Saturday, February 1, 2014

Obama's eulogy for Nelson Mandela and the case of Oscar López Rivera

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 thirty years, Oscar López Rivera is imprisoned for the 'crime' of seditious conspiracy: conspiracy to free his people from the shackles of imperial justice.”


President Obama gave an eloquent eulogy at the funeral of Nelson Mandela, praising his unyielding commitment to social justice for his people and noting the inspiration that Mandela provided to Obama himself.  Obama goes on to remind us of others who face similar injustice, and implores us to learn from the lessons Madiba taught us. The President said this in front of the entire world, a deeply personal message meant to convey the enormity of Mandela's influence on him and demonstrate how Mandela has led him to embrace the ideals Mandela fought for and was unjustly imprisoned for in Robben Island for so many years.  

Obama no doubt knows the case of Oscar López Rivera well.  He has recently received letters appealing for López's release 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.  Obama also may have noticed popular demonstrations that included musicians, athletes and politicians engaging in a symbolic lock up to bring attention to López's cause.

Having already spent more than 32 years behind bars, López holds the distinction of being the longest-serving Puerto Rican political prisoner ever. He has already served 5 more years than Mandela. At 71 years old, he is not scheduled to be released for another 10 years.

The charge that landed López in prison is "seditious conspiracy," trying to overthrow the U.S. government by force. If that sounds familiar, it is because it is the same charge that Mandela was convicted of. Although the government implied he was part of FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña), a militant Puerto Rico nationalist organization, he was not connected to any specific illegal acts of violence. Like Mandela's party the African National Congress, FALN was designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. 

Anyone with a basic understanding of the law knows that you cannot be tried or convicted of something you are not accused of.  For example, when O.J. Simpson was tried for kidnapping in 2008, the jury could not have convicted him for murder because of what happened to his ex-wife in 1994.

Without being accused of any acts of violence that killed or injured anyone, López was sentenced to 55 years in prison. 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. The judge declared, "If I could I would sentence them to the electric chair." The Lead Prosecutor said, "I would like to see these Puerto Ricans die in jail." López's political affiliations were clearly the main factor in his draconian sentence. 

After 6 years in jail, López was given 15 years added to his sentence for conspiracy to escape, a plot devised by FBI informants who were placed in his unit with the mission of fabricating an escape plan. 

Obama recognized the political nature of the charges against Mandela. He understands that Mandela's actions stem from the deep injustice perpetrated on him and his people. "Mandela showed us the power of action; of taking risks on behalf of our ideals," Obama said. "Perhaps Madiba was right that he inherited, 'a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness' from his father. And we know he shared with millions of black and colored South Africans the anger born of, 'a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments…a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people.'"

This recalls López's own description of the degrading conditions facing Puerto Ricans living in Chicago during the early '50s when his family moved from San Sebastián.  His mother Ana Rivera Méndez (Mita) described her "humiliation" by the Americans, and the symbolic violence of toiling as a laborer for meager wages.  "We live humiliated by the Americans. If you go to work in a factory, they fire you because 'you don't produce.' That applies to Hispanics, Blacks, not for Americans. We Latinos all suffer. We suffer in this country."

Mandela's ability to fight for change is described as a virtue by Obama: "Madiba disciplined his anger and channeled his desire to fight into organization, and platforms, and strategies for action, so men and women could stand up for their God-given dignity."

After fighting for the U.S. in the Vietnam War, where he earned the Bronze Star, López returned to Chicago to see how Puerto Ricans were suffering. People like himself and his family suffered from inadequate education, poor housing, lack of health care and few labor opportunities.  López was moved to become involved in community organization and activism, fighting for social justice and improved living conditions.  

López's achievements are impressive and numerous. As a community organizer for various local civic and religious groups, he helped create programs for drug addicts and prisoners. He was also a founder of the Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School to provide better educational opportunities for Puerto Rican students. 

Having suffered through the structural violence of the apartheid political system, Mandela did not allow the government to take away the context of his actions when judging him.  Obama praised him for this: "He turned his trial into an indictment of apartheid because of his eloquence and his passion, but also because of his training as an advocate."

In López's defense, he admitted his fight against the structure of the colonial system oppressing Puerto Rico and appealed to international law.  

