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Clemency Question Part Of Larger Picture
by Deborah Ramirez, Editorial Writer
August 21, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE SUN-SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.
After two decades, I still remember the mood of celebration
in Puerto Rico when President Jimmy Carter pardoned five jailed
Puerto Rican nationalists.
When four of them arrived in San Juan in September 1979, they
were greeted at the airport by thousands of cheering Puerto Ricans.
The crowd was so huge that it knocked down a fence to get a closer
look at the freed prisoners. Andres Figueroa Cordero, the fifth
nationalist pardoned by Carter, had been released earlier because
he was dying from cancer.
Wherever these nationalists went, in Puerto Rico and among
Puerto Rican communities in the United States, they got the VIP
Many Americans were stunned by this warm reception. The five
ex-prisoners had committed crimes that most Puerto Ricans find
At the same time, many Puerto Ricans felt the nationalists,
who were locked away for 25 years, had been in prison long enough.
Others also felt the United States' historic relationship with
Puerto Rico was part of the problem that had sparked nationalist
violence on the island.
In 1950, Oscar Collazo shot his way into Blair House, where
President Harry Truman was living while the White House was under
Collazo was wounded in the assassination attempt. A second
gunman, Griselio Torresola, shot and killed a guard and was himself
killed in the attack.
In 1954, Lolita Lebron, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irving Flores
and Figueroa Cordero entered the House of Representatives, where
they opened fire on U.S. lawmakers from the visitors' gallery.
Five members of Congress were wounded by the hail of bullets.
These five Puerto Ricans tragically chose a violent way to
deliver their message that Puerto Rico was a U.S. colony with
no control over its political destiny. Today, most Puerto Ricans
fighting for statehood, which is a growing force on the island,
believe Puerto Rico is a colony, as do many lawmakers in Congress.
For their deeds, the five nationalists were sentenced to long
prison terms. Collazo was condemned to death, but Truman commuted
his sentence to life in prison.
In 1979, President Carter was swayed by public opinion in Puerto
Rico that the nationalists had done their time.
Twenty years later, many Puerto Ricans feel the same way about
15 radical independence-seekers serving mostly life sentences.
President Bill Clinton recently offered to commute the sentences
of most, though not all, of these prisoners, and eliminate criminal
fines for others. Only 11 of the 15 imprisoned nationalists would
immediately go free, which is disappointing to those who support
Some Puerto Ricans view their 15 compatriots as freedom fighters,
while others see them as terrorists who should stay in jail. The
majority tends to view them as misguided defenders of Puerto Rican
culture and identity.
This is a matter of soul-searching for many Puerto Ricans,
including yours truly.
On the one hand, a majority of islanders admire and respect
the United States and its institutions. Puerto Ricans have served
in U.S. wars, vote in high numbers, and appreciate the benefits
of U.S. citizenship.
On the other hand, a deep nationalistic streak runs through
the heart of Puerto Rico. It comes from having been handed over
as a colony from Spain to the United States at the end of the
1898 Spanish-American War.
The changing of the guard coincided with a nascent Puerto Rican
independence movement that was left unfulfilled.
It would take the United States half a century to honor a basic
democratic principle of allowing Puerto Ricans to rule themselves
by electing their own governor. This delay in home rule once prompted
the island's first elected governor, Luis Munoz Marin, to remark:
"Americans are generous with money and stingy with power."
In 1952, Puerto Rico adopted a constitution and officially
became a U.S. commonwealth. But this new status did little to
change the relationship between the island and its owner. Puerto
Ricans are U.S. citizens who do not pay federal taxes and do not
vote for the president or elect representatives in Congress.
Over the decades, the United States has done much to spur economic
development and raise the standard of living for Puerto Ricans.
But these accomplishments do not erase the fact that the island
was seized by American troops, and has never truly been given
the opportunity to determine its political future. Every time
Puerto Ricans have voted on the island's status issue, they have
done so in non-binding votes, which some locals dub as beauty
Congress has never asked Puerto Ricans to choose between statehood,
independence or greater autonomy. This means Congress has never
committed to honoring what the majority of Puerto Ricans choose.
These are some reasons why many Puerto Ricans agree the 15
nationalists should be freed, even if they don't agree with what
The 15 belonged to two radical, pro-independence groups that
operated in the 1970s and '80s, and claimed responsibility for
numerous bombings and other crimes in Puerto Rico and the United
States. Most of the damage was done to property, but six people
were killed in the attacks.
Yet none of the 15 jailed nationalists was convicted of murdering
or injuring anyone, or even planting a bomb. They were found guilty
of mostly weapons violations, bank robbery and seditious conspiracy,
a Civil War-era statute that can put someone away for a long time.
Their sentences average 70 years in prison.
Most of these 15 prisoners have spent nearly two decades behind
bars. With few exceptions, they have been model prisoners. Most
are educated -- some teach prison classes for inmates who can
barely read or write.
Yet they have been consistently rejected for parole while convicts
guilty of murder, rape and kidnapping have gone free.
This is a double standard that rubs many Puerto Ricans the
wrong way. It's what has united Puerto Ricans of different political
persuasions -- from leftist intellectuals to the conservative
Puerto Rican Manufacturers Association -- to urge clemency from
Supporters include non-Puerto Ricans, such as Corretta Scott
King, Desmond Tutu and Cardinal John O'Connor of New York.
If freed from prison, the 15 nationalists should commit to
peace. The independence movement, which is a political minority
in Puerto Rico, has hurt itself every time it resorts to violence.
The truth is that most Puerto Ricans who support independence
operate within the law. When the law is too unfair to be obeyed,
there's the option of civil disobedience, which carries the moral
By the same token, the American government hurts U.S.- Puerto
Rico relations every time it throws the book at Puerto Rican nationalists,
punishing them with sentences that exceed their crimes.
Ironically, the threat of terrorism in the United States is
not coming from Puerto Rico. It's coming from the American heartland,
where some people with misguided views on race and individualism
think they are at war with the federal government.
After 101 years, it's time to solve Puerto Rico 's status problem
and move on. Moving on includes sending the 15 jailed nationalists