On January 17, 2017, as one of the final acts of his presidency, Barack Obama commuted the sentence of 74-year-old Oscar Lopez Rivera, the Puerto Rican nationalist who had served 35 years of a 55-year conviction for the crime of “seditious conspiracy,” as well as attempted robbery, explosives and vehicle-theft charges. Thanks to Obama’s intercession, Lopez will be freed in May.
In some quarters, Obama’s decision was greeted with elation. Spontaneous celebrations broke out in San Juan. Luis Gutiérrez, a Democratic congressman from Illinois who represents the West Side Chicago neighborhood in which Lopez grew up, said in a statement that he was “overjoyed and overwhelmed” by Lopez’s release. “Oscar is a friend, a mentor, and family to me,” wrote Gutierrez. According to the New York Daily News, Melissa Mark-Viverito, the speaker of the New York City Council and a rising Democratic Party star, cried when she heard the news, calling Lopez’s release “incredible” and a “morale boost” for Puerto Rico. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who lobbied hard for Lopez’s commutation, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio both offered Obama their thanks. And Lin Manuel Miranda, who has been a vocal proponent for Lopez, tweeted that he was “sobbing with gratitude.” (He furthermore added that he would reprise his role in “Hamilton” for one night in Chicago in Lopez’s honor.)
Lopez’s supporters refer to him as a “political prisoner” or “independence activist,” and characterize him as a man unfairly and harshly targeted by the U.S. government for his beliefs. He has even been called “Puerto Rico’s Nelson Mandela.”
The truth, alas, is considerably darker than that.
Most Americans may not have heard of Lopez, or the organization he helped lead, the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN), a radical Marxist Puerto Rican independence group. With the focus of post-9/11 terrorism falling almost exclusively on Islamist radicals, the violent nationalists of yesteryear—Puerto Rican, Cuban, Croatian and Jewish—have faded into obscurity. But during the FALN’s explosive heyday under Lopez’s leadership, the group was anything but obscure. In fact, from 1974, when the group announced itself with its first bombings, to 1983, when arrests finally destroyed its membership base, the FALN was the most organized, active, well-trained and deadly domestic terror group based in the United States.
The FALN was responsible for over 130 bombings during this period, including the January 1975 explosion in Manhattan’s historic Fraunces Tavern, which killed four and wounded 63. In October of that year, it set off, all within the span of an hour, 10 bombs in three cities, causing nearly a million dollars in damage. In August 1977, the FALN set off a series of bombs in Manhattan, forcing 100,000 workers to evacuate their offices; one person was killed, and six were injured. In 1979, the group even threatened to blow up the Indian Point nuclear energy facility located north of New York City. It later sent a communiqué warning the U.S. to “remember … that you have never experienced war on your vitals and that you have many nuclear reactors.” In 1980, FALN members stormed the Carter-Mondale election headquarters in Chicago, and the George H.W. Bush campaign headquarters in New York, holding employees there hostage at gunpoint. In 1981, they plotted to kidnap President Reagan’s son Ron. Plainly, the group was deadly serious about its objectives—a free, independent and socialist Puerto Rico—and zealous in its pursuit of them.
According to court documents, thoughout this time, Lopez, a Vietnam War veteran, was part of FALN’s “Central Command”—a member of the “triumvirate” that led the organization. In 1976, Lopez became a fugitive when federal investigators discovered a “bomb factory” in an apartment he had rented in Chicago. He would evade arrest for the next five years, actively planning robberies and training FALN members. According to the summary of the testimony of Alfredo Mendez, an FALN member who later became a government witness, Lopez even gave new members bomb-making lessons.
After arriving at the Milwaukee safe house for the first time in December 1979 or January 1980, Mendez was led to a basement workshop where Oscar Lopez told him that the day’s purpose was to instruct Mendez in the proper construction of various types of explosive and incendiary devices. … Mendez spent several hours being schooled in the tools and techniques of bomb manufacturing. Lopez described and demonstrated the techniques and watched while Mendez practiced. … Throughout the day's instruction, Lopez had Mendez construct approximately 10 timing devices and firing circuits.
