In Barack Obama’s eulogy for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg last Tuesday, the president pointed to a contradiction between Mandela’s struggle for freedom and “those who claim solidarity while not tolerating dissent from their own people…[…] comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.” This discrepancy could be applied to Obama himself in how he his handling the growing demand from activists, human rights advocates, and even celebrities that Puerto Rican federal prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera be freed after over 32 years of incarceration for seditious conspiracy.
Mandela, who died on December 5th at age 95, was in jail for 27 years in South Africa for conspiracy to overthrow the government there, tied to his role in the African National Congress and the fight to end apartheid, the political, legal, and economic discrimination against nonwhites that was official government policy from 1948 to 1994.
Those who challenge the release of Oscar Lopez Rivera point to his additional convictions for use of force to commit robbery, interstate transportation of firearms and ammunition to aid in the commission of a felony, and interstate transportation of stolen vehicles in connection with his role as part of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN). The FALN took credit for the 1975 bombing of a lower Manhattan restaurant. Lopez Rivera has denied any involvement in the bombing.
This is where, for many, the connection between Nelson Mandela and Oscar Lopez Rivera ends.
Much of Obama’s eulogy on Tuesday and much of the media coverage of Mandela’s life paints South Africa’s first black president as a non-violent warrior in the same vein as Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
While Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize, like Dr. King, he did not renounce the use of violence during his time with the ANC.
“The methods of political struggle which are used by the oppressed are determined by the oppressor himself. In our country, the methods which we use in the course of our struggle are determined by the Government. If the Government chooses to use peaceful means of resolving problems, there would never have been a question of resorting to armed struggle. But when the Government banned our organizations, closed all channels of communication . . . we have no alternative but to resort to violence,” Mandela said during a 1990 U.S. visit.
During that same visit, Mandela publicly came out in support of Puerto Rican nationalists including Lolita Lebrón, charged with shooting inside U.S. Congress in 1954.
"We support the cause of anyone who is fighting for self-determination, and our attitude is the same, no matter who it is. I would be honored to sit on the platform with the four comrades," Mandela said.
Some have also chosen to ignore that former U.S. president Ronald Reagan labeled the ANC a terrorist group and that Mandela himself was listed as a terrorist in the United States until 2008.
“He [Mandela] accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price,” Obama said in his eulogy. For supporters of Oscar Lopez Rivera, he did the same, working the independence of Puerto Rico and he has supporters as illustrious as Nobel Prize Laureate and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu who agree.
At the eulogy Obama asked himself, ““How well have I applied his lessons in my own life?” The U.S. president has said little about the status of Puerto Rico. He has never acknowledged it as a colony but has stated that in order for the island to become a state, the Puerto Rican people would need to clearly indicate their desire for that status.
Obama acknowledged that political prisoners exist, but in his eulogy of Mandela, seemed to suggest that was something that happened outside the U.S.
“Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs, and are still persecuted for what they look like, and how they worship, and who they love,” the President said.
Oscar Lopez Rivera is not the only Puerto Rican incarcerated for fighting for the independence of Puerto Rico. In 2012, Norberto Gonzalez Claudio was sentenced to five years in prison for his role in a 1983 Wells Fargo robbery of over seven million dollars in Connecticut. Los Macheteros, a clandestine organization committed to the independence of Puerto Rico, claimed responsibility for the robbery. The U.S. government maintains that the money was used to support violence in the name of freeing Puerto Rico. One person, Victor Manuel Gerena, remains on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list for his role in that robbery.
Supporters of Lopez Rivera’s release point that the sentence given is unreasonably harsh for someone convicted of a crime that did not involve hurting people or property. Additionally, supporters of Lopez Rivera’s release accuse the federal government of subjecting him to cruel and abusive punishment including excessive use of solitary confinement.
The president pardoning supporters of Puerto Rican independence would not be unprecedented. Five Puerto Rican nationalists charged with shooting at Blair House in Washington, DC. in 1950 and at inside U.S. Congress in 1954 were pardoned by Jimmy Carter. In 1999 U.S. President Bill Clinton offered Puerto Rican nationalists conditional clemency. While 11 accepted, Lopez Rivera refused that offer. “'Accepting what they are offering him is like prison outside of prison,” his sister is cited as saying.
Oscar Lopez Rivera is scheduled for release in 2027.
“Mandela showed us the power of action,” Obama said on Tuesday in Johannesburg. The president of the United States has the constitutional power to unconditionally pardon the Oscar Lopez Rivera and supporters hope he will show the power of taking that action.