By Owei Lakemfa
Oscar López Rivera, 74, was a 14-year-old Puerto Rican boy when he was brought to Chicago in 1957. He grew up there and joined the United States, US, military. He fought in Vietnam against a people who were fighting for decolonisation.
To him, there was a contradiction; he went to fight for the US to deny the Vietnamese freedom when his own country, Puerto Rico, a colony of the same US, is also in need of independence and freedom.
The colonised usually have two options: accept colonialism or fight it. The coloniser rewards those who support its inhuman rule, and harshly punishes those who resist or insist on freedom. The worst form of colonialism is the one where the coloniser denies it has a colony and tries to dress up the colonised as its free citizens while in reality, holding them down.
South Africa was a colony, but the colonialists denied this. So, patriotic youths like Nelson Mandela resorted to armed struggle. In 1962 after the Rivonia Trial, Mandela and his fellow liberation fighters were sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent 27 years on Robben Island, the Pollsmor and Victor Verster prisons before being freed. He became decolonised South Africa President in 1994.
East Timor was a Portuguese colony. The colonialists departed on August 1, 1975, but four months later, Indonesia, its bigger neighbour, invaded and recolonised it. The patriots responded by setting up the Revolutionary Front for the Independence of East Timor and in 1979, Jose Xanana Gusmao became its leader. He was captured and imprisoned in 1992, but emerged a decade later as founding President of an independent East Timor.
In both cases, the coloniser claimed the colonised were part of its own territory and citizenry. This is also the case of Puerto Rico, a country of 3,285,874 people who despite the enormous riches and might of the US, refuse to be annexed, preferring decolonisation.
It reminds me of the 1958 referendum in West Africa by France which tried to entice the colonised to become French citizens. The pan- Africanist, Ahmed Sekou Toure, had told the French: “Guinea prefers poverty in freedom to riches in slavery.”
Puerto Rico, Spanish for ‘Rich Port’ was called Borikén before Spain occupied and colonised it in 1493. It remained a Spanish colony for the next four centuries. Then in the 1894 Spanish-American War, the US captured Puerto Rico and began its own colonisation which has now lasted 123 years! The US had offered Spain $160 million to purchase Puerto Rico and Cuba which the latter rejected; it is incredible that the US would ask Spain to sell territories which does not belong to it.
In 1914, the Puerto Rican House of Delegates’ vote for independence was rejected by the US Congress on the basis that it is “unconstitutional”. Until today, the US, while refusing to decolonise Puerto Rico, has also not given it the status of a state, refused to allow Pueto Ricans the power to vote in American presidential elections and would not allow their sole representative to vote in the US Congress.
When their demands for independence and freedom went unheeded, the Puerto Ricans in the 1970s, founded a liberation movement, Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, FALN. This began an armed struggle.
The US suspected that Rivera was part of FALN’s leadership, or could in fact be its leader, but it lacked concrete proof. Also quite frustrating was the fact that the FALN was so sophisticated in its activities that Rivera could not be linked with any of its armed attacks.
But, it decided to try him for seditious conspiracy to overthrow the US power based on circumstantial evidence. Rivera rejected the trial, insisting he was a Prisoner of War and under international law he was a liberation fighter and could not be tried by the very state against which he is waging an anti-colonial war. On August 11, 1981 he was sentenced to 55 years imprisonment.
Six years later, he was tried for an alleged second attempt at jailbreak. The FBI said the plot he was tried for “involved flying a helicopter stocked with machine guns and explosives into the Leavenworth recreational yard (and) riddling guard towers with rounds from automatic weapons, and throwing grenades in the path of those who pursued.” For this, he got an additional 15 years, making it a total 70 years imprisonment.
In his book Between Torture and Resistance, Rivera argued that: “The US government’s refusal during the last three decades to comply with a resolution of the United Nations Decolonisation Committee recognising Puerto Rico’s right to free self-determination and independence.
The Committee’s injunction for the United States to initiate the process that would allow Puerto Rico to exercise this right has been ignored. This refusal by the United States violates the right to free self-determination as expressed in the United Nations Charter as well as in the treaties on economic and social rights and civil and political rights.”
In explaining why Puerto Ricans do not want to be part of the US, he said: “I believe, as a Puerto Rican, that the majority of Puerto Ricans want to be Puerto Ricans. Once we become annexed to the United States or by the United States, that we will lose our national identity.
I can look at Hawaii as an example of people who lose, the Natives who lose their identity. I can look into the Native American reservations and see people who lose their national identity, their culture, their language, their land. And that’s what’s going to happen to Puerto Ricans here.”
In 1999, President Bill Clinton made a conditional offer of pardon to the FALN members provided they “refrain from the use or advocacy of the use of violence for any purpose”. This offer was extended to Rivera, but he rejected it on two grounds. He did not want to be given conditions and secondly, some of his comrades in jail were not offered the deal.
Many across the globe joined the campaign to free Rivera, especially when they knew that the main charge of sedition is political. His supporters included Anti-Apartheid icon, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Pope Francis and American Senator Bernie Sanders.
As he folded up his Presidency, Barack Obama on January 17, 2017, commuted Rivera’s sentence. Rivera, also known as the ‘Nelson Mandela of Puerto Rico’, had spent 38 years, including a 36-year post- conviction time in prison.
In May, 2017, he walked free in the streets of Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rico struggle against US colonialism continues, but the liberation fighters like Rivera have chosen a more political path, rather than armed struggle. For them, the struggle continues until victory over colonialism and imperialism is achieved.