Oscar López Rivera, the Puerto Rican nationalist who spent more than 35 years behind bars for his role in a violent struggle for independence from the United States, was released from house arrest in Puerto Rico on Wednesday.
Now 74, he is celebrated as a hero by many despite being convicted of crimes against the United States, and will be honoured next month in New York City’s massive Puerto Rican Day parade.
In an exclusive interview with Univision on the eve of his release, López Rivera defended the use of violence for the cause of Puerto Rican independence, though he stressed he was personally never involved in violent acts.
"The United Nations recognizes that every colonized people has the right to fight for their decolonization, for independence of the country, using all means at their disposal," he told Univision's Jorge Ramos.
Asked specifically if he defended the use of violence, he responded: "I believe that in that precise moment in 1975-76 it was one of the options we had, and which we Puerto Ricans still have, to fight for the independence of Puerto Rico."
López Rivera still insists on his innocence after he was let out of jail in February to serve out a reduced sentence under house arrest. His original 70-year sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama last year.
"There is not the slightest evidence that places me at any violent act. No-one can say that they saw me. The FBI has investigated this case for 38-39 years and has never been able to say so-and-so carried out that crime," he said.
"I don't support activities that puts human life in danger," he added.
But López Rivera’s story isn’t that simple: He was a member of the leftist group FALN that claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings across New York, Chicago, Washington and Puerto Rico in the 1970s.
One still-unsolved bombing, at New York’s landmark Fraunces Tavern in 1975, killed four people and injured more than 60. And those affected by the violence don’t understand how Lopez Rivera can be seen as a hero. To them, he’s a terrorist.
“I’ve had long hours in the middle of the night trying to figure out what I am missing, why he has all this support,” said Diane Berger Ettenson, 70, who was six months pregnant when her husband, Alex Berger, was killed at the tavern.
Some have called him Puerto Rico's Nelson Mandela, after the former South African president who was jailed for 27 years.
He’ll be feted across the island and in Chicago later this week. Supporters also plan to honour him at the June 11 parade down New York’s Fifth Avenue with the title Procer de la Libertad — National Freedom Hero.
That decision has caused conflict among some New York Puerto Ricans, the largest such community off the island, and a petition circulated slamming it.
Organizers of the parade, which draws more than 1 million people, insisted in a statement: “Oscar’s involvement does not endorse the story that led to his arrest or any form of violence. Rather it is the recognition of a man and the struggle of a nation for its sovereignty.”
The issue of Puerto Rico's commonweath status remains highly divisive today, especially in the face of a massive $123 billion debt and recent declaration of virtual bankruptcy.
Puerto Rico's Governor Ricardo Rosselló, 38, who was inaugurated in January is holding a nonbinding referendum in June in which voters can opt for statehood which some see as a path out of the economic recession that has seen many islanders migrate to the U.S. mainland in recent years.
Even so, independence has received less than 6 per cent of the vote in four previous referendums.
But López Rivera says he remains committed to fighting for independence from the island's colonial master.
The FALN, the Spanish-language acronym for Armed Forces of National Liberation, emerged in the mid-1970s, a turbulent time when militant groups such as the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army were operating.
On Oct. 26, 1974, a bomb went off outside a Manhattan bank around 3 a.m. Soon after, someone called the city’s Associated Press bureau and directed them to an Upper West Side phone booth, where a FALN letter claimed responsibility for attacking “major Yanki corporations.”
Law enforcement caught up with the group years later when a drug addict ransacking a building in Chicago found bomb-making material and missives. Lopez Rivera, a Vietnam War veteran who came to Chicago from Puerto Rico as a child, was arrested during a traffic stop.
He and about a dozen comrades were convicted in 1981 of seditious conspiracy “to overthrow the government of the United States in Puerto Rico by force,” armed robbery and lesser charges.
“Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States and thus the Puerto Rican people have a right to fight for independence, using all means possible,” López Rivera said during the trial.
He and the others were never tied to specific bombings, which caused few injuries. He served more than a decade in solitary confinement after a second conviction for attempting to escape.
“This is not about people fighting for independence. You can do that without killing people,” said Anthony Senft, a former NYPD bomb squad detective blinded in one eye by a FALN blast in 1982.
When then-President Bill Clinton offered clemency to several of the jailed FALN in 1999, Lopez Rivera rejected the offer in part because it excluded two comrades. They have since been released, making his the longest-served sentence in the history of the Puerto Rican independence movement.
Those who have supported him, including former president Jimmy Carter, Pope Francis and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, say the draw is more about what they say he symbolizes: the plight of Puerto Rico.
“One can disagree or agree with him politically, but he is a symbol of resolve and conviction,” said “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who pushed for clemency.
U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the House of Representatives, said she’s seen how López Rivera unites the country.
“I think that he paid a high price. And that it is important for this son to be returned,” she said.
But for Joseph Connor, who was 9 when his dad, Frank, was killed at the tavern table, the struggle is much more personal.
“Every time I have to defend my father’s life, it takes a little more of my life away,” he said. “My kids never met my dad, but they certainly had to deal with this. We never asked for it.”