by public outrage among the Puerto Rican community in his district, petitioned Obama for López’s release in January. José “Pepe” Mujica, President of Uruguay, called on Obama to free López during their meeting at the White House.
Yet in the rest of the States it is as if López does not even exist. Obama has never publicly responded to the pleas from human rights activists, politicians, celebrities, or the hundreds of thousands of average citizens who have made their voice heard on the streets and on social media. While Arab Spring protests were featured on the national news broadcasts and pages of the newspapers and magazines, an equally large movement of U.S. citizens has been ignored by the President and the U.S. media.
When he gave his eulogy for Mandela, Obama proclaimed that, “We, too, must act on behalf of justice.” Presented with an opportunity to fulfill his pledge, Obama has instead chosen the convenience of indifference. What matters is not how Mandela was eulogized, but how he was judged in the moment. It is easy to talk about justice in a case that history has already decided long ago.
“I wonder if you would be interested in imbuing your presidency with historical significance in the form of a direct action to assuage this injustice perpetrated by the American government,” writes Guillermo Rebollo-Gil in 80grados. “Students at the march [in San Juan] were chanting in unison: ‘Obama can’t talk about freedom, if he keeps brother Oscar incarcerated.’ Thousands upon thousands agreed. And now I am tempted to ask, can you?”
Everyone now accepts that South Africa was an apartheid state. Whites created a racial caste system that denied blacks political and social rights while institutionalizing economic oppression. South Africa of the 1950’s in many ways resembled the U.S. South at the same time. In both cases, white supremacy was defended hysterically, above all other political considerations. The inherent inequality of the apartheid system of “Separate but Equal” has now been completely discredited.
Up until the bitter end, the United States government defended the apartheid regime in South Africa. Ronald Reagan, who declared Mandela’s African National Congress a terrorist organization, called South Africa “a country that is strategically essential to the free world” in 1981. Previous administrations backed the white South African army as they invaded neighboring Angola to suppress that nation’s liberation movement to achieve freedom from colonial rule. While apartheid now is universally accepted as an atrocity and a crime against humanity, it is important to remember that was not always the case.
The measure of a leader’s courage is whether he fights for social justice when he can make a difference, not what he says in hindsight decades later. If President Obama were the judge who Mandela stood before in Rivonia, would Obama have dared to reject the accepted legitimacy of South Africa’s political system, as he might like to believe, or would he, like Reagan, dismiss Mandela as a “terrorist?” Based on his actions as President, it is hard to believe that Obama would have had the courage to see Mandela’s struggle as the fight for justice we all now recognize that it was.
When it comes to Puerto Rico, Obama has not even bothered to acknowledge the monumental referendum in which the Puerto Rican people decisively rejected the current colonial status they have been subjected to for 115 years. The most Obama has done is include a few million dollars in his budget for the Puerto Rican electoral commission to hold another non-binding vote. He has not spoken at all about ensuring Puerto Rico’s will is carried out by achieving first-class status, either as its own nation or as part of the United States.
Residents of Puerto Rico and the other U.S. colonies (Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands) have no vote in presidential elections, nor any representation in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. They have no voice in making the policies they are subjected to under Article 6 of the Constitution, which they never agreed to. Economically, Puerto Rico is completely dependent on the United States. It imports 85% of its foodstuffs. To this day, efforts to create self-sufficiency are being undermined by U.S. laws imposed on Puerto Rico without their consent.
The result is what Judge Juan Torruella of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has called “political apartheid, which continues in full vigor.” Torruella, a Puerto Rican native and Reagan appointee, writes eloquently of the similarities between the “Separate but Equal” status endorsed in Plessy vs. Ferguson and the “Separate and Unequal” status endorsed in the Insular Cases.
If there is any doubt how Puerto Rico has fared as a colony, one simple statistic illustrates the point: the average income in Puerto Rico ($18,660) is 50% less than the poorest state (Mississippi), and 65% less than the national average. In many ways, there is little difference —either politically or economically— between Puerto Ricans today and black South Africans until the end of apartheid.
When it concerned another government, somewhere else, Obama could praise Mandela for challenging the oppressive system he faced, saying Mandela turned his trial into “an indictment of apartheid.” Just like Mandela, López made a similar argument in his own defense, admitting his fight against the structure of the colonial system oppressing Puerto Rico.
“The United States government will not say that international organizations have determined that Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States and that, according to international law, they are committing a crime against my country,” López said.
This appears to be a crime Obama is not willing to admit, much less challenge. The longer Obama maintains his silence, the larger the calls for justice for López grow. Puerto Ricans who oppose colonialism but have historically disagreed politically otherwise have found common cause in demanding López’s freedom. And this movement may serve as a catalyst to achieve the political change López has sacrificed 33 years of his life for: ending apartheid in Puerto Rico.
In the end Obama’s legacy will be not as the transformational political leader he promised to be, but rather as the President who pretended to support social justice while working behind the scenes to ensure it was never achieved.
Someday if both Oscar López and his nation of Puerto Rico achieve freedom, López may wind up becoming the symbol of struggle against injustice that Mandela is today. The United States under Barack Obama, like South Africa decades earlier, will be the symbol of political repression.