Institute on Religion and Democracy
September 2, 1999
Four years ago I was attending a directors meeting for the United Methodist Church's social action arm, the Board of Church and Society. During the final minutes the directors unanimously approved a resolution calling for the immediate release of 16 Puerto Rican "political prisoners." The resolution likened the prisoners to Nelson Mandela, America's Founding Fathers, the Apostles Peter and Paul, as well as Jesus.
"We see in Scripture how some of our greatest spiritual heroes spent time in jail for political reasons," the resolution intoned sanctimoniously, as it noted that "colonialism" [of the sort the U.S. supposedly practices in Puerto Rico] is a "crime," as defined by the United Nations.
My curiosity aroused, I phoned the FBI the next day to inquire about the identity of these political prisoners. I was surprised when the first person with whom I spoke recognized the name of one of the prisoners immediately, recalling that he had been on the bureau's "10 most wanted" list during the 1970's. Further research showed that the sixteen inmates were Puerto Rican separatists who had been plotted and perpetrated several years of murderous bombings, robbery, kidnapping and other mayhem during the late 70's and early 80's.
Most had served with the Armed Forces for National Liberation (Spanish acronym: FALN), while several were affiliated with the Macheteros (the Machete Wielders). They were now deservedly serving sentences of up to 90 years for their crimes.
In 1996 the governing General Conference of the United Methodist Church, again without debate, approved a resolution demanding release for the Puerto Rican terrorists, placing the 8.5 million member denomination officially on record. The National Council of Churches, ostensibly representing 35 denominations and 55 million American church members, followed suit. And an ad appeared in The New York Times appealing for the prisoners' freedom, and signed by dozens of mainline Protestant and Catholic Church leaders, including bishops and presiding officers of denominations.
I had thought the plea would go no further than most hapless Religious Left crusades, which typically embarrass the members of participating denominations but do little actually to affect policy. So I was genuinely surprised when this Summer President Clinton expressed his willingness to grant a conditional clemency to the prisoners.
The response to the offer was less than enthusiastic. Mayor Daley of Chicago has said his city will not be safe with the inmates loose. (Many of their bombings during the 1970's targeted Chicago.) Mayor Giuliani of New York called for release of Justice Department documents that supposedly argue against any early release for the prisoners. The Wall Street Journal and a battery of conservative columnists pegged the clemency as a ploy to gain Puerto Rican votes for Hillary Clinton's New York Senate bid.
Republican members of Congress such as Dan Burton and Orrin Hatch are also demanding Department of Justice documents that they suspect show strong law enforcement opposition to any release of the terrorists.
Jesse Jackson was, at the time of the Clinton offer, in Puerto Rico to demonstrate against the U.S. Naval training facility at Vieques. He dismissed the proposed clemency as an insult, as the preconditions for release demanded acceptance of responsibility for the crimes, a renunciation of future violence and careful compliance with parole requirements.
Several liberal Democratic members of Congress agreed, flying to Puerto Rico for a special press conference to denounce Clinton for falling short of a full and unconditional pardon. And the prisoners themselves so far have declined Clinton's offer.
The 16 inmates claim they are prisoners of war incarcerated for advocating a "free and socialist" Puerto Rico that is independent of the United States. The FALN, of which most prisoners were a part, was involved in 130 bomb attacks from 1974 to 1983 that killed six people and injured 130 others, mostly in Chicago and New York. The Machete Wielders, to which the remainder of the prisoners belonged, masterminded a $7.1 million Well Fargo robbery in Connecticut in 1983.
None of the prisoners have shown remorse over their years of violence. "I have no regrets for serving a noble cause," Oscar Lopez Rivera told a reporter from his federal prison cell in Marion, Illinois. "Would we be willing to renounce the struggle for Puerto Rico's independence to get out of jail? I will never do that."
Left-wing Puerto Rican groups, several members of Congress, and liberal church organizations have been pressuring the Clinton Administration for several years seemingly without avail to offer a full amnesty to the prisoners. The White House must have been surprised when these groups reacted so negatively to the Clinton offer, but especially so by the inclination of the prisoners themselves to reject a conditional clemency.
"What I can't accept is that it restricts my association with the independence movement as a condition of probation," explains Elizam Escobar, who has served almost two decades of his 60-year sentence since his 1980 arrest. "They want to keep punishing us and exclude us from political life on the island."
"They are unacceptable conditions," agreed U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL). "Our people know it and they understand that these are political prisoners." Gutierrez convened a press conference in San Juan with with Representative Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) and Representative Jose Serrano (D-NY) to express their indignation over Clinton's less than full clemency.
"Clinton made an error by not carefully analyzing what he was doing," Velazquez said. "I can't believe the conditions that are being imposed, while on the other hand we are talking about democracy in Croatia and other nations." Although supporters of the prisoners tout democracy, no plebiscite in Puerto Rico has ever shown more than a tiny fraction of the electorate favoring independence from the United States. The Puerto Rican Independence Party typically gets 5 percent of the vote, and direct plebiscites on separatism have garnered even fewer votes.
