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Juan Gonzalez, a journalist, author, and Democracy Now! co-host, analyzes the release of Puerto Rican independence leader Oscar Lopez Rivera, which comes as Puerto Rico enters a critical bankruptcy process and prepares to hold a referendum on its political future.

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AARON MATE: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Mate. The Puerto Rican activist Oscar Lopez Rivera has been released from a U.S. prison. In 1981, he was convicted of seditious conspiracy and sentenced to 55 years. Puerto Ricans across the political spectrum have long favored his release and activists waged a concerted campaign to win his freedom. In January of this year, President Barack Obama commuted his sentence shortly before leaving office. Joining me is Juan Gonzalez, reporter, columnist, author and co-host of Democracy Now. Juan, welcome. JUAN GONZALEZ: Thank you, Aaron. AARON MATE: I mentioned that Oscar Lopez Rivera has wide support across the political spectrum in Puerto Rico even though there’s not agreement there on his main cause, independence. Can you talk about who he is and the significance today of his freedom? JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Oscar Lopez Rivera is the last of a series of political prisoners in American jails and actually is the last of the current generation of political prisoners in American jails. All of whom were imprisoned for allegations of subversive conspiracy, trying to [inaudible 00:01:26] revolution against the American government and this goes back now over decades because as I’ve mentioned to you in previous interviews, the colonial situation of Puerto Rico has never been fully resolved and there are many people on the island who still believe that Puerto Rico has the right to independence and the right to struggle for it’s independence even if it means an armed revolt. Oscar Lopez Rivera was part of the FALN, the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, that waged it’s own independence war in the 1980s attempting to force the United States to leave Puerto Rico. A few dozen members of the FALN were arrested on charges of setting bombs in a variety of places around the United States and in Puerto Rico. Several of them were released back in 2000 on the waning days of the Clinton administration because generally speaking, in Puerto Rico, even though the independence movement still has a tiny following, even those who support statehood for Puerto Rico or who support the current Commonwealth of Puerto Rico recognize that the members of the independence movement have political beliefs that are behind their actions and they’ve always supported, after a period of time of their being in jail, their ability to be able to get out of jail. For instance, in the 1950s, President Truman commuted the sentences of the nationalists who attempted to assassinate him in 1950. Then in 1979, Jimmy Carter commuted the sentences of another group of nationalists who shot up the Congress in 1954 and engaged in other acts of rebellion against the United States. Then in 2000 President Clinton commutes the sentences of a bunch of other Puerto Rican independence figures. The only reason Oscar Lopez Rivera was not released back during the Clinton commutations is that he insisted that he was not going to leave prison while another member of the FALN was still behind bars and that member was actually released years ago, but Oscar Lopez Rivera remained in jail. So he became a cause celeb among all segments of the Puerto Rican population. The religious community, all the political parties, the civic organizations of the island and so President Obama at least recognized that it was unjust after 36 years of Oscar Lopez Rivera being in prison and during that time being a model prisoner, that he should be kept in jail further. AARON MATE: Wow, if he rejected release under President Clinton, or turned down release under President Clinton, that means he spent an extra almost two decades behind bars when he didn’t need to. His release comes ahead of a vote soon in Puerto Rico on the island’s status. Can you talk about the implications of that in the context now of his freedom? JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, well, this new referendum in June was called by the newly elected Governor, Ricardo Rosselló, who is the son of another previous governor, both of them pro-statehood governors, and so they called for a status referendum, which these occur periodically in Puerto Rico, but this is not a binding referendum on the Congress. It is in essence a sort of a query to see how the Puerto Rican people feel. It’s been rejected by the leading parties for independence and commonwealth. They’ve essentially vowed to boycott the referendum, which happened to the last previous referendum, there was a partial boycott of that one. It’s really anticlimactic, because it comes in the midst of the worst economic crisis on the history of the island. The last thing that people are thinking about right now is another referendum. They are wondering “What’s going to happen to our pensions? What’s going to happen to our schools? What are the immediate impacts that we’re going to be feeling of this austerity program that the financial control board and the Wall Street firms are imposing on Puerto Rico?” I think that there’s going to be very low participation. Usually in Puerto Rico you get 80% of the population, to 85% participating in any kind of election. This one I think is going to have a historic low because number one, everyone knows that given the economic crisis of Puerto Rico, even if the Puerto Rican people were to vote overwhelmingly for statehood, the last thing that is going to happen in this Republican controlled Congress under President Trump is to grant Puerto Rico statehood. Because one, if Congress were to grant Puerto Rico statehood, they would have to also deal with the continued claims of the District of Columbia to want to have statehood. They don’t want a largely African American new state and a largely Hispanic new state to send four new senators to the U.S. Senate and perhaps as many as 10 Congress people to the House of Representatives. There’s no way that even if there was overwhelming support for statehood, that the United States Congress would grant it. It almost seems like an exercise in futility at this stage. Most people are concerned about what kind of economic program will be fashioned to allow Puerto Rico to reverse a decade of economic depression. AARON MATE: Yeah, and finally, just connecting these two issues, the release of Lopez Rivera and Puerto Rico’s very dire economic circumstances, I mentioned earlier that there was this long-sustained grassroots campaign for his release. I’m wondering if you can comment on the difficulties on generating that kind of activism when you’re living under such dire conditions as Puerto Rico is right now? JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, it’s increasingly difficult. Civil society organizations are really under assault right now. They’re barely able to maintain their organizations. As I said, so many people are leaving, especially young people, educated people are leaving the island because they just can’t find jobs and they just can’t find a way to sustain their families. The result is we’ve had this massive exodus and brain drained from the island and the healthcare system is collapsing, the schools are falling apart. There’s a $450 million proposed cut to the University of Puerto Rico, the main public university on the island. The assaults are almost on a daily basis and so it is very difficult to maintain organized community groups and pressure under these conditions. That’s why so many Puerto Ricans are depending on the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States. It wasn’t so long ago that the majority of Puerto Ricans lived in Puerto Rico. Today there are over 5 million Puerto Ricans in the United States and only about 3.4 million left on the island. So there’s almost twice as many Puerto Ricans now living in the U.S. than are actually in Puerto Rico. AARON MATE: And Oscar Lopez Rivera, do you expect him to get involved in politics upon his release? JUAN GONZALEZ: I understand he’s headed to Chicago. He’s headed to Chicago I think it’s this week, which is where he was always based. His brother is a well known community leader there. Oscar Lopez was involved in a model high school in Chicago, so he’s got his roots in Chicago and that’s where he’s headed, as I understand, this week. AARON MATE: Juan Gonzalez, the legendary reporter, columnist and author, also the community-host of Democracy Now. Juan, thank you. JUAN GONZALEZ: Thank you, Aaron. AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Juan Gonzalez was a columnist for the New Daily News for nearly 30 years and has been co host of Democracy Now since the show's inception in 1996. He is the author of several books, including "Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, and the forthcoming Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America's Tale of Two Cities.