[Oscar] López Rivera is one of the US’s, and the world’s, longest-serving political prisoners. Aged 73, he has spent more than half his life behind bars. He is convicted of killing no one, of hurting no one. His crime was “seditious conspiracy” – plotting against the US state in the furtherance of Puerto Rican independence. He still believes in what he calls that “noble cause”: full sovereignty for his Caribbean birthplace that is classified as a US “territory” . . .
To invite comparison with Mandela may seem far-fetched for a man who in the US is relatively little known, but back home López Rivera is often cast as the “Mandela of Puerto Rico”. Mandela served 27 years in South African prisons for leading an anti-colonialist liberation struggle that deployed selective violence as a political tool; López Rivera has already served eight years longer, arguably for doing the same thing. Mandela refused to renounce violence from his prison cell; but López Rivera did so, some 20 years ago.
López Rivera was born in 1943 in San Sebastian in the north-west of Puerto Rico. His childhood was spent living in the constitutional limbo that has defined the island since it was ceded to the US by Spain in 1898. Neither a sovereign country, nor the 51st state of the union, Puerto Rico is caught betwixt and between. Its people are US citizens, hold US passports, and can be drafted into the US military as López Rivera would soon discover. Yet when it comes to voting for the US president or a representative in the US Congress, a Puerto Rican is persona non grata. Quite rich, you might think, coming from a nation such as the US, which was founded upon the anti-colonial principle of no taxation without representation.
“The only thing we are good for is to be cannon fodder,” López Rivera says in a rare display of chagrin. . . .
At trial, prosecutors presented no evidence that tied him to any deaths or injuries, or even specific attacks. For his part, he and his comrades refused to recognise the judicial process, calling himself a prisoner of war, offering no defence and declining even to attend the trial. He still describes seditious conspiracy as an “impossible crime”. He told me: “How can a Puerto Rican be seditious towards the US state when we never had any part in electing a US government?”