Oscar López Rivera: The Invisible Man and His Invisible Nation

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.


Matt Peppe is a political blogger who likes the Red Sox but doesn’t like colonialism or imperialism. You can follow him on Twitter @PeppeMatt and subscribe to his Just the Facts blog.

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Tell Us What You Think!
jlop28vislophis says:

The Second Oscar – Mandela
March in New York City 2015
We will be having our 2nd
Oscar – Mandela Protest March on Monday, June 22, 2015.We will start marching peacefully at 9 AM from
Hunter College on East 68th Street and Lexington Avenue, to East 43rd
Street and Lexington Avenue.We will
then go East (turning left) to end up at the Ralph Bunche Park on First Avenue (across
from the United Nations).
We will be at the park until
5 PM.We will be giving out flyers and
talking to people about who Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera
is. We will also be educating the public
about Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship with the government of the United
States (US).
Most people don’t know that
every year, usually on the Monday after Fathers’ Day, the United Nations holds
its hearing about the decolonization of Puerto Rico.The petitioners will usually join our protest
after this meeting.
The UN determined in 1960 that
colonialism is a crime against humanity.Since then, the UN has issued 33 resolutions asking for the US
government to immediately decolonize Puerto Rico.The US government has ignored these
resolutions.What kind of democracy
is that?
The US government tries to
keep these hearings a secret.What we
are trying to do is to get them out of the closet. The UN is in its 3rd
decade trying to make the world colony-free.Please help us!
Most people also don’t know
that the United States government takes out 14 times more money than what it
invests in Puerto Rico.But, that is
what colonies are for!
This savage exploitation
impedes Puerto Rico’s ability to provide opportunities for Puerto Ricans in
Puerto Rico.That is why there are now
more Puerto Ricans living away from Puerto Rico than in their homeland.
Oscar López Rivera has been
incarcerated for 34 years for his struggle to decolonize Puerto Rico.Since colonialism is an international crime,
international law gives Oscar the right to use whatever means necessary to decolonize
his homeland.Nelson Mandela was
incarcerated for 27 years for doing the same thing as Oscar.This is why we say, Oscar López Rivera is
our Nelson Mandela!
United Partners for Puerto
Rico Decolonization invites the
public to be part of the tsunami of people that will be necessary to make the
US government comply with the UN resolutions.These annual protests in Puerto Rico and at the UN are absolutely
necessary, because, those who maintain colonies, don’t believe in justice for
José M López Sierra

jlop28vislophis says:

Should criminals be in charge of correcting the wrong they
Puerto Ricans vote in
elections every 4 years at an 80% level of participation.Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United
States (US) government for the past 116 years.If the US government has the final say in what happens in Puerto Rico,
what is the purpose of these elections?The purpose is to fool the world that Puerto Rico is a democracy.
The United Nations (UN) declared
colonialism a crime against humanity in 1960.The UN has asked the US government 33 times to decolonize Puerto Rico
immediately.The US government has refused.It says that Puerto Rico’s political
relationship with the United States is none of the UN’s business.The US says that it is a domestic affair.
To appear that the US
government wants to decolonize Puerto Rico, it promotes the use of plebiscites
to determine what Puerto Ricans want.Doesn’t
that sounds innocent and democratic?So
what’s the problem?
To begin with, the
international community already rendered its verdict and determined that
colonialism is illegal.So to have a
political status option in a plebiscite that favors maintaining Puerto Rico a
colony of the United States is not permitted.To have a political status option of Puerto Rico becoming a state of the
United States is also not permitted under international law.The problem goes back to the beginning of
this article.In order to have free
elections, the country must be free.So
before these elections and plebiscite could be valid, Puerto Rico would have to
first be an independent nation.
What people must realize is
that Puerto Rico is a colony of the US because the US government wants it that
way.That is why it has used terrorism
to keep it that way.That is why it
refuses to release the Puerto Rican political prisoner of 33 years Oscar López
Rivera.That is also why it is
ridiculous to believe that decolonization is a US internal matter in which the
UN has no jurisdiction over.If we allow
the US government to decolonize Puerto Rico, she will remain a colony of the
United States forever!
José M López Sierra

jlop28vislophis says:

Dear Partner,
After the approval of the 33rd United Nations’
resolution by consensus on June 23, 2014 asking the United States (US) to
immediately decolonize of Puerto Rico, we should work together to force the
United States government to comply with it.
The facts that the United States government has maintained
Puerto Rico as its colony for 116 years, has had Oscar López Rivera in prison for 33
years for fighting for Puerto Rico decolonization, and has ignored 33 UN
resolutions to decolonize Puerto Rico, confirm that the US government has no
intentions of ever decolonizing Puerto Rico.Therefore, we need to form a tsunami of people to force the US to comply
with the 33 resolutions.
We should peacefully protest at least 3 times a year until
we achieve our goal.The first one will
be a march up to the US Courthouse in Puerto Rico on the Abolition of
Slavery Day on March 22.The second
will be another march in Puerto Rico on a day before the UN’s Puerto Rico
decolonization hearing.The third one
will be a protest in New York City on the same day the UN holds its Puerto
Rico decolonization hearing.
These 3 protests are indispensable, because those who
have colonies don’t believe in justice for all.
José M
López Sierra

Timón del Pueblo
United Partners for the Decolonization of Puerto Rico