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SPRING 2000 ISSUE

No Regrets:
The tough choice between freedom and convictions faced by jailed Puerto Rican activists

by Patricia Guadalupe

 

Lourdes Lugo, a niece of Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) prisoner Oscar López Rivera, Listens to an attorney discuss the terms of a clemency offer accepted by most FALN prisoners last fall. Lugo's uncle, Oscar López Rivera, refused the terms of the offer and will remain imprisoned. AP Photo/ Ted S. Warren

 

Ida Luz “Lucy” Rodríguez and her younger sister Alicia, and all the others, are trying to put their lives back together again. They’ve spent almost twenty years locked up in prison for what they and their supporters say is merely an ideological conviction.

The Rodríguez sisters are among the eleven Puerto Rican independentistas who last year were granted conditional clemency by President Clinton. The clemency comes with several big strings attached. Now that they are out, the sisters are lying low, distrusting anything that could call attention to their situation while the U.S. government still has the power to yank them back from freedom.

“They’re now in Puerto Rico, taking art classes and other types of classes, trying to lead a quiet life,” says their mother, Josefina, a friendly Chicago housewife who spends most of her time nowadays tending to her ailing husband. “It hasn’t been easy, you know, after being locked up for so long, but I think they are adapting well. The community in Puerto Rico has been an enormous help in their rehabilitation process. I’m just so happy they are out.”

Was it worth it? “Absolutely,” she adds. “It was hard for me and my husband. As a mother it is painful to have children in jail, but I am very proud that they stood their ground and were willing to go as far as they did for their convictions. Not many people do that.”

Of the eleven who accepted the clemency offer, nine opted to live on the island. The sisters have been living in Puerto Rico since last September, where they have been welcomed as heroes almost twenty years after being arrested for their activities seeking independence for Puerto Rico.

Lucy, the oldest, was born in the small Puerto Rican town of Las Marías, in 1950. When she was two the family moved to Chicago, and she eventually studied at Northeastern Illinois University, majoring in psychology and sociology with plans to become a teacher.

“I had no idea they were involved in the sorts of activities the government accuses her and her sister of doing in college and afterwards,” Doña Josefina says. “They did the usual things people in college do, like protest and get involved in political causes.” After college Lucy helped found and taught at the Rafael Cancel Miranda Puerto Rican High School in Chicago — today renamed the Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School — and became involved in the Committee to Free the Five Puerto Rican Nationalists. The group was pressing for a presidential pardon for the five independentistas who in 1954 opened fire on the U.S. House of Representatives. The five had also tried to assassinate President Harry Truman by firing on a building across the street from the White House where they mistakenly thought he was staying. They were eventually pardoned by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.

According to the FBI, Lucy Rodríguez was also part of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN), a militant group that advocated independence for Puerto Rico by any means necessary, including force. In the mid-1970s, several bombings in New York and Chicago had been attributed to the FALN, although rumors ran rampant in U.S. Puerto Rican communities and on the island that the FBI had been involved as part of a disinformation campaign to scare the population against independence for the island.

In 1976, as the bombings increased and the law enforcement crackdown on Puerto Rican nationalist activities stepped up, Lucy and several others, including her companion, Oscar López Rivera, went underground. “I was very worried when she went into hiding, especially since I didn’t know all that they were doing. I really had no idea,” says Josefina Rodríguez. “It was very scary and I feared for her safety, but I felt I had to support her for supporting independence for Puerto Rico. Doing that is a hard thing to do. People are scared to, and we have to back those who do, because so few are willing to do it publicly.”

Puerto Rican nationalists Ida Luz Rodriguez, right, and her sister Alicia Rodriquez in San Juan, Puerto Rico after they were freed last fall. AP Photo/ Ricardo Figueroa

 

Lucy’s sister Alicia, who was born in Chicago in 1954, once said she got involved in independentista movement activities because, even though she was born in the United States, she felt that her heritage, language and culture were considered foreign and different — and therefore not good — by her teachers and classmates. Her first visit to Puerto Rico, when she was already in college at the University of Chicago, was a turning point in her life, and it made her determined, as she puts it, to combat the root of the island’s problems: colonialism.