"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. They will not tell you either that according to international law, when an anticolonial fighter is captured, as we were, he or she has the status of prisoner of war and should be judged by a competent international body,” López said in his defense.  

The U.N. Charter guarantees all people the right to self-determination, a right also emphasized in the U.N. Declaration on Decolonization in 1960 and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  

"Despite all these struggles, as a Puerto Rican, I have to seek the independence of my homeland.  I can do no other," López said.

As Luis Nieves Falcon explains of the Puerto Rican independence fighters: "They fight against: U.S. collaboration with racist regimes; military interventions in sovereign states; the continuing aid the United States gives to dictatorial regimes; U.S. participation in terrible atrocities against peoples who are engaged in liberation struggles; and the continued imposition of a colonial regime in Puerto Rico.  All of these official actions involve violations of international law, the compliance of which are compulsory for U.S. citizens as established in the Nuremberg principles."

Obama commends Mandela's steadfast refusal to compromise his values to improve his own well-being: "On core principles he was unyielding, which is why he could rebuff offers of unconditional release, reminding the Apartheid regime that 'prisoners cannot enter into contracts.'"

López determined to carry on his fight for justice despite the court's verdict. Upon his arrival in Leavenworth, where he was confined from 1981 to 1986, the prison guards verbally assaulted him, calling him a terrorist who belonged in the maximum-security Marion prison.  

He described his experience of mistreatment as a political prisoner as "spriritcide." 

"i use the word 'spriticide' to describe the dehumanizing and pernicious existence that i have suffered since i have been a prisoner, particularly the years that i have been in this dungeon (labyrinth). It is spiritcide because the death and annihilation of the spirit are what the jailers are seeking by keeping me in such deleterious conditions.  i face, on the one hand, an environment that is a sensory deprivation laboratory, and on the other hand, a regimen replete with obstacles to deny, destroy or paralyze my creativity. We know that sensory deprivation and the denial of creative activity causes the spirit to wither and die. That is exactly what the jailers are seeking by keeping me here."

Despite this, López denied a conditional offer of clemency from President Bill Clinton in 1999 because he would not leave any of his 16 fellow Puerto Rican nationalist prisoners behind. Ironically, López is now the last one left in prison.  

Unlike Mandela, whose struggle to overthrow colonialism and apartheid was successful, López's struggle still continues. Puerto Rico voted in a historic referendum in 2012 to reject the current colonial status.  However, the referendum was non-binding. Only the U.S. Congress can approve a change in status. And they have shown absolutely no willingness to even engage the issue.

From Soweto, Obama implored us to be more like Mandela: "Let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, when our best-laid plans seem beyond our reach, let us think of Madiba." 

In a letter to his granddaughter Karina, López tells her: "Now I see your university success as a prolongation of my aspirations.  As you carry forward in life, fill your heart with love, compassion, hope and value.  Love yourself, your family, your friends and your land, the sea, liberty and justice, and all that which represents and makes life possible."  As always, he signs his letter "In resistance and struggle."

Obama called on young people across the world to follow in the footsteps of Mandela and carry on his legacy. "And so we, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace."

But when it comes to acting on behalf of the country he leads, the President denies the existence of political prisoners and ignores repeated pleas from the public, politicians, and fellow Nobel Peace Lauretes to issue the unconditional release of Oscar López. Obama should realize that the words he spoke about Mandela could just as easily be describing Oscar López. 

The movement to free the longest serving Puerto Rican political prisoner has lately grown exponentially across the island and the mainland.  In November, tens of thousands gathered in San Juan (as well as New York and Chicago) to demand justice for Oscar López.  Ricky Martin made a public plea at the Latin Grammy's and boxer Felix Verdejo did the same before his latest fight. Florida Representative Alan Grayson, spurred on by public outrage in his district, became the latest politician to petition Obama for López's release in January.

More protests are planned as the 33rd anniversary of López's incarceration draws near. And it is forcing people across the Puerto Rican political spectrum to consider not just the man but his cause. In the end, this popular movement may manage not just to achieve justice for one Puerto Rican nationalist, but to provide a unified voice for the anti-colonial politics he represents. I believe that if this were to happen, López, like Mandela, would consider his decades spent in jail a small price to pay.

President Obama: On behalf of the memory of Nelson Mandela, on behalf of the millions of people you represent and the billions of people your words reach, please listen to yourself. Please do the right thing.