The opening annual hearings of the U.N. Special Committee on Decolonization, or the Committee of 24, have long been a time of conflicting viewpoints regarding the archipelago island’s status. This year, however, the peoples of Puerto Rico — in both diplomatic and dramatic fashion — stood tall and united on the international stage in a manner not previously imagined possible.
In the wake of crippling debt and amid widespread controversy about the recent U.S. Supreme Court case PR v. Sanchez Valle, as well as the Puerto Rican Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA — both of which place clear control of the island’s political and economic future under the direction of the U.S. government — leaders of every major Puerto Rican electoral party and civil society organization petitioned the international body to intensify its support of a decolonization process that would remove U.S. authority.
Testimony by Puerto Rican Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla, head of the commonwealth-oriented Popular Democratic Party, was joined by gubernatorial candidates from the pro-statehood, independence and nationalist parties — all of whom critiqued current conditions on the island and spoke with one voice on the need for the immediate release of prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera, deemed the “Mandela of the Americas” by several Latin American heads of state at the 2015 Organization of American States summit.
On the non-governmental level, June 20 was declared International Day of Solidarity with Oscar Lopez Rivera by a coalition led by the National Boricua Human Rights Network and the Puerto Rican Human Rights Campaign, based in San Juan. Support actions for Lopez Rivera’s clemency were held in a startling 43 countries, well beyond the original expectations of the coalition initiators, who had hoped for at least 35 actions, representing each year of Lopez Rivera’s unjust imprisonment.
At age 74, and behind bars since 1981, Lopez Rivera was convicted for the thought crime of seditious conspiracy (the same charge for which South African President Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison), related to his association with the Puerto Rican Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN. Although FALN was involved in several armed actions in the 1970s, Lopez Rivera was never accused of any actions that led to violence or the harm of any individual, and his subsequent consistent public and private statements have remained clear: “I have not and do not condone intentional injury to any human being.” Despite this, his sentencing and treatment over the years has been extremely disproportionate in nature, making him the longest-held prisoner in Puerto Rican history.
The June 20 actions began with a virtual “pray-in” for Oscar’s unconditional freedom coordinated by South African Archbishop Emeritus and Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu, in conjunction with four additional Nobel Laureates from a total of five continents. East Timor’s former President Jose Ramos-Horta, Argentina’s Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Jody Williams of the United States, and Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland all took part in the prayerful vigil. Corrigan Maguire said she would light a candle for Lopez Rivera, as the prominent human rights elders pledge to continue to work for his release. In an unprecedented move at the U.N. Decolonization hearings — and in the context of both an in-session mobile phone conversation between Lopez Rivera and Ambassador Ramirez, as well as a standing ovation following the testimony of his daughter Clarissa – Bolivian Permanent Representative Ambassador Sacha Sergio Llorenty Soliz proposed that the Committee of 24 engage directly in the work to free Lopez Rivera and commit to visiting him in prison — a proposal enthusiastically endorsed by the U.N. body.
“Sometimes the historical moment strikes unexpectedly,” said Hostos professor Ana Lopez, who is the New York coordinator and a key international activist of the Campaign to Free Oscar. “It is said that the stars become aligned guiding the path of righteousness. On June 20, the unanimous passing of the United Nations resolution, calling for Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination and for Oscar’s release without delay, was such a moment.”
Affirming the reach and response of the solidarity actions as “nothing short of miraculous,” Lopez noted that the activities – which took place across six continents – were extremely diverse in nature. In addition to the pray-in and candlelight vigils, groups held demonstrations at key sites of international and U.S. connections, including a quickly-dispersed civil disobedience in front of the U.S. embassy in Athens, Greece. In the Indian Ocean African nation of Mauritius, the indigenous party Lalit held a protest linking Oscar’s freedom and Puerto Rico’s colonial status with the U.S. occupation and use of Diego Garcia as a nuclear military base, much as the United States occupied and used the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for decades.
In some instances, support actions took on more personal forms, such as a small student petition-signing in Taipei, Taiwan and faculty-led petition drives in Algeria, Australia, Nigeria, Trinidad and elsewhere. In a few cases, private meetings between government officials and Lopez Rivera supporters took place, and several representatives of foreign governments made public statements in support of his freedom.
Meanwhile, solidarity groups sent broad messages of greeting and love to Lopez Rivera, or to President Barack Obama, demanding that he exercise his power of pardon before leaving office in early January 2017. A former political prisoner and current popular radio talk show host in the Dominican Republic dedicated his June 20 telecast to news about Lopez Rivera’s case. Additionally, two young women from Eritrea – Meaza and Hanna Petros, whose parents were major leaders of the independence movement there, but have been held incommunicado as political prisoners for over a decade — made and publicized signs in their native Tigrinya stating “Release Oscar Now!”
Actions or vigils in the United States took place in San Francisco, Boulder and in front of the United Nations in New York, where Lopez and others from 35 Women for Oscar led chants and listened to reports from inside the intergovernmental organization headquarters, including from Puerto Rican former political prisoner Adolfo Matos. Extensive coverage included interviews airing on Univision, Telemundo, TeleSur and in local print media. In addition to the representatives from National Boricua Human Rights Network and the Puerto Rican Human Rights Campaign, the international coalition included Ana Lopez, Olga Sanabria Davila of the Committee for Puerto Rico at the U.N., the San Francisco-based solidarity activist Judith Mirkinson, National Lawyers Guild president Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, 1199 Service Employees International Union vice president Estela Vasquez and this author. Lopez concluded by saying, “What we witnessed was indeed historic — a new consensus on Puerto Rican self-determination, with Oscar Lopez Rivera’s freedom at the center.”