In October of this year, Alejandro García Padilla, Puerto Rico’s governor, visited Oscar López Rivera in prison. The visit inspired the following tweet: “Oscar está muy al tanto de la crisis que heredé y la importancia de la solidaridad para enfrentar la misma”. In truth, this was the governor’s second tweet. In the first one, García Padilla let his 94 thousand followers know that he and Oscar talked about the political prisoner’s life and his vision of Puerto Rico. The governor, however, failed to elaborate on this point. Two other tweets followed as well as a newspaper column in which García Padilla articulated a seemingly sincere plea for Oscar’s release:
“Oscar López Rivera lleva 33 años preso. No se le ha acusado de cometer acto violento alguno. No se le ha vinculado con acto violento alguno. Se le acusó de conspirar. La línea que divide “conspirar” de “pensar” es muy fina. No siento que Oscar sea un peligro para el futuro de nuestro país, ni de nuestra comunidad, ni de nuestra familia. Su sentencia, excesiva por demás, lacera los más elementales principios de humanidad, sensibilidad y justicia. Oscar López Rivera no tiene deuda con la sociedad pues, si alguna vez la tuvo, la saldó hace muchos años. No nos ha hecho daño.”
The governor’s visit was celebrated across considerable segments of the Island population. For most, the three hours Oscar and García Padilla spent together in Terre Haute Indiana will be key in the struggle for López Rivera’s eventual freedom. After all, it was the first time an Island governor visited a political prisoner. And the consensus seems to be that that fact alone—regardless of any other consideration—is meaningful. For some, however, all other possible considerations are overwhelming; too many and too alarming to bear. In particular, the rather blunt manner in which the governor attempted to repair his tarnished image and/or regain the favor of voters by taking advantage not only of a worthy, grass-roots, non-partisan cause, but more importantly by taking advantage of the presumed vulnerability of Oscar López as he really is in no position to challenge or deny whatever representations the governor opted to make of their conversation. Thus, as could be expected, the critics, the cynics and the haters took to Facebook and Twitter to express their dissent. What was surprising, however, was the backlash that these rather mundane and perhaps inconsequential expressions of dissent received. The consensus was that any critique leveled against the governor’s visit demonstrated a lack of solidarity with Oscar and with the movement for his release, or worse, it was a direct harm done to Oscar’s chances for freedom. The logic being, I presume, that when mulling the decision as to whether pardon Oscar or not, Obama will review people’s past status updates and tweets. Thus, according to Jorge Irizarry Vizcarrondo, director of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, for example:
“Si a usted le molesta que Alejandro García Padilla y Luis Gutiérrez visiten a Oscar y expresen su solidaridad con el deseo de que salga de una encarcelación injusta usted es un panfletero o panfletera. Ojalá también lo visiten Scalia y George Bush y Sarah Palin. De lo que se trata es de demostrar que cada vez más sectores y personas reclaman su libertad, reconocen la injusticia. Oscar lxs recibe a todxs, y acepta el apoyo. Pero claro, usted no es quien está preso. Oscar López decide a quien recibe en su celda, respeten su decisión.”
The bottom line then—at least from the perspective of state representatives— is that anybody can speak on behalf of Oscar, because ultimately what matters is that more and more people—specially people of influence— speak up regardless of the manner in which they articulate their claim. Thus, the fact that the governor in his written comments reflected on how a pro-independence political prisoner and him could seamlessly sketch out an ideological map of Puerto Rico on which they both agree is somehow not an issue to be questioned, analyzed, debated. However, it is urgent for it to be debated, insomuch as that conversation in prison between the current Island governor and the oldest Puerto Rican political prisoner should have been difficult, marked perhaps by gaps, awkward silences, and misinterpretation, prompting each speaker to rearticulate their points over and over again, in order to better understand the other. We could even say that the dialogue should have been outright confrontational, considering that Oscar sat down with the Island representative of the system he fought against and that for the past three decades has had him behind bars. In truth, the governor’s tweets should have read: “Been sitting here for an hour in silence, not sure exactly what to say”. Or “Everything I say seems to piss him off. In all honesty, he’s pissing me off too.” I say this in jest of course. Although it occurs to me that the total lack of difficulty, of awkwardness in the encounter, as retold by Alejandro García Padilla, while it may have made for a trending news story, also deprived the encounter of meaning. This, because while we could validly argue that the governor arrived in Terre Haute as an ally to the cause, he and Oscar do not cease to be enemies in the larger political context of Puerto Rico. This is important, insomuch as, following Badiou, “what characterizes politics…is that there are enemies”. For Badiou:
“A real enemy is not someone you are resigned to see take power periodically because lots of people vote for him. That is a person you are annoyed to see as head of State because you would have preferred his adversary. And that you will wait your turn, for five or ten years more. An enemy is something else: an individual you won’t tolerate taking decisions on anything that impacts on yourself.”