In May 1981, Lopez was arrested after police pulled him over for a traffic violation. He was caught with a handgun with a filed-down serial number and a fake ID. When investigators searched the Chicago apartment tied to his fake ID, they found bags of dynamite, blasting caps, a bomb timer, an automatic weapon and assorted paraphernalia, including a bomb-making manual for FALN members. He was eventually sentenced to 55 years in prison on a variety of charges, including seditious conspiracy, attempted armed robbery, explosives possession, car theft and weapons violations.
Although there was strong circumstantial evidence of Lopez’s participation in FALN attacks—he traveled to New York from Chicago the day before five bombs were detonated there in 1974, and left the city the day after, for instance—law enforcement officials were never been able to conclusively link him to specific bombings. The FALN’s tradecraft was unusually sophisticated, and the group conducted extensive countersurveillance before striking, which has allowed Lopez’s supporters, and supporters of clemency for other FALN members convicted of seditious conspiracy, to claim that the group consists of nonviolent offenders. This has the virtue of being true in the narrow, legalistic sense, and yet comprehensively false. (The FALN turncoat Mendez, for example, testified that Lopez masterminded a botched 1980 plot to rob an armored truck in Evanston, Illinois, with machine guns; Lopez assured Mendez “that they had done this type of job before and knew how it was done. They bragged in particular about a big armored truck job that they had done in New York.”)
Lopez remained active, even while in prison. In fact, he received an additional 15-year sentence in 1987, after the FALN was largely defunct, for an audacious jailbreak plot (the second of two) that, according to the FBI, “involved flying a helicopter stocked with machine guns and explosives into the Leavenworth recreational yard.” Aided by two radicals affiliated with the Weather Underground, Lopez’s plan apparently included “riddl[ing] guard towers with rounds from automatic weapons, and throw[ing] grenades in the path of those who pursued” the escapees.
In addition to its devotion to “armed struggle,” as FALN members themselves characterized their actions, the group’s connections to Cuba, while still opaque, should also give pause to some of Lopez’s supporters. In the mid-1970s, Fidel Castro made Puerto Rican independence a major plank of his country’s foreign policy, much to the consternation of the Ford and Carter administrations. Over this period, Cuba had very close relations to the main pro-independence party in Puerto Rico, the PSP. (The FBI, in fact, held that by the early 1960s, Juan Mari Brás, the PSP’s leader, was a paid Cuban agent). And, according to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the prominent Puerto Rican revolutionary Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, who later co-founded the FALN, was recruited by Cuba’s General Directorate of Intelligence (DGI) as an operative as early as 1963. U.S. authorities claim that Cuban intelligence gave Ojeda Ríos training in espionage and bomb-making techniques, which he then passed on to other pro-independence militants. According to the FBI, by 1973, 135 Puerto Rican radicals had received “extensive instruction in guerrilla war tactics, preparation of explosive artifacts and sophisticated methods of sabotage” within Cuba itself.
Despite the group’s violent history, for decades powerful voices in Puerto Rico and the United States have agitated for a presidential pardon for FALN members. In 1999, amid significant controversy—the Senate denounced President Clinton's actions in a 95-2 vote—Clinton offered clemency to 12 members of the group. (As with Obama’s pardon of Lopez, none of the 12 FALN members pardoned by Clinton had been convicted of violent crimes.) Clinton’s conditional offer required that FALN members “refrain from the use or advocacy of the use of violence for any purpose.” Clinton offered Lopez this same deal. He refused it. Perhaps it was because he could not, in good conscience, agree to abide by its conditions: For example, in a 1986 interview, Lopez said the FALN’s cause “is a just struggle, and because it’s a just struggle, we have the right to wage it by any means necessary, including armed struggle. … We can anticipate more violence.”
