The Ones Left Behind
Matt Meyer provides a review of the movement to free the Puerto Rican political prisoners and an exclusive conversation with former prisoner Alejandrina Torres
After nineteen years in prison, serving a seventy-eight year sentence for the political thought crime of "seditious conspiracy," Adolfo Matos' first steps into JFK's International Airport in New York brings tears to everyone present. The tears are mainly of relief-after the intense campaigns, the long meetings and multiple strategies, and (oh my!) Adolfo looks so good (almost younger than when he went in!)-but they're also tears of political shock, tears of rage at the injustice of it all. Adolfo's time in New York is brief-a one-hour stop-over with his extended family and supporters, between the prison in California and the land he'll now call his home: Puerto Rico, the land whose freedom he was conspiring for.
The struggle against the U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico goes back to 1898, when U.S. troops invaded the island at the end of the Spanish-American War. Since that time, a steady movement of resistance has developed, weathering both harsh colonial conditions as well as draconian measures to keep down progressive and independence activists. Puerto Rico continues to be used as the main U.S. military base in Latin America, with over fourteen sub-bases located throughout the small island, and with both of the two tiny but populated islands connected to Puerto Rico-Vieques and Culebra-used at times as bombing ranges. Puerto Ricans were granted a nominal form of U.S. citizenship just prior to World War One, facilitating the conscription of Puerto Rican men while disallowing Puerto Ricans not living within the U.S. to even vote for president or governmental representatives. Sent to the front in numbers widely disproportional to their percentage in the population, Puerto Ricans have also led U.S. statistics in the area of draft resistance and evasion. When not facing conventional conflicts, colonial violence has been imposed through the forced sterilisation of large numbers of Puerto Rican women, in experiments to further the interests of multinational pharmaceuticals. Economic exploitation has allowed U.S. corporations to operate in Puerto Rico tax-free, while poverty levels continue to increase in a country stripped of it's natural resources. The English-language court system in this Spanish-speaking nation presides over the "security" work of various departments of the FBI, military police, and domestic forces. Truly resisters of these conditions-from student activists, to environmentalists, to feminists or trade unionists or nationalists-qualify as those resisting war during war-time. Colonialism itself has always been a form of war, and Puerto Rico remains-at the beginning of the century the UN had hoped to declare an era without colonies-one of the world's last direct colonial enclaves.
The Puerto Rican political prisoners-technically acknowledged as being prisoners of war by a number of independent international tribunals-grew out of this context of resistance and repression. All had been connected to community-based improvement efforts, including church groups, alternative schools, cultural centers, and anti-U.S. Navy efforts. The U.S. government's conspiracy charge, made when they were arrested throughout the early 1980s, united them conceptually as being members of one or another clandestine group that was engaged in symbolic bombings, bank robberies and the like. And while a few of the fifteen were found in possession of some weapons, none were ever linked to actual acts resulting in death or destruction. Nevertheless, the sentences handed down for possibly belonging to an organisation that possibly could be proven responsible for militaristic acts far outweighed the sentences typically given for the proven crimes of murder, kidnapping or rape. These terms-in some individuals' cases totalling as many as 105 years-were carried out under tortuous conditions often condemned by human rights groups, in jails spread out across the U.S., far away from the prisoners' families or support networks. The outrageous sentences and treatment, along with the stalwart ways in which the prisoners continued to assert their justice and peace politics, led them to become symbols for the entire Puerto Rican people. It was on this basis that an amnesty campaign was waged.
The Puerto Rican Human Rights Campaign, under the direction of sociologist and educator Dr. Luis Nieves Falcon, organized a multifaceted strategy that understood the need for both massive grassroots momentum and for well-placed international solidarity. Modelling the life of a tireless activist, Falcon retired from a prestigious position as head of the Department of Caribbean and Latin American Studies at the University of Puerto Rico to get a law degree so he could better understand the cases and support his imprisoned compatriots. Once the legal basis for amnesty was clearly established-at conferences in Barcelona, New York, San Francisco and Geneva-teams of students were trained to go to every town and municipality, knocking on doors and getting people to write letters, sign petitions, and pressure politicians. Careful to respect the issues that the prisoners stood for, the campaign was also committed to making the fact and conditions of their imprisonment (an outgrowth of the colonial condition facing all Puerto Ricans) the central political concern. Thus, in time, leaders of every Puerto Rican trade union, church, and legal association joined in the call for amnesty; representatives of every political party from left to centre to right added their names. On the eve of a huge march held on 29 August, a dinner was held to gather supporters; the keynote addresses were made by Catholic Archbishop Roberto González Nieves and Episcopal Bishop David Alvarez. The slogan of the march, which attracted well over 100,000 people in what has been called the largest demonstration in Puerto Rican history, had gone beyond the more common "freedom for the political prisoners" to "Liberty for Our Own: It's time to bring them home."