In this regard, Oscar’s decades long confinement— the torture he has been subjected to—is not simply a testament to the injustices of the U.S. government and the singular valor of a solitary man, but perhaps even more importantly, it is a testament on Puerto Rican politics conceived and practiced in a manner that seems all but forgotten in present day Puerto Rico. There should be no doubt that the call for Oscar’s release on humanitarian grounds, as a way to put a necessary end to a much prolonged injustice is a valid, legitimate claim. However, it seems to me, that the humanitarian argument—which has dominated the movement for Oscar’s release—serves to invisibilize the political specificity of Oscar’s confinement: He is in prison because he identified an enemy he could not tolerate and that enemy, in turn, has shown no tolerance for him.
Now, one could certainly argue that the movement for his release, if it was to become widespread, garnering support from all sectors of the political spectrum on the Island and beyond, required that this truth be deemphasized. If not, the movement would have been most likely circumscribed to the friendly-unfriendly confines of the Puerto Rican left. And ultimately the goal here is for Oscar to be reunited with his family and his people; something that a strictly delineated and defined leftist effort could most certainly never achieve. And so, let the governor tweet. Let Carmen Yulín Cruz, San Juan’s mayor, pass out commemorative Oscar López bracelets as she’s locking down the streets of Old San Juan and establishing security checkpoints for street festivals. Let El Nuevo Día tell the story of a grandfather and decorated war veteran unjustly imprisoned. And let no one ask what it all might mean. Well, actually Eduardo Lalo posed the question last year in Río Piedras:
“¿Qué representa Oscar López? ¿Qué significan sus años en prisión? ¿Qué conlleva ser un libertador en un tiempo en que los grandes discursos se han venido abajo? ¿Qué es Oscar López en las calles de Río Piedras, en las calles que no ha pisado por 32 años, en las calles que para nosotros son parte ordinaria de nuestra cotidianidad?”
These, I think, are some of the key questions that should arise when broaching Oscar’s activism and imprisonment. Unfortunately, most intellectuals, commentators and writers fail to engage them wholeheartedly. A brief survey of the articles chronicling Oscar’s life exhibit a definite hesitation to directly broach his activism. Instead, most writers either refer to it in general, extremely vague terms or they straight out question (and even deny) that Oscar was involved in any militant political struggle whatsoever and then quickly move one to make a compassionate plea for his release.
A “terrible paradox” thus emerges: Oscar is worthy of freedom [and meaningful to Puerto Rican people] insomuch as he is guilty of something so small, so trivial, or just nothing really. Depending on whose accounts you read, Oscar was not directly linked to any of the FALN bombings, or he really was never directly tied to the FALN, and even if he was, the FALN bombings were specifically planned to damage property, not people. Plus, the FALN is not in any way representative of the political inclinations of the whole of Puerto Rican people both on the Island and abroad. Finally, it’s been such a long time since any Puerto Rican militant group surfaced in a considerable capacity that Oscar López alleged involvement with the FALN is a discursive relic. Whatever danger he may have posed at a time, has faded along with that bygone era where independence was a cause certain people were willing to put bombs for, shoot up congress or die violently for. Today, Oscar is a 71 year old father and grandfather, who has suffered immensely behind bars for seemingly nothing at all. Thus, we are beckoned to ask for his release because it is an issue of human rights, because he no longer poses a danger to anybody, because he deserves to be reunited with his family and because what he allegedly fought for, no longer deserves to be fought for. At least not in that way.