Clinton’s 1999 clemency offers were undertaken under some unusual political circumstances. At the time, Hillary Clinton was gearing up to run for an open Senate seat in New York, then home to over 1 million Puerto Ricans, the largest population in the United States. Puerto Ricans make up an important and influential Democratic constituency in the state, and many accused the president of granting the commutations in order to drive Hispanic voters to his wife’s candidacy. Facing stiff political headwinds, and harsh criticism from New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani, her probable Republican opponent in the Senate race, Hillary Clinton released a public statement disavowing the FALN commutations.
Regardless of whether Hillary’s race was a factor in Bill’s decision, political and popular pressure surely was. Over 400 Puerto Rican civic and nonprofit organizations lobbied Bill Clinton for FALN pardons, as did the Puerto Rican Bar Association, labor and business leaders, and a number of distinguished politicians on the island. In Congress, the lobbying effort was led by Representatives Jose Serrano, Nydia Velazquez and Luis Gutierrez, all Democrats.
During the Obama years, the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus lobbied President Obama for Lopez’s release, as did Senator Sanders, former Puerto Rico Governer Alejandro García Padilla, and many other prominent figures. As with Bill Clinton’s 1999 actions, it strains credulity that Obama would release Lopez were his cause not championed by powerful politicians within his own party, and if Puerto Ricans did not represent an important, and increasingly strategically located, Democratic voting bloc. (Florida’s Puerto Rican population, in particular, has grown exponentially, and now stands at over 1 million. According to estimates, it will outnumber that state’s Republican-leaning Cuban population by 2020.)
Looked at this way, whether Lopez deserved clemency—which is an act of presidential mercy, and not recognition of his innocence—is immaterial. His release, as well as the release of 12 FALN members in 1999, is a particularly noisome example of interest group politics, played out on the national stage. (As Melissa Mark-Viverito said to the New York Post upon hearing of Obama’s commutation: “When people think of what did he do for Puerto Rico, it's going to be that he freed Oscar.”)
For their part, Republicans have been susceptible to the same kind of interest-group pressure, proving that politicians’ moral outrage over civilian deaths caused by extremists can be easily subordinated to amoral calculations about raw interest. For instance, the Cuban-American community has long lobbied Republicans for leniency regarding anti-Castro Cuban extremists, often quite successfully. In 1991, George H.W. Bush released from jail Orlando Bosch, a notorious anti-Castro terrorist implicated in the 1976 Cubana Airlines bombing that killed 73, offering him U.S. residency. When Jeb Bush was governor of Florida, he was instrumental in securing the 2001 release of two Cuban-American terrorists convicted of assassinating a leftist Chilean ex-diplomat and his American colleague in Washington, D.C. in 1976. And in 2005, President George W. Bush treated another prominent anti-Castro Cuban terrorist, Luis Posada (who was also implicated in the Cubana Airlines bombing), with extreme dutifulness when Posada decided to sneak back into the country after a 2000 attempt to assassinate Castro in Panama. Both parties, then, have shown themselves to be rather “soft on terrorism” when it suits their needs.
Lopez, meanwhile, will likely be treated to a hero’s welcome when he returns to Puerto Rico, a place he has not lived since he was a child. As much as things have changed since then, he will find that one salient fact has endured: As during the 1970s and 1980s, support for outright independence is almost nonexistent. Perhaps he will find solace in the company of his old comrades from the FALN, some of whom now live in freedom on the island; perhaps he will even try to visit Cuba to reconnect with William Morales, FALN’s premier bomb-maker, who, after a 1979 escape from a New York prison, was eventually granted refuge under Castro. The mere thought must drive federal law enforcement officials to apoplexy. When the Obama administration announced its rapproachement with Cuba in 2015, few, I suspect, could have imagined Lopez and Morales walking along the Malecón, together, as free men.
Zach Dorfman is senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.