Monday, April 12, 2010

Puerto Rican Political Prisoners: 30 years in U.S. prisons

(presented at the Union Theological Seminary on 4/7)

Puerto Rican Political Prisoners: 30 years in U.S. prisons

by Jan Susler

presented at the Union Theological Seminary on April 7, 2010

In the past month, activists in Puerto Rico, New
York and Chicago participated in art
installations, voluntarily locking themselves
into store-fronts converted into jail cells, each
person spending a long and lonely 24 hour shift,
symbolically deprived of their liberty, privacy,
society, movement, and sensory stimulation.

Why on earth would dozens of people voluntarily
submit themselves to such symbolic privations? To
reflect on an historic moment: the 30th
anniversary of the arrest of 11 Puerto Rican men
and women who would be accused and convicted of
seditious conspiracy, and sentenced to serve the
equivalent of life in U.S. prisons. And to call
attention to the fact that one of them---Carlos
Alberto Torres---has been in prison for 30 years,
another---Oscar Lopez Rivera---, for 29 years;
and another---Avelino Gonzalez Claudio---, for 2.
Of the 2,000 some Puerto Rican political
prisoners since the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico,
Carlos Alberto is the longest held.

What could motivate a Carlos Alberto, an Oscar,
or an Avelino, to risk not symbolic, but real,
concrete, privations? What is it about the
situation of the Puerto Rican nation that could
lead to people being accused of conspiracies
related to winning independence, including
seditious conspiracy--- conspiring to use force
against the “lawful” authority of the U.S. over Puerto Rico?

You may know that in 1898, the U.S. invaded and
militarily occupied Puerto Rico… an occupation
which, over the years, has changed and morphed in
some of its details, but which has essentially
continued unabated to this day; an occupation
which led the George W. Bush (hijo)’s
Presidential Task Force on Puerto Rico to state
that Puerto Rico is a mere possession of the
United States, which the U.S. could give away to
another country, if it so desired.

It is more than a little ironic that the U.S.
would possess Puerto Rico as a colony, given that
the U.S. was born of a colonial struggle--- an
armed, sometimes clandestine, struggle against British control.

Nevertheless, the U.S. expanded its colonial
empire to include Puerto Rico, controlling its
borders and its economy; imposing unwanted U.S.
citizenship and consequent eligibility for
inscription into the U.S. military; attempting to
destroy Puerto Rico’s language, rich culture and
heritage. The Puerto Rican people resisted U.S.
control, just as they had Spanish control,
risking prison and even death to seek to control their own destiny.

Colonized peoples of other empires, particularly
in Africa, also resisted colonial control,
similarly risking prison and death. In the 1950’s
and 60’s, some fought in their own national
territory; others, like the Algerians, took their
struggle to the metropolis. This wave of
anti-colonial struggle led to the formation of a
body of international law, which recognized
colonialism as a crime against humanity, and
which also recognized the right of a people to
fight to end that crime, and in the process to
use any means at their disposal, including armed struggle.

Once the United Nations was formed, in its
efforts to end colonialism throughout the world,
it created a list of non-self governing
territories to monitor. Puerto Rico appeared on
this list as a non-self-governing territory of
the U.S. The U.S., having proclaimed itself as
the democratic bastion of the world, was not
happy about being on this list… and so to get off
the list, in 1952 created the fiction of the Free
Associated State, or Commonwealth, and lied to
the world, claiming that Puerto Rico was
self-governing­ a lie the Bush Presidential Task Force would later admit.

The Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico, having
organized since the 1930’s, could not abide this
lie or the U.S. conduct leading up to it. Not
only did the Party organize armed uprisings and
attacks in Puerto Rico, as a result of which the
Party’s members were rounded up and imprisoned,
and its leader, Don Pedro Albizu Campos, tortured.

The Party also took its struggle to the source of
colonial power… Washington, D.C., where in 1950,
its members attacked the temporary residence of
the U.S. president and in 1954, opened fire in
U.S. Congress. Griselio Torresola was killed;
Oscar Collazo given the death penalty; and others
were sentenced to decades in U.S. prisons: Lolita
Lebrón, Andres Figueroa Cordero, Irving Flores, and Rafael Cancel Miranda.

