Puerto Rican Political Prisoners: 30 Years in US Prisons

National Lawyers Guild International Committee, October 25, 2010

Jan Susler of the People’s Law Office in Chicago delivered the following speech to the National Lawyers Guild Convention in New Orleans, LA on September 23-26, 2010. Her talk addresses the continuing struggle of the Puerto Rican prisoners for justice and liberation, both from prison and from colonialism.

In April of this year, activists in Puerto Rico and several U.S. cities marked the 30th anniversary of the arrest of 11 Puerto Rican men and women accused and convicted of seditious conspiracy, and sentenced to serve the equivalent of life in U.S. prisons. They called attention to the fact that one of them— Carlos Alberto Torres— had been in prison for 30 years, another— Oscar Lopez Rivera— , for 29 years; and another— Avelino Gonzalez Claudio— , for 2. Of the 2,000 some Puerto Rican political prisoners since the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico, Carlos Alberto is the longest held.

What could motivate a Carlos Alberto, an Oscar, or an Avelino, to take action leading to such consequences? What is it about the situation of the Puerto Rican nation that could lead to people being accused of conspiracies related to winning independence, including seditious conspiracy— conspiring to use force against the “lawful” authority of the U.S. over Puerto Rico?

You may know that in 1898, the U.S. invaded and militarily occupied Puerto Rico… an occupation which, over the years, has changed and morphed in some of its details, but which has essentially continued unabated to this day; an occupation which led the George W. Bush (hijo)’s Presidential Task Force on Puerto Rico to state that Puerto Rico is a mere possession of the United States, which the U.S. could give away to another country, if it so desired. It is more than a little ironic that the U.S. would possess Puerto Rico as a colony, given that the U.S. was born of an anti-colonial struggle— an armed, sometimes clandestine, struggle against British control.

Nevertheless, the U.S. expanded its colonial empire to include Puerto Rico, controlling its borders and its economy; imposing unwanted U.S. citizenship and consequent eligibility for inscription into the U.S. military; attempting to destroy Puerto Rico’s language, rich culture and heritage. The Puerto Rican people resisted U.S. control, just as they had Spanish control, risking prison and even death to seek to control their own destiny.

Carlos Alberto Torres
Carlos Alberto Torres welcomed home

Colonized peoples of other empires, particularly in Africa, also resisted colonial control, similarly risking prison and death. In the 1950’s and 60’s, some fought in their own national territory; others, like the Algerians, took their struggle to the metropolis. This wave of anti-colonial struggle led to the formation of a body of international law, which recognized colonialism as a crime against humanity, and which also recognized the right of a people to fight to end that crime, and in the process to use any means at their disposal, including armed struggle.

Once the United Nations was formed, in its efforts to end colonialism throughout the world, it created a list of non-self governing territories to monitor. Puerto Rico appeared on this list as a non-self-governing territory of the U.S. The U.S., having proclaimed itself as the democratic bastion of the world, was not happy about being on this list… and so to get off the list, in 1952 created the fiction of the Free Associated State, or Commonwealth, and lied to the world, claiming that Puerto Rico was self-governing— a lie the Bush Presidential Task Force would later admit.

The Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico, having organized since the 1930’s, could not abide this lie or the U.S. conduct leading up to it. Not only did the Party organize armed uprisings and attacks in Puerto Rico, as a result of which the Party’s members were rounded up and imprisoned, and its leader, Don Pedro Albizu Campos, tortured.

The Party also took its struggle to the seat of colonial power… Washington, D.C., where in 1950, its members attacked the temporary residence of the U.S. president and in 1954, opened fire in U.S. Congress. Griselio Torresola was killed; Oscar Collazo given the death penalty; and others were sentenced to decades in U.S. prisons: Lolita Lebrón, Andres Figueroa Cordero, Irving Flores, and Rafael Cancel Miranda.

The families of Carlos Alberto and Oscar— who would become the next generation of Puerto Rican political prisoners— were part of the great forced Puerto Rican migration of 1950’s. They grew up in Chicago’s barrio, where the Puerto Rican community was subject to slum housing, insensitive schools, and brutal and racist police. As Carlos Alberto and Oscar, along with many other young women and men, organized to improve the lot of the community, they began to understand that the Puerto Rican people needed to control its own destiny. They learned Puerto Rican history—even though their teachers told them Puerto Rico had no history.

They learned about the long and proud history of the resistance of the Puerto Rican people to Spanish and then U.S. control. They learned about the Nationalist political prisoners, and participated in the Committee to Free the Five… a campaign which resulted in President Carter commuting their sentences in 1979 after 25 and 29 long years in U.S. prisons… a campaign in which Guild attorneys, such as Michael Deutsch, figured prominently.

