Puerto Rican Political Prisoners: Time to Move On


Yesterday, in my conversation with a Cuban medical student(complete with the indoctrination), I was told that the United States, too, has political prisoners, like in Cuba. As I do not trust any government, however squeaky clean it presents itself to be, I admitted that there should be no political prisoners, regardless of what country they are on. In other words, the bad  act of one nation does not give any merit to the bad act of another.

I attempt, in my writings, in my thoughts, to anchor myself not to an ideology of left or right, but to a basis in concern for human rights, always within the realm of reality. In this light, I will attempt to address a human rights issue closer to home: Puerto Rico.

As preface, I am not too familiar with Puerto Rico, but have read a couple of sources on it. I believe it is sufficient to at least make some basic points.

A Snippet of History

Puerto Rico, like most of Latin America, has had a past of the following order: 1. Europeans landed; 2. killed, raped, and enslaved the natives; and 3.  obtained complete territorial control over the island.

After some time, the population of Puerto Rico became an amalgam of Spanish, Native(Taino), and African blood. Succinctly, the modern-day Puerto Rico, and its people, were founded upon bloody coercion.

I can attempt to understand, but never truly be able to, what it feels like, as a people, to be literally subjugated for all of its history. I am as Gringo as they come; I often feel that I have no firm roots.  But I digress. This is about Puerto Rico. You get the point.

Throughout the 20th century, there have been many Puerto Ricans who have sought complete independence from the United States. Given its history and its incomplete status in the present, I say that if a majority want independence, they should be able to have it.

There is the question that must be addressed but which cannot answered because it has not occurred: would Puerto Rico be better off independent, the same, or worse off? In the heat of passion for one’s homeland, questions like that are often shucked away under the rug. And so came into existence the Puerto Rico Armed Forces for National Liberation.(FALN)

According to Wikipedia, the FALN arose in part due to decades of alleged harassments, attacks, illegal imprisonments, and assasination against members of the Puerto Rican Liberation movement. I cannot confirm whether the latter is true, but it’s quite likely given my general understanding of human nature. And it makes sense that a group like the FALN would be born out of repression. On Vivirlatino, Maegan Ortiz cites to Jan Susler’s interesting, if selective, history of the FALN and how some members, particularly Carlos Alberto Torres, of that group are still in prison in the U.S.

I say selective because FALN was not just a straight-up liberation movement; it was also an ideological revolutionary movement. Here are some selective ideological basis’ for the FALN.

1. Directing the armed and political struggle in accordance with the Marxist-Leninist principle of a broad front including a popular sectors willing to [ join ] the armed struggle right away.

2. Application of the principle of internal ideological debate, a study of Marxist-Leninist ideology and the use of criticism and self-criticism.

3. Implementation of the Stalinist ideological position on the concept of “nation” with regard to American reality.

Jan Susler does not mention this integral ideological basis. Given that the FALN existed during the peak years of the cold war,(the 60s and 70s) perhaps both Puerto Rico and the United States were so caught up on the capitalism v. communism divide that a genuine settlement for the independence of Puerto Rico was never seriously addressed. This chasmatic divide between the U.S. and the FALN is evident from the latter’s doomed and Guevaraesque tactics.

Part of FALN’s mission statement reminded me of Che Guevara’s speech to the tri-continental:

“Our main strength lies in our ability to carry on a rearguard struggle inside the very territory of the enemy, which can result in large economic and psychological losses for them and threaten to unleash the frustration of the American working people and the wrath of their minorities. In short, it can threaten a “destabilization” of the Yankee system on its own soil”

My interpretation of the above is that although Puerto Ricans had a legitimate justification to obtain independence from the United States, FALN’s method of reaching that goal was unabashedly “at any cost”. In other words, no matter how many common civilians in the United States or Puerto Rico died or suffered from the “destablization”, if independence was obtained, the death and suffering would be justified. And FALN did take some violent steps: the group claimed responsibility for an array of bombings that caused the deaths and injuries of several civilians in the United States.

I am a strong believer in the motto that no matter how noble the deed is, the journey towards that deed cannot cause potentially more harm than what existed before it began. I believe FALN’s journey, from its inception, was corrupt and it had to be stopped. This is easier to say in hindsight, from my perspective, and it in practice the “motto” has not been followed. All one need to is look at Iraq and Afghanistan. Deed: stop terrorism. Journey: deaths of scores of civilians. So I am not one to pass judgment on the Puerto Rican political prisoners. They were wrong, for sure. But so was the United States, in its treatment of Puerto Ricans throughout history.

