[Pnews] Oscar López Rivera and the Cabanillas

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jan 4 10:38:39 EST 2016

    Oscar López Rivera and the Cabanillas by Samir Chopra

December 30th, 2015 


FOR ALMOST four years now, I have worn a shirt bearing the legend 
/Libertad Oscar López Rivera Ahora/. This portable messenger was a 
parting gift from a Puerto Rican family whose vacation cabin abutted 
ours on a beach on the island of Culebra; my wife befriended them one 
night, and we were, much to our delight, taken in as honorary family 
members. It was the first I had heard of Oscar López Rivera. On rare 
occasions, someone — a Puerto Rican student in a political philosophy 
seminar, a graduate student in a university library, a Puerto Rican 
family in Brooklyn — recognizes and acknowledges the man on the shirt 
and offers me congratulations. Perhaps the Spanish inscription — an 
epiphany of otherness — places him in a greater anonymity than the one 
he already suffers.

Oscar López Rivera is undeservedly the most obscure of American 
political prisoners. A former member of the Fuerzas Armadas de 
Liberación Nacional (FALN), a clandestine paramilitary organization that 
advocated political independence for Puerto Rico, López Rivera is 
serving the 34th year of a compounded 70-year sentence for seditious 
conspiracy plus conspiracy to escape. He was offered clemency by 
President Bill Clinton in 1999, but rejected it. Now 72 years old, he 
remains in a federal prison. López Rivera’s imprisonment, just as his 
homeland’s political status, remains a mystery to most Americans. But 
they, and his refusal to accept clemency, entail a political and moral 
crisis that cannot be looked away; his case and the history that 
backgrounds it force a searching reexamination of what it means to be 
American. López Rivera reminds Americans of a colonial and imperial past 
whose contours are still visible. Despite a stingy record for 
commutations and pardons, President Barack Obama could and should use 
his constitutional powers to commute Oscar’s punitive sentence and grant 
his immediate release.

For the past few years, the Cabanillas of Houston, a successful 
middle-class immigrant family, proudly Puerto Rican, have made López 
Rivera’s release their enduring cause. The Cabanillas’ campaign joins 
the tireless work of Puerto Ricans on behalf of their political 
prisoners, for every decade since 1898 has seen /independentistas/ in 
prison. Those on the “outside” have persisted in fighting for their 
rights and their freedom. These struggles have led to US presidents 
commuting sentences of Puerto Rican political prisoners: Harry Truman 
commuted the death sentence of Oscar Collazo in 1952; Jimmy Carter 
commuted the sentences of Nationalist Party prisoners in 1977 and 1979; 
and Bill Clinton did the same with the sentences of López Rivera’s 
codefendants in 1999. Some of the activists who worked on those 
campaigns still work to free López Rivera. They include the human rights 
group Comité Pro Derechos Humanos and the People’s Law Office; they 
helped create the environment into which the Cabanillas family entered. 
Their combined efforts and commitment to free López Rivera have elevated 
his struggle to American consciousness; they have compelled me to write 
this essay.

*La Isla Bonita*

Puerto Rico has been a US possession since it was “acquired” — in the 
usual colonial fashion, through armed disputation — from Spain in 1898. 
Puerto Ricans became US citizens in 1917, just in time for 20,000 
“Boricuas” to be drafted to serve in World War I. Almost a century 
later, Puerto Ricans living on their island are not allowed to vote in 
presidential elections; Puerto Ricans have attained neither statehood 
nor independence. Along the way, they have suffered the indignity of a 
ban — imposed in 1948 — on owning a Puerto Rican flag, singing a 
“patriotic song,” or advocating for independence. Their curious 
political status, a “United States territory,” which is not a state, but 
whose residents are given automatic US citizenship, ensures economic and 
political exploitation by the “mainland.” Today, Puerto Rican demands 
for full political and legal rights resurrect a debate whose most 
radical form is a fading memory.