And what does all this have to do with Carlos
Alberto Torres and Oscar López Rivera and 29 and
30 years of imprisonment? Carlos and Oscar’s
families were part of the great forced Puerto
Rican migration of 1950’s… they grew up in
Chicago’s barrio, where the Puerto Rican
community was subject to slum housing,
insensitive schools, and brutal and racist
police. As Carlos Alberto and Oscar, along with
many other young women and men, organized to
improve the lot of the community, they began to
understand that the Puerto Rican people needed to
control its own destiny. They learned Puerto
Rican history---even though their teachers told
them Puerto Rico had no history. They learned
about the long and proud history of the
resistance of the Puerto Rican people to Spanish
and then U.S. control. They learned about the
Nationalist political prisoners, and participated
in the Committee to Free the Five… a campaign
which resulted in President Carter commuting
their sentences in 1979 after 25 and 29 long years in U.S. prisons.

Carlos Alberto and Oscar understood who they were
as a people; they deeply loved their people and
profoundly grasped the wrongness of the colonial
domination of their nation. Like others
organizing contemporaneously in Puerto Rico, they
were inspired by their foremothers and fathers,
as well as other peoples thirsty for
self-determination, and out of love for their
people, dedicated their lives to righting that
wrong, organizing in clandestine fashion to bring
attention to the colonial case of Puerto Rico.
They knew the cost could be great… and indeed it turned out to be.

In 1976, Carlos Alberto and Oscar, along with two
companeras, went underground. Carlos Alberto and
10 others were arrested in 1980; Oscar in 1981;
as well as others in 1983; they were accused of
belonging to the FALN, Armed Forces for National
Liberation. They invoked international law,
articulating that colonialism is a crime against
humanity; that anti-colonial combatants may use
any means at their disposal, including armed
struggle, to end that crime; and that the courts
of the colonizing country may not criminalize
captured anti-colonial combatants, but must turn
them over to an impartial international tribunal
to have their status adjudged. The U.S. did not
heed international law, and proceeded to try them
and send them to prison for sentences ranging
from 35 to life… this, after the judge stated his
regrets that there was no federal death penalty
at the time, for that was the sentence he wanted to give them.

Time does not allow a complete catalog the myriad
of human rights violations they experienced in
U.S. prisons… the years of torture, withholding
medical attention, lockdowns, harassment, false
accusations of violations of prison rules and
criminal laws. But we must take time today to
consider what 30 years of prison means: Carlos
Alberto’s father, Reverend Jose Torres (el Viejo)
retired from his position as pastor of the United
Church of Christ church and later succumbed to
prostate cancer. Carlos was not permitted to go
to his father’s deathbed or to the funeral.
Oscar’s parents passed away. His mother, Mita,
suffered from Alzheimer’s, and had difficulty
understanding why she was unable to hug her son,
as their visits were through thick plexiglass.
Oscar was also not permitted to attend her
funeral. Both Carlos Alberto and Oscar are now
grandfathers… they have known their grandchildren
only in prison visiting rooms, where guards hover
closely and limit their physical contact.

In the early 1990’s, people in Puerto Rico and
the U.S., who had worked to defend their human
rights since the moment of their arrest, joined
to form a campaign for the release of the Puerto
Rican political prisoners. By the mid 1990’s, the
campaign had moved beyond the movement for the
independence of Puerto Rico and expanded to
include broad sectors of Puerto Rican civil
society… a most unusual phenomenon in Puerto
Rico, where status preference lines rarely allow
for such convergence. The churches--- in both the
U.S. and in Puerto Rico--- were key in this
effort. The campaign created the understanding
that the men and women in prison for independence
were Puerto Ricans who were being punished with
disproportionately lengthy sentences and cruel
prison conditions because of who they were, and
not for what they had done: if they had been
social prisoners, convicted of crimes not related
to the independence of Puerto Rico, they would
never have been given such lengthy sentences, and
they would have been released after serving far
less time in prison. And if they had been
political prisoners in any other country of the
world--- be it in South Africa, in France, in
Germany, for example, they would have been
released after serving less time in prison.

