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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 treatment.

Many Americans were stunned by this warm reception. The five ex-prisoners had committed crimes that most Puerto Ricans find offensive.

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 restoration.

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 their release.

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 contests.

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 they did.

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 President Clinton.

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 high ground.

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 home.

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