During the 1960s and ’70s, young Puerto Ricans in the US — inspired by 
the global anticolonial and national liberation movements that gave 
those decades their most distinctive political imprint — railed against 
the terrible triad of colonialism, racism, and exploitation embodied in 
American sovereignty over Puerto Rico. Even as young Americans — 
including López Rivera, who had moved to Chicago as a teenager — were 
drafted for the war in Vietnam, the discourses and actions of Puerto 
Rican /independentistas/ continued in the US. On returning from Vietnam 
— where he earned a Bronze Star for his service — López Rivera plunged 
into the political activism and community actions then underway in his 
Chicago Latino neighborhoods; he founded cultural centers and high 
schools, and, as a community organizer, helped establish rehabilitation 
programs for drug addicts and prisoners.

Armed clandestine political organizations — like FALN, one among many 
that had sprung up in Puerto Rico — represented one pole of Puerto Rican 
political movements; its tactics — which did not eschew violent direct 
action — placed it a rung higher in the ladder of political escalation. 
Between 1974 and 1983, FALN claimed responsibility for over a hundred 
bombings of military, government, and economic targets in and around 
Chicago and New York, which caused the death of six and injuries to 
dozens (there were no deaths or injuries in Chicago-area bombings). 
FALN’s bombings — accompanied by demands for the release of fellow 
/independentistas /serving sentences in US prisons for their activism in 
the 1950s — starkly highlighted Puerto Rico’s colonial status; they 
informed the US it was viewed as a malignant occupier in zones it might 
have imagined national territory. These bombings did not lack 
justification as self-defense: the infamous 1975 bombing of the Fraunces 
Tavern in New York, for instance, was a direct and explicitly identified 
response to the January 11, 1975 bombing in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, where 
a CIA-trained operator detonated a bomb causing the death of two 
/independentistas/ and a child and severely injuring ten others. In 
modern parlance, FALN was a “terrorist” group. They were treated 

In 1980, 11 men and women, allegedly members and leaders of FALN, were 
arrested and charged with seditious conspiracy — to oppose US authority 
over Puerto Rico by force — and related charges of weapon possession and 
transporting stolen cars across state lines. López Rivera was named 
codefendant in the indictment. The accused — after being tried in a 
Federal District Court — were given prison sentences ranging from 55 to 
90 years. Judge Thomas McMillen regretted not being able to give them 
the death penalty.

In 1981, López Rivera was arrested after a traffic stop, and after being 
tried, was sentenced — again by McMillen — to a prison term of 55 years. 
Like his other codefendants, he was not charged with participating in 
FALN bombings that caused loss of life (though one prosecution witness 
testified that López Rivera had taught him how to make bombs). In 1987, 
López Rivera was sentenced to an additional 15 years for conspiracy to 
escape; in shades of the modern FBI entrapment of young Muslims in the 
US, this was a plot conceived and carried out by government agents and 

In 1981, the average federal sentence for murder was 10 years; in 1987, 
the average sentence for an actual escape from prison was less than two 

*The Dangers of Sedition*

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 remain a blot on American democracy; 
John Adams deeply regretted — till the day of his death — being their 
prime mover. The crimes they charge citizens with — and the notion of a 
political dissident imprisoned for holding political beliefs supposedly 
dangerous — are an embarrassment for democracies. The very idea of 
sedition induces puzzlement in a student of politics: how can a liberal 
democracy punish the entertainment of beliefs? The contemporary 
illegitimate child of those Acts, the charge of seditious conspiracy (18 
U.S.C. § 2384), which indicts American citizens for /planning/ to revolt 
in concert with others, was conceived during the Civil War but, in 
actual application between the 1930s and 1980s, only found one target: 
Puerto Rican nationalists.

The accusation of seditious conspiracy is political: nothing enrages the 
patriot like the seditionist. He is a fifth columnist, a cancer on the 
body politic. The seditionist assaults the idea of the nation and 
offends our sensibilities by proclaiming that our idols have feet of 
clay. Sedition incites rebellions by encouraging citizens to rise up 
against their state; the existence of the seditionist is a threat to the 
public and psychic order underwritten by nationalist sentiment. In the 
old days, those who spoke against dominant paradigms, who placed the 
earth at the center of the universe and the like, were tortured, torn 
apart by mobs, burnt at the stake.