In this fashion, while the intent is to convey the injustice committed by the U.S. government as well as garner support among considerable sectors the population, specially among a majority of people who may balk at the possibility of embracing political violence, the constant downplaying, if not outright denial of Oscar’s activism and of the cause in general, not only empty him of political content and meaning, but waste an opportunity for a public conversation on the Island and abroad on the future of Puerto Rican leftist politics.
What is missed is the opportunity that Oscar López’s personal history provides for analysis, debates and theoretical riffs on as of yet unforeseen forms of collective action and radical structural change in present day Puerto Rican society. For example, inscribed in Oscar’s personal history is the history of Puerto Rican migration across the 20th century and into the 21st, a population that has not been accounted for in political terms nor counted for much in the national imagination. Oscar López Rivera and the Puerto Rican community in Chicago could be an excellent focal point for a study on the manner in which Puerto Ricans as a racial/ethnic group are integrated in the U.S. and what similarities may exist between the U.S. racial structure and the one set in place in Puerto Rico. Also, inherent to his present situation are the extreme, hideous realities of the prison-industrial complex in the U.S. and on the Island. On this point, we could ask, with hope, couldn’t a close, critical reading of Oscar’s incarceration provide an excellent pathway into a larger discussion of all prisoners as victims of a political system? We could ask, with indignation, how it has come to pass that the struggle for Oscar’s release seems to run completely separate from any significant move to alter the Island’s extremely punitive criminal justice policies. And lastly, instead of considering Oscar as a type of ideological leftover from a bygone era –where are his pictures from back in the day?!—we could ask how might present day Puerto Rico look from a perspective on politics that still considers violent action as a feasible recourse and/or practice.
Willem De Kooning, in relation to painting, states: “Content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash. It is very tiny- very tiny, content.” I wonder if it is possible to integrate such flashes, to produce uncomfortable, perhaps awkward encounters with the possibility of crafting new forms of radical, progressive politics in Puerto Rico within the movement for Oscar’s freedom. As it stands, Oscar has become an empty signifier. He can pretty much come to be defined as anyone pleases so long as they are willing to make a plea for him. At the same time, I wonder if there aren’t in fact other acts taking place on the Island, that while not directed to obtaining his freedom, more directly follow and/or respond to his legacy.
Earlier this year I saw Clarisa, Oscar’s daughter, at the 33 x 33 march and she told me her dad was marching too, as a show of solidarity with the thousands of people that had turned out to support his cause. As I was about to ask her if he received a special permit in the prison to say, walk around in the courtyard for a few hours, she said “so as we speak he’s marching in his cell”. It seemed ludicrous and inspiring and terribly sad. Which, from my perspective, are the same adjectives we could use to describe a variety of acts of protests that have taken place in Puerto Rico over the last couple of years: an ex-convict who every three months walks alone for the span of two days, from Morovis to the Capitol building in San Juan, on behalf of prisoners’ rights; a mother who recently trespassed unto a Walgreens construction site and stood on top of her van to protest to ever increasing concentration of foreign pharmacies on the Island; and just this past Monday a small group of protesters who set up camp in Ventana del Mar in Condado because they heard that a hotel chain was planning to extract sand from the beach. These are all tiny, seemingly insignificant, and quite frankly sad manifestations of dissent that barely anyone noticed. Much like marching inside a prison cell. This notwithstanding, these events are flashes of people’s agency, of their willingness to act, and put themselves at physical and/or legal risk, for a cause no matter how futile their effort. I can only imagine how great (and instructive and hopeful) it would be to sit and listen in on a conversation between them and Oscar. Hasta su regreso.
 Talk given at PRSA Conference 2014. Denver, CO.
 Status update taken from his Facebook profile, which has recently been deactivated.
 Badiou, Alain (2012) In Praise of Love, 58.