Carlos Alberto and Oscar, like others organizing contemporaneously in Puerto Rico, were inspired by their foremothers and fathers, as well as other peoples thirsty for self-determination, and out of love for their people, dedicated their lives to righting the wrong of colonial domination, organizing in clandestine fashion to bring attention to the colonial case of Puerto Rico. They knew the cost could be great… and indeed it turned out to be.

In 1976, Carlos Alberto and Oscar, along with two compañeros, went underground. Carlos Alberto and 10 others were arrested in 1980; Oscar in 1981; as well as others in 1983; they were accused of belonging to the FALN, Armed Forces for National Liberation. With Guild lawyers acting as their international legal advisors, they invoked international law, articulating that colonialism is a crime against humanity; that anti-colonial combatants may use any means at their disposal, including armed struggle, to end that crime; and that the courts of the colonizing country may not criminalize captured anti-colonial combatants, but must turn them over to an impartial international tribunal to have their status adjudged.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. did not heed international law, and proceeded to try them and send them to prison for sentences ranging from 35 to 90 years… this, after the judge stated his regrets that there was no federal death penalty at the time, for that was the sentence he wanted to give them.

In U.S. prisons they experienced a myriad of human rights violations: psychological torture, withholding medical attention, lockdowns, harassment, false accusations of violations of prison rules and criminal laws— all the while represented by Guild attorneys.

In the early 1990’s, people in Puerto Rico and the U.S., who had worked to defend their human rights since the moment of their arrest, joined to form a campaign for the release of the Puerto Rican political prisoners. By the mid 1990’s, the campaign had moved beyond the movement for the independence of Puerto Rico and expanded to include broad sectors of Puerto Rican civil society… a most unusual phenomenon in Puerto Rico, where status preference lines rarely allow for such convergence. The churches— in both the U.S. and in Puerto Rico— were key in this effort.

The campaign created the understanding that the men and women in prison for independence were Puerto Ricans who were being punished with disproportionately lengthy sentences and cruel prison conditions because of who they were, and not for what they had done: if they had been social prisoners, convicted of crimes not related to the independence of Puerto Rico, they would never have been given such lengthy sentences, and they would have been released after serving far less time in prison. And if they had been political prisoners in any other country of the world— be it in South Africa, in France, in Germany, for example, they would have been released after serving less time in prison.

This campaign took on international proportions, garnering support from Nobel Peace Prize winners, elected officials, church leaders, and personalities such as Desmond Tutu, archbishop of South Africa. Archbishop Tutu’s support was not coincidental, given that the Puerto Rican political prisoners were in prison for precisely the same reason as Nelson Mandela— who served 27 years in prison— and other anti-apartheid fighters in South Africa: clandestine organizing to end illegal domination of one people by another.

Every year, the U.N. Decolonization Committee adopts a resolution applying international law to the case of Puerto Rico, reaffirming that colonialism is a crime against humanity and that the right of self-determination applies to the Puerto Rican people. And for over a decade, where the Guild’s International Committee has often had the privilege of participating, that international body has called for the release of the Puerto Rican political prisoners.

The vast support for their release led to President Clinton’s 1999 commutation of the sentences of 11 of Carlos Alberto and Oscar’s compatriots, and after 16 and 20 years in prison. They walked out of the prison doors and into the waiting arms of the Puerto Rican people and their supporters.

In the eleven years since their release, they have received a hero’s welcome and the universal respect of the people. They work in education, art, construction, business and law; they support and care for their families; they are active in ongoing struggles affecting the Puerto Rican people; and they are a very important part of the ongoing campaign for the release of their imprisoned comrades.

Carlos Alberto and Oscar served those eleven years behind bars.

Then in July of this year, after 30 years of prison, Carlos Alberto was released on parole, and went home to Puerto Rico to receive the same hero’s welcome and the embrace of his people. At tonight’s International Committee reception, you will see a video of his welcome home receptions.

Oscar and Avelino are now both 67 years old. If they are made to serve their entire prison sentences, Oscar will be 84 years old; Avelino, 69. It is up to us to ensure that doesn’t happen. The campaign for their release is collecting signatures on letters to President Obama, encouraging people to sponsor forums like this one, where former political prisoners can speak.

The International Committee’s work on Puerto Rico plays an important role… as you will see when you vote for the resolution on Puerto Rico which will be presented at the plenary. In our lifetimes we have participated in two historic and unprecedented releases of Puerto Rican political prisoners, in 1979 and 1999. We must continue to organize, and bring Oscar and Avelino home.

The release of the political prisoners is only part of our greater work to end U.S. colonial control over Puerto Rico… history has taught us, not just over the past 30 years, but over the past 111 years of U.S. colonialism and the centuries before that of Spanish colonialism, like Carlos Alberto, Oscar, Avelino, and thousands of others, the Puerto Rican people will risk real privations and even death to win freedom and self-determination.


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