Unsurprisingly, we find religious fervor in the prosecution of this 
variant of political heresy. Nietzsche described the punishment felt 
suitable for this kind of citizen as:

A declaration of war and a war measure against an enemy of peace, law, 
order, authority, who is fought as dangerous to the life of the 
community, in breach of the contract on which the community is founded, 
as a rebel, a traitor and breaker of the peace, with all the means war 
can provide.

The seditionist is a preacher too; he seeks to convert, to include 
others in his cult. These are made more sinister by the application of 
the term “conspiracy”: concerted planning with those of like minds. 
Ideally, a seditionist would be exiled or killed; the next best option 
is removal from public sight.

At his trial, López Rivera — invoking international law — asserted that 
the US colonization of Puerto Rico was a crime against humanity. This 
language hearkened uncomfortably to the 20th century’s worst excesses. 
López Rivera thus declared himself a combatant in an anticolonial war to 
liberate Puerto Rico and invoked prisoner of war status. He noted that 
courts of colonial powers are prohibited from criminalizing anticolonial 
struggle. He also asserted that US courts had no jurisdiction to try him 
as a criminal; by rejecting their legitimacy, he placed himself in 
fundamental opposition to the United States, a nation of laws. Most 
insultingly, he demanded remandment to an international court and turned 
away from the blessings of the American republic, preferring the justice 
of the unexceptional world to the injustice of the exceptional nation. 
He presented no defense — he did not disavow his activities — and 
pursued no appeal. Like other Puerto Rican /independentistas/ in US 
prisons, López Rivera became a political prisoner, punished for 
political beliefs and associations.

Political prisoners are inviting targets for rhetorical and physical 
abuse. This process began when López Rivera received the scorn and the 
open dislike of the trial judge. Then, over the years, he was described 
— by the US law enforcement agencies, the FBI, the Bureau of Prisons, 
and the Parole Commission — as a “notorious and incorrigible criminal,” 
“a predator,” and “the worst of the worst.” This rhetoric served as 
precursor to, and accompanied, torture. López Rivera was transferred to 
maximum security prisons where for 12 years he was subjected to solitary 
confinement and sporadic sleep deprivation. “Torture” is a term that 
should make Americans uncomfortable, but in these post-9/11 days it does 
not; we have been instructed it is necessary to preserve the nation 
state, a village that needs burning to protect it.

All torture is refined by its perpetrators; López Rivera’s captors are 
no exception. In 1998, after a dozen years in isolation, he was required 
to report every two hours to prison guards. This situation was to last 
18 months. It has lasted 17 years. His cell was constantly searched, his 
reading and art materials confiscated and destroyed, and visits from 
family stopped. López Rivera’s speech was placed under totalitarian 
control: for almost 20 years, the Federal Bureau of Prisons — 
unsurprisingly claiming “security” concerns — denied media requests for 
interviews before relenting in 2013 to allow telephone interviews. The 
censorship still applies to in-person and on-camera interviews. These 
bans reek of governmental insecurity; they speak of a state afraid to 
hear its prisoner’s voice.

In 2011, at his parole hearing, a chained and handcuffed López Rivera 
heard live testimony from a wounded survivor and family members of the 
victims of the Fraunces Tavern bombing. Their cascade of vitriolic 
testimony ensured that he was not released. But López Rivera was never 
accused or convicted of actions related to the Tavern bombing; the 
testimony’s service as a basis for the parole commission’s denial of 
parole was a legal atrocity. His parole is due for reconsideration in 
2026, when he will be 83 years old. The United States’s tactics worked: 
they “disappeared” López Rivera.

In 1999, Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of some of López Rivera’s 
codefendants and offered a conditional release to López Rivera: that he 
serve an additional 10 years in prison. López Rivera turned it down; he 
would not abandon his codefendants, Carlos Alberto Torres and Marie 
Haydée Beltrán Torres, not included in the clemency offer. López 
Rivera’s refusal to accept commutation not extended to his partners was 
a defiant act of political solidarity and a protest against the 
illegality of his sentence. With these gestures, he ensured a 
continuance of the struggle that brought him to jail in the first place; 
the symbolic weight of his incarceration pressed down heavier on 
American consciousness.

