The campaign to free the 15 Puerto Rican political prisoners in different penal institutions all over the US has dramatically grown into a broad-based human rights movement. The Puerto Rican prisoners were part of a movement for an independent Puerto Rico. They have been meted out jail terms inhumanly disproportionate to the crime they have allegedly committed. The terms were seven times heavier than those meted out to violent criminals in 1981, the same year that the Puerto Ricans were sentenced. The terms ranged from 40 to 105 years.
Who would have guessed that more than a decade after their imprisonment, the freedom of the independentistas would become a cause celebre in the mainstream Puerto Rican community?
Ignored until recently by all but a small, committed group of supporters, 15 Puerto Rican political prisoners still locked away in jails across the United States are a living reminder of U.S. colonialism on the Caribbean island. Today, the struggle to obtain their freedom has mushroomed into a broad-based human rights campaign stretching from Puerto Rico to the mainland United States.
The arrest of the 10 men and 5 women by U.S. federal agents between 1980 and 1985 marked a major offensive against the Puerto Rican independence movement. Puerto Rican independentistas and two militant underground organizations, Los Macheteros (The Machete Wielders) and the Armed Front of National Liberation (FALN), were active in both the mainland United States and Puerto Rico during the 1970s and early 1980s. These movements took their cue from previous generations of Puerto Rican nationalists who believed in armed resistance to U.S. colonialism.
At the time of their arrests, most of the 15 independentistas were living and working in the Chicago area as educators, community organizers and university students. Edwin Cortes was a student activist at the University of Illinois, and Ricardo Jimenez attended the Illinois Institute of Technology. Dylcia Pagan was a TV producer and writer at NBC, ABC and PBS. Oscar Lopez Rivera, considered the leader of the group by government prosecutors, helped found the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago. Elizam Escobar was a public school teacher in New York City and also taught at the Museo del Barrio. The others arrested include: Adolfo Matos, Antonio Camacho Negron, sisters Alicia and Ida Luz Rodriguez, Luis Rosa, Alejandrina Torres, Juan Segarra Palmer, Carlos Alberto Torres, and Carmen Valentin.
Grand juries in Chicago charged each of the accused with multiple counts of sedition and conspiracy and the possession of illegal weapons and explosives. Prosecutors presented evidence, including dynamite, guns and detonation timers, obtained from apartments allegedly used as safe houses by several members of the group. The indictments detailed conspiracies to oppose by force the authority of the government of the United States. Not one of the prisoners was ever charged, however, with an act of violence that caused harm to a person or property.
All 15 of the accused were tried and convicted in Chicago courts, refusing legal representation or to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the courts. Declaring themselves prisoners of an anticolonial war, they demanded a heating before an international tribunal. The Justice Department, then headed by Attorney General Edwin Meese, ignored their demands. The courts imposed extraordinary sentences - ranging from 40 to 105 years - even though their crimes involved no physical injury to property or human life.
The independentistas have endured subtle forms of deprivation - both physical and psychological - since their arrest, says Jan Susler, a Chicago-based attorney who has represented the Puerto Rican 15 over the past 16 years. During their first two years in custody, two of the women were kept in total isolation. Alejandrina Torres was kept in a notorious maximum-security unit at a women's penitentiary in Lexington, Kentucky, which was cited by Amnesty International for its violations of prisoners' rights. Torres suffered physical abuse from the prison staff, says Susler, including strip searches and assaults during the early years of her incarceration. Today she is in ill health. "Oscar Lopez is the only prisoner," says Susler, "who continues to live in horrible conditions." After being transferred from Marion federal prison, Lopez is now serving out his 55-year term at the country's newest maximum-security prison for men in Florence, Colorado. In this prison, says Susler, solitary confinement and a prohibition on interaction among inmates is the rule. The remaining prisoners are scattered among the nation's federal penitentiaries, including Leavenworth, Kansas; Marion, Illinois; Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; and Danbury, Connecticut.
The length of the sentences imposed on the Puerto Rican nationalists has become a key point for those pressing for their release. A pardon application filed by Susler in 1993 included the results of a study comparing the sentences imposed on the Puerto Rican nationalists with prison terms for individuals convicted of similar crimes. The study found that the average sentence of 842 months for the Puerto Rican political prisoners was three times higher than the highest sentence meted out in 1980 - 262 months for kidnapping. Weapons and firearms violations earned average sentences of just 49 months. Compared to all violent criminals sentenced in 1981, the sentences imposed on the Puerto Rican nationalists were seven times higher. "When you see the sentences given to them," says Nilda Pimentel, director of the Campaign to Free the Political Prisoners, "there is no other way to explain it. They were made an example in order to discourage others from engaging in anti-colonial work."
