Oscar López Rivera - AKA the Mandela of Puerto Rico - has been in a US jail for 35 years for his part in the independence struggle. He talks about renouncing violence and his dream of seeing the monarch butterfly again
Protesters call for Oscar López Rivera’s release at the White House on 9 October. Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Sunday 16 October 2016 14.00 BST
Last modified on Monday 17 October 2016 16.26 BST
Any day now, monarch butterflies will begin their epic migration from Canada to Mexico. It is one of the wonders of the world: insects whose distinctive orange and black wings barely stretch four inches flying on thermal currents up to 3,000 miles in search of a warm spot to spend the winter.
The phenomenon has entranced Oscar López Rivera since his childhood days in rural Puerto Rico. If he ever gets the chance, he says, one of his great ambitions is to trace the monarchs’ route, all the way from the Canadian border, across the US great plains into northern Mexico. “The monarch is fascinating to me,” he says. “The length of their journey and what they do to survive: how can an insect so small go so far?”
That’s an achingly powerful question when you consider who is posing it. For the past 35 years, López Rivera has been unable to fly, his wings clipped. He has been held in federal institutions, for 12 of those years totally alone inside a 6ft-by-9ft concrete box from which he had no view of the sky. The last time he saw a live butterfly, let alone a monarch, was in 1981.
López Rivera is one of the US’s, and the world’s, longest-serving political prisoners. Aged 73, he has spent more than half his life behind bars. He is convicted of killing no one, of hurting no one. His crime was “seditious conspiracy” – plotting against the US state in the furtherance of Puerto Rican independence. He still believes in what he calls that “noble cause”: full sovereignty for his Caribbean birthplace that is classified as a US “territory”.
But his views on how to attain that goal have changed. Two decades ago he and his fellow Puerto Rican independence fighters renounced violence and embraced peaceful political reform. The last year in which the militant group to which he belonged committed a violent act was 1983.
The US government continues to see him through the prism of a bygone age … López Rivera pictured in 1973. Photograph: Bettmann
Yet there he still sits in his prison cell, reading and painting, the last of his kind locked up, so venerable that other prisoners call him “El Viejo” – the Old One. It is as though he is stuck in a time-warp, trapped for ever in the headstrong 1970s, a white-haired septuagenarian forced to dress up in floral shirt, flares and platform shoes dancing to Chic. The world, and López Rivera with it, has moved on, but the US government continues to see him through the prism of a bygone age.
Unless someone intervenes to release him, he will remain in captivity until 26 June 2023, five months after his 80th birthday. Fortunately for López Rivera, there is such a person who holds the power of clemency: Barack Obama. As the US president prepares to quit the White House, he is drawing up his final pardon list, presenting the prisoner with a slender hope.
Many prominent supporters are lobbying hard for the pardon. They make for an impressive list: Archbishop Desmond Tutu; the governor of Puerto Rico, Alejandro García Padilla; the Hispanic caucus of the US Congress; former US president Jimmy Carter; Democratic presidential runner-up Bernie Sanders; and the creator of the smash Broadway musical Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who confronted Obama about López Rivera face to face during a recent White House visit. On 9 October thousands of supporters gathered outside the White House bearing placards of the prisoner and calling on Obama to set him free, their voices projected across the mansion’s South Lawn in the hope that the president at work in the Oval Office might hear them and act accordingly.
With friends like that, isn’t López Rivera a shoo-in for release? Not according to the man himself, who remains cautious about his chances. “I do not practise wishful thinking,” he begins in perfect English, delivered with a strong Puerto Rican accent. “It’s very difficult for me to read President Obama. The way he has been treated, the obstacles he has faced in the White House, makes him a little skittish about decisions.”
What a carefully weighted remark about something as visceral as his freedom. In the course of a two-hour phone conversation (the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, having refused to allow the Guardian to visit him in person) it becomes clear that this is not artifice: the professorial tone is true to the man.
López Rivera says he draws some optimism from Obama’s frequent expressions of admiration for Nelson Mandela. “He embraced Mandela as a great man, he saw that what Mandela did was important throughout the world.”
‘There is no regret inside my heart’ ... López Rivera. Photograph: larespuestamedia.com
To invite comparison with Mandela may seem far-fetched for a man who in the US is relatively little known, but back home López Rivera is often cast as the “Mandela of Puerto Rico”. Mandela served 27 years in South African prisons for leading an anti-colonialist liberation struggle that deployed selective violence as a political tool; López Rivera has already served eight years longer, arguably for doing the same thing. Mandela refused to renounce violence from his prison cell; but López Rivera did so, some 20 years ago.
