Early this week, President Obama commuted the sentence of Oscar López Rivera, a Puerto Rican activist serving a 70-year sentence for a variety of charges, including seditious conspiracy, that is, conspiracy to destroy or overthrow the US government. Notable figures who supported, and sometimes lobbied very aggressively for, Mr. López Rivera’s pardon include Nobel Peace laureates Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel of Argentina and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa; Alejandro García Padilla, governor of Puerto Rico; former US president Jimmy Carter; former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders; and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
This is a remarkable list. But it is not unanimous. Some commentators are angry. According to Charles Lane, for example, "this is the Obama pardon you should be mad about." An article on "The Federalist" argues that the pardon "trades a terrorist for votes." And a piece in the Breitbart News Network brands López Rivera a "domestic terrorist" and labels his freedom "a cause for leftist Latinos."
The facts surrounding López Rivera's incarceration are fuzzy and very much dependent upon one's point of view. But the basic sketch is as follows. López Rivera was born in Puerto Rico in 1943 and moved to Chicago at the age of 14. He served in Vietnam at the age of 18 and was awarded the Bronze Star. Upon returning to Chicago, López Rivera became a community organizer and leader for the independence of Puerto Rico. He eventually joined a group called Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, or FALN. Ultimately, FALN claimed responsibility for over 120 bombings around the United States between 1974 and 1983, which led to 6 deaths and many more injuries. But the bombings connected to Mr. López Rivera were those from the Chicago area, and which led to his conviction, did not result in injuries. This is consistent with López Rivera's assertions that he focused on not endangering people's lives. As he told the Guardian last year, “For me, human life is sacred. We called it ‘armed propaganda’ – using targets to draw attention to our struggle.”
Whatever you think of Mr. López Rivera and his past, his pardon raises a much larger question for me. The is a question that I have thought about for a long time, as has every Puerto Rican: What is the status of the island? There is only one honest answer to this question, irrespective of one's politics: Puerto Rico is a colonial territory of the United States. I don't really know how else to put it. Puerto Ricans first became US citizens courtesy of the Jones Act of 1917. But this is a curious kind of citizenship, because it is not accompanied by political rights and representation. It can only be described as second-class citizenship. The island remains at the whim of Congress on issues that do not involve fundamental rights. US citizens on the island do not have a voting member of Congress, nor are they represented in the Electoral College. This should be inconceivable under the US Constitution. The status of Puerto Rico and its citizenry reminds me of what political theorists label "Happy Slaves." Consent theory and US constitutionalism fail as applied to the people of Puerto Rico. The status of the island is indefensible.
This is not to argue that Puerto Rico should be a state, or a commonwealth, or an independent nation. Those are much harder questions. The question of the status of Puerto Rico as it exists today is an easy question. Too easy.
Once we understand the status of Puerto Rico for what it is, colonial rule for a modern American audience, the case of López Rivera turns far more complex and his pardon becomes much easier to see and understand. His case reminds me of Hamilton and the founding generation. This is a generation that took up arms in defense of their liberty at the hands of what they deemed to be a tyrannical government. López Rivera is following in their footsteps. He took arms against colonial rule. Any seditious conspiracy of which he is accused pales in comparison to what Washington and his generation did, taking arms against the King. Think also of what the founding generation did in the hot summer of 1787, meeting illegally in Philadelphia in order to "form a more perfect union." Can we defend the actions of the founding generation while refusing to similarly defend López Rivera? maybe we can. But it would not be easy.
And most commentators are not even trying.