This campaign took on international proportions,
garnering support from Nobel Peace Prize winners,
elected officials, church leaders, and
personalities such as Desmond Tutu, archbishop of
South Africa. Archbishop Tutu’s support was not
coincidental, given that the Puerto Rican
political prisoners were in prison for precisely
the same reason as Nelson Mandela and other
anti-apartheid fighters in South Africa:
clandestine organizing to end illegal domination
of one people by another. Let us recall the
worldwide outrage at the 27 years President Mandela was kept in prison.

The vast support for their release led to
President Clinton’s 1999 commutation of the
sentences of 11 of Carlos Alberto and Oscar’s
compatriots, and after 16 and 20 years in prison,
Elizam Escobar, Edwin Cortes, Dylcia Pagán,
Ricardo Jiménez, Lucy Rodríguez, Luis Rosa,
Carmen Valentín, Alicia Rodríguez, Adolfo Matos,
Alberto Rodríguez, Alejandrina Torres, and later
Juan Segarra, walked out of the prison doors and
into the waiting arms of the Puerto Rican people and their supporters.

In the ten years since their release, they have
received a hero’s welcome and the universal
respect of the people. They work in education,
art, construction, business and law; they support
and care for their families; they are active in
ongoing struggles affecting the Puerto Rican
people; and they are a very important part of the
ongoing campaign for the release of Carlos Alberto, Oscar and Avelino.

Rather astonishingly, Carlos Alberto and Oscar
have served those ten years behind bars. Yet,
like their released compatriots, Carlos Alberto,
Oscar and Avelino are resilient, intelligent,
caring men, committed to the freedom of their
people. Their love for their nation has
maintained them through the darkest moments, kept
alive their sense of humor, their thirst for
expression through art, and their people’s
aspirations, at the same time it has kept at bay
any sense of bitterness or hate.

Every year, the U.N. Decolonization Committee
adopts a resolution applying international law to
the case of Puerto Rico, reaffirming that
colonialism is a crime against humanity and that
the right of self-determination applies to the
Puerto Rican people. And for over a decade, that
international body has called for the release of
the Puerto Rican political prisoners, last year
specifically naming Carlos Alberto and Oscar.

President Obama, like many of his predecessors,
has stated that the relationship between the U.S.
and Puerto Rico must be resolved. There is
legislation pending in U.S. Congress which
purports to address the issue of status. Any
resolution of the status, however, must comply
with international law, and must provide for
release of the political prisoners.

Oscar is now 67 years old; Carlos Alberto, 57;
Avelino, 67. If they are made to serve their
entire prison sentences, Oscar will be 84 years
old; Carlos Alberto, 71; Avelino, 74. It is up to
us… you, me, your classmates, members of your
congregation, your families, your neighbors… to
ensure that doesn’t happen. We can write to the
U.S. Parole Commission to support Carlos
Alberto’s bid for parole. We can write to the
president to ask him to commute their sentences.
We can join organizations such as the National
Boricua Human Rights Network, el Comité Pro
Derechos Humanos, or Prolibertad, and put our
creative energy to work, with activities like the
store-front cell installations. We can sponsor
educational forums like this one, and invite the
former political prisoners to speak. We can write
to the prisoners and let them know we support them.

History has taught us that together we are
enormously powerful­ convincing the empire to
cede two historic and unprecedented releases of
Puerto Rican political prisoners, in 1979 and
1999, not to mention to withdraw the U.S. Navy
from Vieques. We must organize to exercise our
collective power once more, and bring Carlos Alberto, Oscar and Avelino home.

And we must work to end U.S. colonial control
over Puerto Rico… history has taught us, not just
over the past 30 years, but over the past 111
years of U.S. colonialism and the centuries
before that of Spanish colonialism, like Carlos
Alberto, Oscar, Avelino, Don Pedro, Lolita, and
thousands of others, the Puerto Rican people will
risk real privations and even death to win freedom and self-determination.

Jan Susler
People’s Law Office
1180 N. Milwaukee
Chicago, IL 60642
773/235-0070 x 118

1 comment:

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