López Rivera was born in 1943 in San Sebastián in the north-west of Puerto Rico. His childhood was spent living in the constitutional limbo that has defined the island since it was ceded to the US by Spain in 1898. Neither a sovereign country, nor the 51st state of the union, Puerto Rico is caught betwixt and between. Its people are US citizens, hold US passports, and can be drafted into the US military as López Rivera would soon discover. Yet when it comes to voting for the US president or a representative in the US Congress, a Puerto Rican is persona non grata. Quite rich, you might think, coming from a nation such as the US, which was founded upon the anti-colonial principle of no taxation without representation.
“The only thing we are good for is to be cannon fodder,” López Rivera says in a rare display of chagrin.
Not that he had a clue about any of that when he was growing up in San Sebastián and Chicago, where his family moved when he was 14. He was just an ordinary kid for whom the concepts of self-determination or shrugging off the Yankee yoke were as alien as nuclear physics. “Before I got drafted I was a happy-go-lucky Puerto Rican. I enjoyed life. I wasn’t paying attention to anything other than me.”
Then along came Vietnam. “I arrived thinking we were bringing freedom to Vietnamese people but as soon as I hit the ground I realised that wasn’t happening. We did sweeping operations lasting 30 days, getting villagers out of their homes, moving them off the rice paddies, body-searching them.”
Photo: In solitary he would spend all but two hours a week in his cell with no sight of the sky … a mural dedicated to López Rivera in Puerto Rico.
By the time he returned to Chicago a year later, sporting a Bronze Star for meritorious achievement, he says he had undergone a transformation. “I felt an obligation to change, to look at life from a totally different perspective. Now I could see what colonialism did to people.”
He threw himself into community work among the Puerto Ricans of Chicago. That brought him into contact with the families of imprisoned nationalists and, without ever suspecting that he would one day join their ranks, he was sucked into the movement and eventually became a member of the clandestine Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional.
As the name suggested, the FALN believed armed force was justified as a means to an end. Between its foundation in 1974 and its effective demise in 1983 as a result of mass arrests, the FALN was said by prosecutors to have carried out about 140 bombings on military bases, government offices and financial buildings across the US, especially in Chicago and New York. Targets were chosen for being symbols of “Yankee imperialism”, such as oil companies with offshore rigs in Puerto Rican waters.
López Rivera insists that the focus was always on bricks and mortar, not people. “For me human life is sacred. We called it ‘armed propaganda’ – using targets to draw attention to our struggle.”
That may have been the case, but the results were, to put it politely, inconsistent. In 1975 the group claimed responsibility for a bombing at the historic Fraunces Tavern in Lower Manhattan, the scene of George Washington’s farewell to troops after the American revolution. The attack killed four people and injured more than 50. Two years later an employee at the Mobil building in New York was killed by another FALN device.
López Rivera has denied involvement with these fatal attacks. But when I asked him if he ever committed acts of armed force such as planting a bomb, he replied: “I cannot comment on that.” Interestingly, he still claims justification for violence under international law, using the present tense: “I believe we were adhering to international law that says that colonialism is a crime against humanity and that colonial people have a right to achieve self-determination by any means, including force. ”
The scene after the FALN bomb exploded at the Fraunces Tavern in Lower Manhattan, on 24 January 1975. López Rivera has always denied involvement. Photograph: New York Daily News via Getty Images
But he is also adamant that the decision to renounce force was real and permanent. By 1990, the movement was already changing with the times. “We realised other tactics to armed force could be more effective, mobilising people through peaceful campaigning. Morally, also, we came to see that we had to lead by example, that if we are advocating for a better world then there are things you cannot do. You cannot get a better world by being unjust yourself.”
When I ask him if he would pose a threat to the public were Obama to set him free, he replies: “I don’t think I could be a threat. We have transcended violence – it’s crucial for people to understand, we’re not advocating anything that would be a threat to anyone.”
He was picked up in 1981 at a traffic stop in Chicago and charged with seditious conspiracy – a very rare count of plotting against the US state that was first used after the civil war against southern refuseniks and then applied to anarchists and socialists before being turned against Puerto Rican independistas like himself.
At trial, prosecutors presented no evidence that tied him to any deaths or injuries, or even specific attacks. For his part, he and his comrades refused to recognise the judicial process, calling himself a prisoner of war, offering no defence and declining even to attend the trial. He still describes seditious conspiracy as an “impossible crime”. He told me: “How can a Puerto Rican be seditious towards the US state when we never had any part in electing a US government?”