Her plans and those of her sister came crashing down on the afternoon of April 4, 1980, when law enforcement officials arrested them and nine others in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. They were immediately accused of being members of the FALN. The police found maps, bomb-making devices and other paraphernalia they said pointed to the group’s plans to use force. By ten that night, the Rodríguez sisters and the others had declared themselves “prisoners of war” and refused to recognize U.S. jurisdiction over their cases. They refused to be represented and did not speak up in their defense during their trials. The federal government used a little-known law that dates back to the Civil War, seditious conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government, to convict the group on a variety of charges, including bomb making and weapons possession. None were accused or convicted of direct participation in the bombings, which by then numbered more than one hundred in New York, Chicago and Puerto Rico. Their sentences were severe — Alicia received eighty-five years, Lucy, eighty. The others fared similarly.

The sentences were decried by family members and community supporters as excessive, and they went to work to trying to free the incarcerated independentistas. The efforts were stepped up when President Clinton was reelected to his second term. The group’s supporters figured that they would have a friendlier ear with a lame-duck Democrat rather than during the twelve years of Reagan-Bush.

Supporters held rallies and meetings on the island and in several U.S. cities, and the White House was inundated with postcards in support of a pardon.

“Believe it or not, the Monica Lewinsky situation delayed it for us,” the elder Rodríguez muses. “We had been involved in real intense dialogue with the Clinton administration, and the president was prepared to let them go in 1998, but then they had to deal with the Lewinsky situation. That held it up for almost a year.”

When President Clinton granted clemency in August 1999, the conditions included severing ties with independence movement activities and each other, and renouncing violence as a means to achieve political goals. The group was willing to accept the second condition, but were having problems with cutting ties to their political activities, and more importantly, to each other. While those are common parole conditions, it seemed to them and their families a hard pill to swallow. The group was also concerned that their parole would be overseen by the same agencies and officials that vehemently opposed their release, and would therefore not be the unbiased observers that parole officers are supposed to be.

“Severing ties with each other was unfair,” said Josefina Rodríguez. “I was hoping that there would be no conditions attached, just like the other [1976] pardon. Imagine telling two sisters you can’t see each other, especially since they were jailed together. That condition was almost unbelievable. But I urged them to accept the conditions because it was better than nothing, especially as the weeks passed and there was all that negative publicity about the pardon. And when the First Lady [spoke out against the pardon], I imagined it was going to get worse. I figured we could work something out later on. I wanted them to come out.”

But not all the independentistas are out.

Oscar López is one of those who refused the clemency conditions and remains behind bars. Born in Puerto Rico in 1943, he arrived in Chicago with his family at the age of fourteen. He was later drafted in the Army and served in Vietnam, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star. López became involved in community activities after returning from Vietnam, and was a founding member of the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago and the Miranda high school. Additionally, he was a community organizer for the national Latino youth group ASPIRA, among others. When he was convicted, López was sentenced to fifty-five years. In 1988 he had another fifteen years attached for conspiracy to escape.

His brother José, executive director of the cultural center in Chicago and a local college professor, says he remains optimistic about his brother’s eventual release. He says that Oscar does not regret his decision to refuse the conditions.

“Oscar is a very principled person and he believes that he could not in good conscience accept the terms. He feels that the independence cause for Puerto Rico is a principled struggle against colonialism and a colonial power that is imposing its will on a people, and to accept the terms would have meant to go against what his own principles are.” López adds that his brother does not berate others who have accepted the terms. “Everyone has their reasons to do it.”

“There were people who told us none of them would ever get out — and look, some are out already. We [the López family] always hold out hope and support Oscar. We understood why he refused to take the commutation. He has his convictions and he is fighting for freedom for Puerto Rico and against colonialism.”

“Colonialism is the enemy and the United States represents that. He had to stand up for himself and we support him.”

López adds that one of the positive aspects of the clemency has been a greater awareness of Puerto Rico politics. “At least all this has created more of consciousness and a new sense of involvement in the civil society on the island and here in the United States about [the prisoners’] situation and the island’s political status. I have faith that change will come. Look who opened up China to the Western world: that virulently anti-communist Nixon. So anything’s possible.”



© 2000 El Andar Magazine