*The Cabanillas*

By 2011, Fernando Cabanillas was enjoying the fruits of a long and 
successful career as a clinical and academic oncologist specializing in 
the treatment of lymphomas at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. 
After moving back to Puerto Rico, his work as director of the Auxilio 
Mutuo Cancer Center in San Juan left him little time for politics. His 
daughters Maru and Marian had found successful careers in Houston; his 
teenage grandson Raul gave him ample joy. His wife Myrta and he looked 
forward to their mellow golden years, to be spent enjoying the company 
of their tightly knit family. But their peace had been disturbed by news 
of López Rivera’s continuing imprisonment, then entering its fourth decade.

The Cabanillas first read López Rivera’s story in a local newspaper 
article about a political prisoner in jail for three decades. By then, 
the fervor of the ’70s’s struggles had died down; following the 1999 
clemencies, supporters of the /independentistas/ had focused on 
welcoming López Rivera’s codefendants home, ensuring their housing, 
employment, and medical care. The campaign for their release and the 
efforts to welcome them had been embraced by civil society beyond the 
independence movement. But rhetorical barrages from the mainland against 
statehood and independence — and political inaction — meant Puerto 
Rico’s ambiguous positioning in the American republic was increasingly 
cemented. Puerto Rico’s fate was a fait accompli; its younger 
generations knew little of the struggles that animated López Rivera.

López Rivera’s cause, and the length of his sentence, galvanized the 
Cabanillas into an escalating series of actions. Fernando and Myrta had 
brought up their children and grandchildren with their inclusive 
antiracist politics. It was easy to enlist them as allies. The 
Cabanillas — father, mother, daughters, and grandson — began in the 
simplest of ways: telling others, family and friends included, about the 
tale of López Rivera, and later, designing, wearing, and distributing 
T-shirts and wristbands with slogans (and gifting them to new friends 
like me). These forms of consciousness raising were, as they well knew, 
of only limited efficacy. Early in 2013, as the 32nd year of López 
Rivera’s imprisonment rolled around, Fernando enlisted a cousin, Sonia 
Cabanillas, a professor of humanities at Universidad Metropolitana, and 
her husband Nick Quijano, an artist of considerable standing in Puerto 
Rico’s art world, and invited them for a brainstorming weekend meeting 
in Ponce. Myrta suggested a symbolic imprisonment where supporters of 
López Rivera’s excarceration would take turns being locked into a mock 
cell — one possessing the measurements of his actual holding location. 
Quijano, also an architect, volunteered to design and build two cells to 

The Cabanillas now moved from informal support to a formally organized 
stance. The group “32 x Oscar” was founded: it represented 32 people, 
one for each year Oscar had spent in jail. Their first action — on the 
32nd anniversary of Oscar’s imprisonment — was to symbolically imprison 
themselves for 24 hours in the Puerto Rican capital, San Juan. Comité 
Pro Derechos Humanos suggested islandwide actions in five cities, a 
suggestion adopted with alacrity. Word of the symbolic imprisonment 
spread; the 45 minute shifts per protester — including ones at late 
night and the earliest hours of the morning — were quickly claimed. The 
vigil began at midnight on May 29, 2013; the first prisoner in San Juan 
was Mayra Montero, a journalist with Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, 
/El Nuevo Día/. By noon, the Plaza de Armas was packed. The enthusiasm 
was visible and palpable. Incredibly enough, Fernando received a call 
from the Puerto Rico Senate asking if the president, Eduardo Bhatia, 
could take a shift. Soon, a call came from the personal assistant of 
popular artist and composer of hip hop and urban-style Latin-American 
music René Pérez Joglar — better known as Residente of Calle 13 — 
informing Cabanillas of his desire to “imprison” himself with his wife 
and family. Pérez Joglar, a creator of socially and politically 
conscious music, and winner of 22 Latin Grammy Awards and three Grammy 
Awards, was an ideal ally. Soon, the best of all problems posed itself; 
thanks to increasing demand, “32 x Oscar” could not allot 45-minute 
shifts per prisoner. It began assigning five minute blocks and allowed 
group occupancy of the cells. The decades-long campaign to free López 
Rivera had been reinvigorated.