On the international level, educational work became an early priority, along with mobilising the large sectors of Puerto Ricans living in the continental U.S. By the end of last year, every Latino elected official in the U.S. had joined in the amnesty efforts, and the letter-writing campaign had reached groups and individuals throughout Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. The international pacifist and peace movements played a significant role, and-under the coordination of the Puerto Rican Human Rights Campaign and with the assistance of the local Resistance in Brooklyn (RnB) affinity group-a Call from the Nobel Peace Prize community was developed. Ultimately, eleven Nobel laureates or those representing Nobel-winning organisations signed the Call, including Archbishop Tutu, Maraid Corrigan Maguire, Jose Ramos-Horta, Coretta Scott King, and Adolfo Perez Esquivel (who helped initiate the Call at WRI's Brazilian Triennial). With this type of solidarity growing, the prisoners' lawyers initiated a series of meetings with the White House pardon attorney and White House Hispanic Affairs chief, to open a channel of communication.
Never relying on the honesty of politicians, the Campaign believed that a subjective connection was-in fact-necessary, and the children and parents of those imprisoned began direct appeals to the very centre of political power. Over the past year, after a number of implied promises of release were broken, the tactical flexibility of the campaign was also revealed: a series of nonviolent civil disobedience actions began. First, at the October 1998 Day Without the Pentagon actions commemorating WRL's seventy-fifth anniversary, RnB-joined by some plowshares activists and by veteran pacifist Dave Dellinger-dedicated their arrests to the Puerto Rican prisoners and to the people of Vieques, who deserved freedom from the Pentagon's bombing raids. Then, last July-on the hundred-and-first anniversary of the U.S. Marines invasion of Puerto Rico-the U.S.-based National Committee to Free Puerto Rican Political Prisoners/POWs,(supported by RnB and by the Interfaith Prisoners of Conscience Project of the National Council of Churches), staged a civil disobedience action in front of the White House. Although a civil and courteous meeting (between the President's attorneys, the prisoners' attorney Jan Susler, and Pax Christi supporter Bishop Thomas Gumbleton) had just taken place moments earlier inside the White House, the Campaign had matured to the point of understanding that a strategic use of multiple tactics and approaches, of the objective need to mobilize masses of people as well as the subjective need to speak truth to the powerful, could ultimately end in success.
In spite of all this, the events of August and September 1999 sped by like a blur for most amnesty workers. When, on August 11, William Clinton offered a conditional clemency to fourteen of the fifteen (also extending a reduction in fines to two already-released prisoners), campaigners were both overjoyed and outraged. Under the conditions, twelve could be released immediately and two others could spend five and ten additional years (still a sentence reduction) in prison. An oath of nonviolence would have to be signed by all those accepting the offer, despite the fact that the Campaign had already submitted documents from the prisoners agreeing to participate in the legal, nonviolent movement for independence. Another condition stipulated that no prisoner could visit or see another convicted felon, despite the fact that two of the prisoners are sisters who have been bunked together in jail, and another is the husband of a previously released independentista. The movement shifted focus towards a call for unconditional freedom, as the prisoners themselves tried to find a way to respond to the offer as a group, despite their geographic separation. A conference was held in San Juan in late August, with presenters including this author and WRI staff person Roberta Bacic, speaking on the reintegration of the prisoners of conscience of Chile following the ouster of Pinochet. At the grand march following the conference, the key speaker was not a Puerto Rican nationalist or independentist hero, but Chicago Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who delivered a fiery condemnation of the President's conditions. Back in the U.S., the Republican Party was waging an attack of it's own, focusing on the electoral aspirations of Hillary Clinton and Al Gore and the importance of the Latino vote. When Hillary noted, in early September, that the prisoners were taking a long time to decide what to do, and that perhaps the offer should be rescinded, a furious New York Congressman, Jose Serrano, fired back that the U.S. had been taking over one hundred years to decide upon the fate of Puerto Rico. Several days later, twelve of the fourteen agreed to accept the clemency, resulting in the almost immediate release of eleven. After two decades of uphill struggle, a real victory had been won.
Alejandrina Torres is one of those eleven, now surrounded by family and friends. A teacher and officer of the First Congregational Church of Chicago-where her husband is the retired Pastor-her engaging smile, soft demeanour, and strong spirit belie the sixteen years of hellish conditions she endured. Immediately upon arrest, Torres was placed on special administrative detention on an all-male unit, and-in 1984-experienced a brutal physical assault and double strip search at the hands of one male and four female guards. One of three political prisoners placed in the experimental Lexington Control Unit, she faced twenty-four-hour-a-day surveillance, sensory and sleep deprivation, and various forms of psychological and physical torture-before the Control Unit was closed due to grassroots pressures and an Amnesty International investigation. Despite suffering a heart attack and several chronic medical conditions, Torres was never allowed proper medical treatment. In an exclusive conversation with Peace News, Alejandrina characteristically turned the discussion away from her personal suffering and towards the conditions facing her people. Her affect is one not of bitterness, but of beauty.