Until recently, only a few left-leaning Puerto Rican organizations kept alive the cause of freeing the imprisoned activists. Mainstream Puerto Rican organizations carefully avoided the issue. Even if most Puerto Ricans harbored strong nationalist feelings and many shared the dream of an independent nation, they steered clear of the radicalism associated with the political prisoners. This was especially the case during the repressive Reagan years. The FALN's call for armed struggle did not, in short, resonate widely in Puerto Rico or among Puerto Ricans on the mainland.
Who would have guessed that more than a decade later, the freedom of the independentistas would become a cause celebre in the mainstream Puerto Rican community? Through a vigorous media campaign and extensive grassroots organizing, supporters both in Puerto Rico and the mainland have catapulted the political prisoners' plight from relative obscurity into the public eye. For the first time since the 15 were imprisoned, there is real hope that a presidential pardon may set them free.
The Campaign to Free the Political Prisoners is being organized on the mainland by Boricua First!, a Washington, D.C.-based organization formed in 1994 to advance political, economic and social justice for Puerto Ricans. Earlier this year, Boricua First! brought the campaign to the White House. On March 29 - National Puerto Rican Affirmation Day - 3,000 Puerto Ricans flocked to the capital demanding freedom for the prisoners. A contingent of Boricua First! leaders met with White House counsel Jack Quinn, who promised to prepare a briefing memo for Clinton. In April, the Campaign delivered 11,000 postcards to the White House calling on Clinton to grant a pardon.
After twelve years of Republican role in Washington, a Democratic administration offers a "window of opportunity" to get the prisoners released, says Luis Nieves Falcon, coordinator of Ofensiva '92, a group based in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. Along with other activist groups on the island, Ofensiva '92 has crafted a sophisticated and successful campaign on behalf of the political prisoners that has won the hearts and minds of Puerto Ricans who, whether they are statehooders, independentistas or pro-commonwealth, all share a strong nationalism. Making the quantum leap from a marginal cause to a broad-based campaign supported by Puerto Ricans along the entire political spectrum, says Falcon, has been a matter of timing and presentation. Falcon, a sociologist, has devoted most of the last 15 years to supporting the jailed activists. A retired professor, he earned a law degree that has enabled him to visit the prisoners regularly and advocate on their behalf.
"We decided to expand our movement to include all organizations, some less radical," says Falcon. "Our main thrust was to stress the humanitarian nature of the campaign. Whether you agree politically with the prisoners or not, you could support their cause because their rights were so flagrantly abused." For many Puerto Ricans, says Jan Susler, the 15 independentistas have become a national symbol, even if they believe the activists were involved in acts of terrorism.
In April, Ofensiva '92 launched a media blitz on radio and TV with the slogan, "ya es tiempo de traerles a casa" - "it's time to bring them home." Puerto Rican artists and celebrities, including soap-opera celebrity Cordelia Gonzalez and salsa-maestro Willie Colon, lent their names and voices to the effort. So did musicians Andy Montanez and Jacobo Morales. A short advertisement with celebrities calling for a pardon is now playing in movie houses throughout the island.
Warming people up for the media campaign was a door-to-door petition drive demanding the release of the prisoners, carded out by volunteers in communities throughout the island. In Las Marias, a conservative enclave in northern Puerto Rico, everyone, including the mayor, signed the petition. In La Perla, a notorious ghetto outside of San Juan, the response was equally enthusiastic. Puerto Rico's Catholic bishops and cardinal, as well as Episcopal church, have also become active supporters of the pardon effort.
The pardon application filed by Susler is still pending in the Justice Department. Meanwhile, Democratic members of Congress Nydia Velazquez (New York), Luis Gutierrez (Illinois) and Jose Serrano (New York) are lobbying on Capitol Hill for a pardon. Last February, former President Jimmy Carter offered to assist the Campaign's efforts to negotiate a pardon. Even John Cardinal O'Connor, Archibishop of New York City, has joined the movement. In a March 12 letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, he asked that she review all 15 cases of the Puerto Rican prisoners on "humanitarian grounds."
The Clinton administration has not yet signalled its position on the issue, but the campaign organizers remain optimistic. It was, after all, Jimmy Carter - another southern Democratic president - who in 1979 pardoned four Puerto Rican nationalists who had opened fire on a session of the U.S. Congress in 1954. "Mandela and Arafat have been welcomed in the White House," says Nilda Pimentel, director of the Boricua First! campaign. "It is now time for our political prisoners to be freed."
Annette Fuentes is a freelance journalist and a member of NACLA's editorial board. She is also editor of Critica: A Journal of Puerto Rican Policy and Politics, published monthly by the New York-based Institute for Puerto Rican Policy.