What is clear is that on a practical level, for the protection of its own citizens, the United States was justified in imprisoning members of the FALN. The cold war is over. In fact, there are probably thousands upon thousands people who have acted similarly to members of FALN that are free in the former Soviet Bloc.

The Partial Release

In 1999, President Clinton agreed to conditionally commute the sentence of 16 members of FALN who were convicted of various violent activities, including setting off bombs.

Significantly, none of the crimes that the 16 were convicted of resulted in the injury of another person. The logic behind the release was that the 16 spent more time in prison for their crimes than what would given for a similar offense. Said differently, the 16 were being disproportionately punished for the political nature of their crimes.

The commutation was conditioned upon the 16 formally renouncing violence, accepting restrictions on freedom of association with other prisoners, and accepting restrictions on travel. And that makes sense, given the unacceptable violent activities that landed them in prison in the first place. According to the linked article, 12 of the political prisoners accepted Clinton’s terms of commutation and 2 did not, who appear to be Oscar Lopez Rivera and Haydee Beltran Torres. If Rivera and Beltran Torres did not accept the renunciation of violence, there is no reasonable basis for their release, both on a moral and practical level.

The one political prisoner’s name that I have seen more than others is Carlos Alberto Torres, who was not offered any commutation because he is alleged by the U.S. government as the leader of FALN. Which is odd because unless he has been operating from prison, he was the leader and is not anymore. It appears that Carlos Alberto Torres is up for parole and that he has renounced the use of violence. There was what I would call an oddly timed procedural delay to his release on parole: in a cell that Torres shared with 10 people, a knives were found, and the parole board delayed making a decision on his release pending a disciplinary hearing on the knife charge, which Torres as well as the other nine prisoners were found to be responsible for. But a fresh parole board meeting awaits.

The United States Government, for political reasons, has been responsible for many deaths. In the context of this article, I will cite to the interventionist policies in Latin America that have been a constant in U.S. foreign policy up until recently. We have killed, yet we move on. The World must move on. New humans enter the world, and the task of providing for them cannot be held hostage to  past political mistakes.

If Carlos Alberto Torres has renounced violence, he should be released; he can, as well as all Puerto Ricans, work towards their desired goal, be it independence or not, in a non-violent manner, where the loss of human life is the limit to change.


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2 Responses to “Puerto Rican Political Prisoners: Time to Move On”

  1. Jorge Says:

    This article is so flawed that lets start by:

    As preface, I am not too familiar with Puerto Rico, but have read a couple of sources on it. I believe it is sufficient to at least make some basic points.

    If you are not familar with PR, them do not make any comments especificall this one:

    Of course, the U.S., like any government that oozes with the arrogance of power, scoffed at Puerto Rico and has not granted it. From were do you get this idea?

    I lived in PR from 1961 up to 1986, its a colony, but what a colony were the Fedral Goverment pays for all its services. It cost the USA taxpayers billlions of US dolar every year. All heads of the federal agencies in PR are headed by native Puerto Ricans, independently from their political afiliation. The USA taxpayers pays for their security, unemployment, helath, social security, medic aid, defense, mail ect ect

    You avoid to explain or ignore the political ground of PR. There are three parties, one prostatehood, one to keep the staus quo (Commonwealth) and one for independence. PR goes to the polls every 4 years to elect its officials, basically it moves from pro statehood to pro commmmonwealth. Various plebicites have been done to choose staus and the independence is less than 2%. The actual goverment is pro statehood. The indepedent movement every year does not reach 2% of the votes and has to be ratified every year since it does not reach the 5% needed to be an oficila party. So were do you get that “Of course, the U.S., like any government that oozes with the arrogance of power, scoffed at Puerto Rico and has not granted it”.

    Puerto Ricans are USA born citizens, ahd serve in the army. Their service have been outstanding in all wars the USA has been in.

    In the çate 1950´s the independent party went to Washington and started shooting at the US gioverment causing casulaties, bombs have been placed and even tried to bomb the NYC metro.

    As a USA taxpayer, I wish that PR will become independent as soon as possible and congress will grant it inmediately.


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