"We decided at this particular time that we needed to respond to the people," she began, speaking of the decision to accept the clemency offer. "We owed a response that would be reasonable to them, and many leaders were saying that it's been long enough. It would be better, they argued, for us to be outside, to work together and deal collectively with the ones left behind."
Four of those included in the amnesty campaign remain behind bars, including Alejandrina's step-son Carlos Alberto Torres (who was not offered any clemency deal). Juan Segarra Palmer, who accepted the Clinton offer, must serve another five years, and Antonio Camacho Negron-who was out on parole two years ago but re-imprisoned when he violated parole conditions by travelling extensively and speaking out politically-refused the offer, and has several more years to serve. Oscar Lopez-Rivera, who also refused the government's offer (to release him conditionally after serving an additional ten years), has fifty-two years left to serve. A Vietnam veteran and life-long community organiser, Oscar's steadfast non-cooperation with the government's machinations didn't stop him from supporting the decisions of his comrades. Oscar's commitment was mirrored in the statements of the eleven upon release, who vowed to continue work for the freedom of all.
"Our years in prison have not made our focus wane," continued Alejandrina, responding to a question about their ability to remain united. "I think that's been part of the victory. The White House thought we would just run as individuals to sign the offer. They were surprised when we decided that we wanted to somehow meet. I suggested a telephone conference call, which we eventually were able to have. They weren't expecting that we would do it so collectively. We had some interesting conversations, and came to the conclusion during some of them that what we have conceded is what they had already been in control of for most of our lives. Yes, to some extent they put the prison on our shoulders, we're carrying our chains with us onto the street. There were some very strict limitations imposed, but really it is just part and parcel of the overall U.S. outlook on the case of Puerto Rico. It is a struggle for average working people just to survive."
When asked about the historical context for the conditions, especially the hypocritical call for a pledge of nonviolence while the Navy continues to bomb Vieques, Alejandrina responded by stating: "We are Vieques and Vieques is us. Vieques is struggling for their life, their rights, their freedom ... . and at this point it is a formidable issue to be brought out. Vieques seems to be a catalyst right now, as people are opposing the U.S. military all over the world. It's an issue that people can relate to-getting the military out and getting the U.S. out of Puerto Rico. Vieques shows how clearly the issue is colonialism, and they can't just sweep it under the rug.
"As for us, every historical period goes through phases," Torres continued, "and we have to grow and develop in response to the times. The Puerto Rican independence movement was never a violent movement. It had it's periods in history where it's resistance was expressed and manifested in a more aggressive manner, but the movement itself is not a violent movement.
So how do you deal with the greatest power in the world at this particular point? "When the whole issue of people occupying the bombing ranges of Vieques came up, and the whole issue of nonviolence was raised-of civil disobedience, which is another aspect of nonviolence-I thought that we should run with it. This is something that the people respond to; our people will never respond totally to violenceWe are not a violent people, and the U.S. should be really thankful for that-as there are over three million Puerto Ricans living within the U.S.! I think that the struggle of the 1990s had been one of civil disobedience."
There are few enough moments when progressives have cause to celebrate, and undoubtedly the freeing of Alejandrina Torres and her fellow defendants should be heralded by all of us working for peace. The struggle of the next period-for the release of the remaining four and loosening of the parole conditions, for a permanent end to the use of Vieques by the U.S. military, for an end to colonialism and political imprisonment everywhere-must be met with creativity and a determination fueled by the lessons of the Puerto Rican's campaign. As we learn from one another, and learn to work together, the struggle will, indeed, continue.
PR Human Rights Campaign, Dr. Luis Nieves Falcon, 8 Rodriguez Serra Street, San Juan, Puerto Rico 00907
National Committee to Free Puerto Rican Political Prisoners/POWs, 2048 W.Division Street, Chicago, IL 60622 USA
Resistance in Brooklyn, c/o Meyer, WRL, 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012, USA
Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, Apartado 1424 Vieques, Puerto Rico 00765
Matt Meyer, former Chair of the US War Resisters' League and a founding member of War Resisters' International's Latin America and Africa Working Groups, was an RnB representative to the Puerto Rican Human Rights Campaign. Multicultural Coordinator of NYC Alternative High Schools and Programs, he is currently co-chair of the Consortium on Peace research, Education and Development (COPRED).