He was sentenced to 55 years. By contrast, as his lawyer Jan Susler has pointed out, the average federal sentence for murder in 1981 was 10.3 years. Later, his sentence was extended to 70 years when, he insists, he was framed by agents provocateurs planted in his cell who cooked up a plot to escape and then implicated him in it.
López Rivera was one of two dozen independistas in prison. Now he is the last one … the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. Photograph: Alamy
In a less disciplined individual, such harsh treatment would inevitably spawn bitterness and despair. Not for López Rivera. He recounts his time in prison with verve bordering on enthusiasm. Yes, he has faced “terrible times”, been labelled a terrorist by prison guards, called a “spic” and worse. But he has always made use of his life of incarceration, he says.
“When I first got to prison I made myself a promise: they can lock me up, but the time I spend in prison is my time. I use it to my own advantage, for my own goals. From the moment I get up to the moment I go to bed, I keep active.”
That means rising at 4am to an exercise regime of 40 minutes of stretching, pull- and push-ups, sidewinders and upper body routines. He reads a lot. Currently, he’s reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, and before that he devoured the New Yorker writer Jane Mayer’s book on billionaire rightwing donors, Dark Money.
He teaches other inmates to read and write or speak Spanish. He also likes to paint as a way of “taking myself out of prison into the outside world”. He uses as his template photographs of landscapes or seascapes that he tears from magazines, making up for his lack of access to the natural world.
Cuba-US thaw brings fate of cold war-era fugitives on the island into focus
He caught the painting bug after the alleged escape plot when he was put into solitary confinement in two of the toughest supermax prisons in the US: Marion, Illinois, and Florence, Colorado. He would spend all but two hours a week in his concrete cell with no sight of the sky. “Little by little, colours start to fade. Your eyes begin to change how you see things. You see less colour; everything blurs into the yellow-grey of the cell walls.”
So he turned to painting as a way to bring colour back into his life. That’s when he rediscovered his passion for the monarch butterfly, reproducing pictures of the insects as a reflection on their migration. “I had to be strong. I always thought they were not going to destroy me, that was not going to happen.”
Though he is now out of solitary he has still had to deal with social deprivation. At its peak, he was one of two dozen independistas in federal prisons; now he is the last one. Over the years, he has seen his comrades walk free, their ranks gradually depleted, until in 2010 he became the only one left. He is sanguine about that. “I have never felt abandoned or lonely. There is no regret inside my heart.”
To have no regret about his predicament is all the more extraordinary in that he could have been released in 2009. In August 1999, Bill Clinton did what López Rivera’s supporters are now urging Obama to do: he used his final days in office to grant a presidential pardon to 11 Puerto Rican independence fighters. López Rivera was offered a lesser deal that would have seen him released after a decade, but he turned it down, because he says he had no faith in the US government sticking to its side of the bargain and he was unhappy about a couple of his fellow fighters being offered no commutation at all. “When I was in Vietnam I never left anyone behind. That’s not my practice, I couldn’t do it,” he says.
‘How can an insect so small go so far?’ … a monarch butterfly. Photograph: Toby Talbot/AP
Surely he must have had moments in the past seven years when he has questioned his rejection of the deal that would have set him free? “None whatsoever. I believe in principles. For me, the decision was the one I had to make.”
So what now is the likelihood that Obama will follow in Clinton’s footsteps and finally fling open the cell doors? One factor in Obama’s calculation might be that Clinton’s round of pardons sparked a fireball of opposition in Congress and the media. The “Clinton terror pardons” remain a bugbear for the right to this day, even though the vitriol overlooks one awkward fact about the releases: that not a single criminal act has been committed by any of the 11 former FALN militants in the 16 years that they have been out.
The Clinton backlash perhaps explains Obama’s apparent ambivalence on the matter. He is reported to have told Lin-Manuel Miranda that López Rivera’s clemency petition was “on his desk”. But Congress member Luis Gutiérrez, who is of Puerto Rican descent and has been a leading proponent of a pardon, has said that when he asked Obama about the account the president firmly disputed it and gave a bland statement that “procedures must be followed”.
That sounds less than promising for the Mandela of Puerto Rico. But López Rivera responds to the mixed messages emanating from the White House with trademark composure. “I have no choice but to be optimistic,” he says, as the Terre Haute guards call time on our conversation. “Hope, that is one thing we can never lose.”