The reports of the release from prison this week of Oscar Lopez Rivera have elicited elation in the Puerto Rican community over the homecoming of one whom they perceive as a heroic freedom fighter sentenced unjustly. This is in contradistinction to the bitter outrage from the families of victims of the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional — Armed Forces of National Liberation) terrorist organization of which he was a leader.
These conflicting reactions emerged immediately upon the announcement by President Barack Obama of his decision last January to let Rivera go free, cutting short his 70-year sentence by 15 years. The raw emotions have not lessened since then, and are not likely to diminish quickly or easily, especially in light of the fact that Lopez Rivera is slated to be honored in New York’s annual Puerto Rican Day Parade on June 11 with the title of “National Freedom Hero,” and his schedule is reportedly packed with triumphant personal appearances around the country. While some hail it as a great, historic moment for Puerto Ricans, others denounce it as a travesty of justice.
Almost any act of clemency or commutation of sentence of an individual accused of engaging or supporting acts of violence against others will generate conflicting emotions. The mitigating factors which usually make possible a shortened punishment — such as weaknesses in the evidence for conviction, ill health, good behavior in prison, sincere expressions of remorse — however legitimate, are often not sufficient reason in the eyes of the victims for anything less than the punishment meted out through due process.
In the case of Oscar Lopez Rivera such conflicting feelings have been pushed to unusual extremes. President Obama’s decision to commute his sentence itself ignited the controversy:
“I’m disgusted by what the president did. It’s a travesty,” said Joe Connor, whose father was killed in the FALN bombing of Fraunces Tavern, near Wall Street, on Jan. 24, 1975.
“The enemies of our country are being rewarded, and being treated as if they are heroes. What we hear is that Oscar Lopez Rivera did not get to know his family. Well, neither did my father.”
The enthusiasm with which Rivera’s supporters lobbied for his early release and are now celebrating it have compounded the anger and incomprehension of those who opposed it. How, they ask, can they be so blind to the evil acts this man committed?
“He’s not a hero. He’s a bad man and I just can’t imagine that the people who are supporting him have any idea as to what his complete background is,” Diana Berger Ettenson said. “He turned my life and my in-law’s, Alex’s parents, who were Holocaust survivors, totally upside down.” At the time, Diana was expecting their first child.
Lopez Rivera’s supporters point to the fact that he was never directly tied to the Fraunces Tavern attack or any other. They contend that the harsh sentence he received — in effect a sentence to die in prison — was more the result of the Justice Department’s desire to crush the Puerto Rican nationalist movement than to seek justice.
Iris Dipini, treasurer of New York’s Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, called it “a jubilant day for all [of] us. A man that was going to die in prison [is about to be] released. It’s a victory for Puerto Ricans who believe in freedom and anti-colonialism. This could be anyone’s father or grandfather.”
Opponents of the commutation note that “freedom and anti-colonialism” were pursued by FALN with a rampage of terror that included 130 bombings that took four lives and wounded hundreds more during the 1970s and ’80s.
While it is true that Rivera was not convicted of any specific, direct act of violence, it is equally true that as part of FALN’s “Central Command” — a member of the “triumvirate” that masterminded the organization, he bears a terrible responsibility for the mayhem and suffering it caused. As such, he was convicted in 1981 of seditious conspiracy “to overthrow the government of the United States in Puerto Rico by force.” The charge sheet included attempted armed robbery, explosives possession, car theft and weapons violations.
No expression of remorse has ever passed his lips. On the contrary, he has reaffirmed his dedication to terrorism. In a 1986 interview, Lopez declared that the FALN “is a just struggle, and because it’s a just struggle, we have the right to wage it by any means necessary, including armed struggle. … We can anticipate more violence.” There has been no indication since then that Lopez Rivera has changed his mind.
“I went to his parole hearing in 2011,” recalled Connor. “We were looking for some sort of reconciliation, some sort of admission, some sort of atonement. We didn’t get any of that.”
Puerto Ricans have every right to seek their own state, if that is their wish, through peaceful, legal means. On June 11, they will have the opportunity to express their views in a nonbinding referendum on whether they favor statehood, independence or the current status.
They are also entitled to celebrate their heritage and extoll their heroes. This they will do in the parade on the same day in New York.
However, there should also be some recognition that terrorist attacks on innocent civilians are never heroic, and that the feelings of the victims of FALN must be respected. It is not up to the broader public to dictate the terms of Oscar Lopez Rivera’s homecoming, but it is unfortunate that a more modest expression that took the feelings of the aggrieved families into account was not found.