Democracy Now!

Wed Jul 1, 2015

Rep. Nydia Velázquez: Freedom for Oscar López Rivera Unites Puerto Ricans Across Political Lines

Thousands of people gathered in New York City last month for a march calling on President Obama to release a longtime Puerto Rican independence activist from prison. Oscar López Rivera was convicted in 1981 on federal charges, including seditious conspiracy — conspiring to oppose U.S. authority over Puerto Rico by force. He was also accused of being a member of the FALN, the Armed Forces of National Liberation, which claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings to call attention to the colonial case of Puerto Rico. In 1999, President Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of 16 members of the FALN, but López refused to accept the deal because it did not include two fellow activists who have since been released. 2015 marks López’s 34th year behind bars. He is scheduled for release in 2027. We discuss López’s case with Congressmember Nydia Velázquez, Democrat for New York and the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected to Congress.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Congresswoman Velázquez, I’d like to ask you also about another issue that you’ve been involved with, which is the issue of Oscar López Rivera, the Puerto Rican prisoner who’s been in jail now for decades on sedition charges. And you joined thousands of supporters earlier this month for a march calling on President Obama to release Oscar López Rivera from prison. He was convicted in 1981 on federal charges of seditious conspiracy and conspiring to oppose U.S. authority over Puerto Rico by force. He was also accused of being a member of the FALN, the Armed Forces of National Liberation, which claimed responsibility for more than a hundred bombings to call attention to the colonial case of Puerto Rico. In 1999, President Clinton commuted the sentences of 16 members of the FALN, but López refused to accept the deal because it did not include two fellow activists who have since been released. In a rare video from prison, Oscar López Rivera said the charges against him were strictly political.

OSCAR LÓPEZ RIVERA: I think the fact that I was charged with seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States speaks for itself. But the charge in reference to Puerto Ricans has always been used for political purposes. It goes back to 1936. The first time that a group of Puerto Ricans was put in prison was by using the seditious conspiracy charge. And this is—has always been a strictly political charge used against Puerto Ricans.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Oscar López Rivera speaking from prison. Could you talk about the importance of this case, both on the island and Puerto Ricans here in the U.S.?

REP. NYDIA VELÁZQUEZ: Well, as you know, because of the unique political situation between Puerto Rico and the United States, the Puerto Rican family is divided in Puerto Rico along party lines regarding, you know, statehood, commonwealth and independence. And so, this is the one issue that has united the Puerto Rican community, both in the island of Puerto Rico and in the mainland. Every political party, every sector, every faction in Puerto Rico has rallied together to ask President Obama to do the right thing, in the name of reconciliation, to pardon and to release Oscar López. And given the difficult situation that Puerto Rico is going through, it will be a great, great action by this president to, once and for all, send the son of Puerto Rico home.

AMY GOODMAN: He could have taken the deal earlier under Clinton and been out, but he stood up for two other prisoners who remained in jail—and they’re out.

REP. NYDIA VELÁZQUEZ: It shows the humanity of Oscar López. You know, he decided to stay because he wanted for all of them to be released from prison. So, there’s no reason, there’s no valid excuse, to keep this man in jail anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you spoken to President Obama about it?

REP. NYDIA VELÁZQUEZ: Yes. The three members of Congress of Puerto Rican descent—Luis Gutiérrez from Chicago, myself and Congressman Serrano—during the Christmas ball, or the holiday ball, we approached, the three of us, President Obama. What he said at that point is, "Well, let me deal with the immigration issue," when right before that he had an issued an executive order. So, it is time for the president to act. This is something—you know, this is about justice. This is about humanity.

AMY GOODMAN: And in the last minute we have, your assessment of President Obama on immigration?

REP. NYDIA VELÁZQUEZ: Well, given the fact that we have to get 60 votes in the Senate, he has done everything he can, and we need to, you know, get a compromise and bring the Republicans to the table. It’s an uphill battle. You know, you’re going to have at least five or seven conservative Democrats in the Senate that will not support it, because of their own self-preservation, so we need to get support from the Republicans. And they need to understand that if they don’t address the issue of immigration now, they’re going to be relegated as a minority party in this country. The growing Hispanic population and the growing influence, political influence, of the Hispanic community cannot be denied.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Nydia Velázquez, we thank you so much for being with us, a Democrat from New York, has served in the House of Representatives since 1993, the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected to Congress, former chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. And we will also link to Juan’s column in the Daily News headlined "Puerto Rico—like Greece—will default on its debts, as the U.S. has ignored the island’s financial problems for decades."

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Supreme Court decisions issued this week. Then, Governor Christie of New Jersey enters the presidential race. Stay with us.

Filed under: Puerto Rico, Clemency

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