To many Puerto Ricans, Oscar López Rivera was a freedom fighter for independence who has spent the past 35 years as a political prisoner – yet to stateside police, the U.S. Department of Justice, and federal courts he was a terrorist, a maker of bombs, and a leader of the FALN network that terrorized the United States and the island and killed several people in the 1970s and ’80s.
At a rally for the cause Friday, State Sen. Darren Soto, the Democratic nominee for Florida’s 9th Congressional District, renewed his call for López’s release from federal prison and his recognition as a political prisoner in U.S. custody.
Soto was joined Friday by Democratic U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, former state representative Anthony Suarez of Orlando, and others Friday outside Suarez’s law practice calling for more federal support for Puerto Rico, transparency in federal efforts to resolve the territory’s debt and budget problems – and the release of López.
It’s a trifecta of Puerto Rican-specific issues of great interest to the large Puerto Rican diaspora, who numbers in the hundreds of thousands in CD 9. But it’s also red meat for many non-Puerto Ricans, according to Soto’s opponent, Republican Wayne Liebnitzky, who predicted the López issue could be Soto’s downfall.
Soto said he does not condone the violence associated with the FALN or with López, yet he compared their cause to the Boston Tea Party, seeking justice from what they saw as tyranny. He called López’s participation “his act of rebellion, for what he saw as an unlawful occupation of Puerto Rico by the federal government.”
That position should give him the distinction of being a political prisoner, Soto said.
“We both know that these were destructive acts but they had a greater significance,” Soto said. “It’s that if you face tyranny, you face it with a strong fist and a strong voice.”
Soto, Gutierrez, who spoke mostly in Spanish, and Suarez said they believe the call for López’s release and declaration as a political prisoner is just, almost universally shared among Puerto Ricans, and a key part of holding onto Puerto Rican culture outside the island.
Suarez, president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Central Florida and a Republican who supports Soto, said López’s sentence and imprisonment thus far are “well beyond the sentencing guidelines. It is an abuse of discretion… This man should be set free. He should go back to Puerto Rico and look back at the mar, like he always says, he should see the ocean.”
In a written statement he released criticizing Soto and Gutierrez for promoting López’ release during the CD 9 campaign, Liebnitzky noted that the FALN “conducted raids, ambushes, bombings, and armed robberies which resulted – among other things – in the destruction of military equipment, the maiming of law enforcement personnel, and in the deaths of two U.S. Navy personnel in 1979.
“Unfortunately, many politicians view our Boricua friends and neighbors as an opportunity to further divide our community and nation through the politics of racial grievance,” Liebnitzky said in a statement he released.
“López Rivera was tried and convicted of multiple charges, and sentenced to prison. He was subsequently sentenced to an additional 15 years on charges of conspiracy to escape. López Rivera refused the 1999 [President Bill] Clinton clemency because he wanted unconditional release, and because he refused to renounce terrorism,” Liebnitzky stated. “Instead of carrying out this call for the release of a convicted terrorist, Congressman Luis Gutierrez (an incendiary racial demagogue in his own right) and Darren Soto should devote their time to the pursuit of policies and solutions that will empower our Puerto Rican community.”