As president of “32 x Oscar,” Fernando also organized a march in San 
Juan in which 50,000 people — including US members of Congress Luis 
Gutiérrez and Nydia Velázquez, who flew down from Washington — 
participated. The group’s next event — in keeping with its flair for 
political rhetoric — was termed “Al Mar x Oscar”: dozens of kayaks and 
boats welcomed a /cabezudo/ (large papier-mâché head) of López Rivera 
landing in Puerto Rico in a boat. This symbolic homecoming was a 
masterpiece of political theater. “32 x Oscar” also directed pleas to 
Pope Francis, asking him to raise López Rivera’s case in his meeting 
with President Obama; it organized presentations at the international 
congresses of the Parlamento Centroamericano (PARLACEN) where Clarisa, 
López Rivera’s daughter, presented his case and received a standing 
ovation and a unanimous resolution in support.

The Cabanillas’ struggle also includes traditional letter writing. In a 
letter to Barack Obama, Fernando noted that Nelson Mandela, much admired 
by the president, spent 27 years in jail for seditious conspiracy. He 
also noted that Obama’s own father, Barack, and paternal grandfather, 
Hussein Onyango Obama, were guilty of clandestine political activity 
when they participated in Kenya’s anticolonial struggle for independence 
from the British Empire. These acute parallels and analogies should 
induce discomfort in those who could, and should, care.

Today, Puerto Ricans remain torn over which alternative — independence 
from the United States or integration into it via statehood — would be a 
more desirable political objective. But Oscar López Rivera’s release 
unites these viewpoints. When Fernando recently asked Puerto Rican 
youngsters if they knew who Oscar López Rivera was, back came the quick 
answer: “the guy imprisoned in the US.” For Fernando, López Rivera’s 
story speaks of a “pathetic and dreadful injustice” to a “fellow Puerto 
Rican” and engenders a “duty” to “redress” it. The values that animated 
the Cabanillas’ raising of their children suffuse their present 
struggle, in support of a man they have never met or personally known. 
For the Cabanillas, López Rivera’s death in jail would be a tragedy, one 
they will not “allow to happen.” Their fellow Americans should not either.

*Puerto Rico Today*

The US, ever eager to proclaim political prisoners are incompatible with 
democracy, shows little inclination to act in a case that cuts 
dangerously close to its political jugular. It continues to deny it has 
political prisoners; those it detains are just criminals. As López 
Rivera notes, this denial performs several functions: it serves to 
“cover up the nefarious, barbaric and even criminal acts and practices 
it carries out against [them]”; it serves as “license to violate […] 
basic human rights by subjecting us to isolation and sensory deprivation 
regimens”; it serves to “hoodwink its own citizens to believe that it 
doesn’t criminalize dissenters”; it serves to “perpetuate the lie that 
it is the ultimate defender of freedom, justice, democracy and human 
rights”; and it serves to “criminalize the political prisoners […] and 
to disconnect us from our families, communities, supporters and the just 
and noble causes we served and try to continue serving.”

The blindness this denial creates need not be ours. Americans should not 
look away from this moral and political atrocity perpetrated in their 
name. We should not be collaborators. Like Fernando Cabanillas and his 
family, we should look closer. /¡Libertad para Oscar López Rivera Ahora! 
/should not be chanted only by Puerto Ricans; it should be on the lips 
of all those who believe in justice.


Author’s Note: I would like to thank Fernando Cabanillas and Jan Susler 
(Oscar’s lawyer, from the People’s Law Office) for their assistance in 
writing this essay.


/Samir Chopra is professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College and the 
Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He blogs at 
samirchopra.com and at The Cordon at ESPNcricinfo, and is on Twitter 
@eyeonthepitch./ <http://lareviewofbooks.org/contributor/samir-chopra/>

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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