By GERRY FOLEY
President Clinton’s decision to grant clemency to a group of Puerto Rican nationalist prisoners who have already served more than 10 years in prison on political charges has become a major political issue in the United States.
That is indicated, among other things, by the editorial in the Sept. 23 New York Times advising Clinton to make public the basis on which he decided to make his offer to the prisoners. The FBI tops, moreover, have let it be known that they were opposed to clemency on the grounds that it would encourage the radical Puerto Rican nationalist movement.
However, Clinton was certainly aware that nothing would encourage radical Puerto Rican nationalism more than continuing the effort to crush the life out of these devoted and self-sacrificing Puerto Rican patriots.
If the U.S. president had any doubt of that, it was proved when Hillary Clinton, apparently under right-wing pressure, chose to try to dissociate herself from her husband’s offer. A wave of outrage swept the Hispanic community in New York state. Among Spanish-speaking people, that is, those who have some knowledge of this case, there is obviously very broad support for clemency.
Alica Rodriguez, a member of the Puerto Rican Armed forces of National Liberation (FLAN), after being released from prison on Sept. 10.
The clear discrimination and vindictiveness against these prisoners could not help but arouse indignation among Hispanics. Of 14 prisoners arrested between 1980 and 1983, 10 received sentences between 55 and 90 years. The average was 70.8 years for the men and 72.8 for the women.
By way of contrast, statistics from the federal court system show that between 1966 and 1985, the average sentence for convicted murderers was 22.7 years. Moreover, none of the Puerto Rican prisoners had any previous criminal record.
Most were arrested in the early 1980s, accused of belonging to a clandestine nationalist organization, the Armed Forces of National Liberation. They were not charged with any specific acts of violence.
Clearly, the U.S. government thought that being prepared to fight for the right of nationhood for the Puerto Rican people was worse than murder or rape. However, for Puerto Rican youth and youth in general, these prisoners offer a rare example of idealism and courage in a time when the ruling business class is trying to put across the idea that history-that is, the class struggle, and therefore idealism-are finished.
The effect of this example was evident in a march of 50,000 people in Puerto Rico on July 4 protesting the U.S. military occupation of the Puerto Rican coastal island of Vieques and in another march of thousands of people in San Juan on Aug. 29 demanding release of the prisoners. Both demonstrations included many youth.
The Aug. 29 demonstration was joined even by leaders of the Popular Democratic Party, the Puerto Rican affiliate of the Democratic Party, and by a U.S. congressman from Chicago, Luis Gutierrez. Even the right-wing party that advocates full integration of Puerto Rico into the United States supported the release of the prisoners, although under Clinton’s conditions.
In order to get the benefit of clemency, the prisoners had to deny that they were political prisoners and renounce their political rights, in particular the right to associate with other nationalists. These stipulations aroused controversy among Puerto Rican nationalists. Two prisoners-Oscar López and Antonio Camacho- refused to accept them, and thereby voluntarily accepted an even greater sacrifice.
But most nationalists, apparently, were prepared to leave the choice to the prisoners themselves, who had already spent a major part of their lives isolated from their families and their people.
Eleven prisoners agreed to accept Clinton’s conditions on Sept. 7, and have since been released. A 12th prisoner will be eligible for clemency in five years. Five prisoners were not offered clemency, including one who is serving a 70-year term and another who is serving a life term. The campaign to win their release will continue.
Those interested in helping in this campaign can get further information by e-mailing <Comite-98@uclink4. Berkeley.edu> or calling National Committee to Free the Puerto Rican Prisoners of War and Political Prisoners at (773) 278-0885. There is also a web page devoted to the Puerto Rican nationalist prisoners: http://www.wco.com/~boricua/ POWS/.