"To free them under those conditions is to give them a life sentence," Jackson sneered when he heard of Clinton's offer. Activists for Puerto Rican independence joined in the condemnation of Clinton. "These are shameful demands," said Lolita Lebron, whom Jimmy Carter unconditionally pardoned in 1979 for a shooting attack in 1954 on the U.S. House of Representatives. "The President has insulted the dignity of the Puerto Rican nation and those who fight for its liberty." Puerto Rico's governor and other local officials are more supportive of Clinton's conditional clemency. They like the expectation that the inmates renounce violence before gaining their freedom.
But White House spokespersons have not been completely accurate when defending the clemency offer. Deputy White House Chief of Staff Maria Echaveste claims, "None of those individuals were convicted for or found to have anything directly to do with an incident that caused death." She is correct only in that the prisoners were not charged specifically with murder but with corollary charges such as armed robbery and illegal weapons possession. They earned stiff sentences because judges and juries understood their direct complicity in the bombing campaign that killed six victims.
The FALN's most notorious strike was the 1975 bombing of the Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan, killing four patrons. An attack on the Mobil Oil Building, also in New York, killed another man. A bomb in a Puerto Rican restaurant killed a six-year-old child. Three police officers were maimed by an FALN bomb at New York's police headquarters. Dozens more were wounded in other FALN attacks.
"Ideological violence has to be understood for what it is," prisoner Lopez Rivera defensively explained from his cell. "In the colonial reality, the violence perpetrated against the people is never measured or talked about. But it is more detrimental to the society and more nefarious than political violence. To fight this violence you have to use violence."
Perhaps to his credit, President Clinton's offer at least requires something of the prisoners in renouncing this kind of angry rhetoric. When President Carter pardoned five Puerto Rican terrorists, he did so unconditionally, despite their lack of remorse for a shooting attack on the U.S. House of Representatives in 1954 and an assassination attempt on President Truman in 1950.
The current prisoners will not only have to reject violence, they will also each have to personally request a pardon from the President, accepting responsibility for their crimes. During their trials during the 1980's, they refused to acknowledge the authority of U.S. law, arguing that the U.S. is an illegal "colonial power" in Puerto Rico. (Almost all their crimes were committed in the mainland U.S.)
One prisoner, even if he accepts clemency, will still have to serve more time for a prison escape attempt. Another prisoner has been released once but was returned for refusing to comply with parole requirements. Several threatened the judge and juries when they were tried, and one judge expressed regret that he could not impose the death penalty.
"They are dangerous to police officers, the bomb and arson squads, and dangerous to neighborhood people," said Chicago's Mayor Daley said after hearing of the offered clemency. Most of the prisoners were tried and sentenced in a Chicago federal court. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Justice Department has in the past strongly advised against releasing the prisoners, which is why Mayor Giuliani is calling for the Justice Department to release its confidential files. The Journal, to justify its suspicions of complicity with the First Lady's campaign effort, points out that out of over 3,000 petitions for clemency, President Clinton has granted only three requests besides the Puerto Rican prisoners.
At his press conference in San Juan, Congressman Serrano claimed that the inmates are to Puerto Rican voters what Israel is to Jewish voters, what Ulster is to Irish voters, and what South Africa is to black voters. New York's Puerto Rican community has shared its views with Mrs. Clinton, he said.
Joining the congressmen and other presumed spokespersons for the Puerto Rican community has been an array of mainline church leaders. The National Council of Churches has not only called for the inmates' release, but hailed their "profoundly impressive moral character" and "spiritual depth." The Council's general secretary, Joan Campbell, has visited the White House to lobby for a full amnesty.
Numerous religious leaders have visited the terrorists in prison and have emerged talking as though they have visited a holy shrine. "I found myself very moved. They are...of great character and are...in the midst of very difficult circumstances, holding fast to their own sense of who they are and who they want to be," enthused the Reverend Paul Sherry, President of the 1.4 million member United Church of Christ.
"Meeting [them] was a profound honor," recalled Sammy Toineeta, a racial justice official with the National Council of Churches. "Their dedication, their serenity, their compassion, their commitment, and their humility - along with their inner and outer beauty - combine to make them exactly what they say they are not: role models."
None of the religious groups, as a precondition for release, have demanded any repentance from the terrorists, who in their eyes have nothing for which to repent. They were, after all, merely defending themselves against America's "criminal" colonialist policy in Puerto Rico.
One of the terrorists, Carlos Torres, worked for the Episcopal Church's Hispanic Commission until he went underground after the Fraunces Tavern bombing in 1976. While still employed by the church, he translated hymnals into Spanish by day and utilized his New York apartment for bomb making at night.
The FBI suspected Torres was simply using the church to disguise his terrorism. Sadly, even after 19 years in prison, he and his fellow imprisoned terrorists still are.