Jose Lopez recently drove nearly five hours from Chicago to Terre Haute, Indiana, to again visit his brother in prison.
His brother is Oscar Lopez Rivera, a prominent figure in Puerto Rico’s independence movement who has been locked up at a federal penitentiary for 35 years. Now 73, Lopez Rivera is scheduled to be released in June 2023, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
“He was in very good spirits,” Lopez said of his brother. “He’s a man who has lived with a sense of inner peace and dignity, not unlike the way Nelson Mandela was incarcerated in South Africa.”
Lopez, the executive director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago, is part of an effort to get President Barack Obama to commute his brother’s sentence.
“That effort is a massive, massive international campaign,” Lopez said. “My brother has been held since 1981.”
Lopez Rivera is the last of more than a dozen imprisoned Puerto Rican independence supporters convicted of seditious conspiracy in the 1980s. Lopez Rivera was said to be a member of the FALN, a Spanish acronym for Armed Forces of National Liberation.
The group came about in the early ’70s and claimed responsibility for dozens of bombings, primarily in New York City and Chicago. The bombings killed at least five people and injured more than 70 others.
But supporters of Lopez Rivera said he was not charged with killing or injuring anyone.
In 1999, President Bill Clinton offered Lopez Rivera clemency, but he turned it down because others in prison with him were not offered the same deal.
In 2011, a federal parole board denied parole for Lopez Rivera.
There are some who do not support Lopez Rivera’s release, arguing that he has not shown remorse.
“He does not advocate violence, he believes that lots of things have changed in the world,” Lopez said.
Lopez Rivera came to Chicago from Puerto Rico when he was 14 years old. He graduated high school and went to college before being drafted into the U.S. Army and serving in Vietnam.
“He is someone who left a very important mark on Chicago’s Puerto Rican community for his service as a community organizer after returning from Vietnam,” Lopez said. “And, in many ways, much of the progress and work that we have faced as a community, both as Puerto Rican and Latino community, much of it is part of his legacy for doing the community work he did.”
Ricardo Jimenez, of Chicago, was also part of the Puerto Rican independence effort, and he too ended up in prison. Jimenez served 20 years before being released in 1999 under Clinton.
“The day that I came home was the last time I saw (Lopez Rivera),” Jimenez said.
Jimenez fears that if Obama does not commute the sentence of Lopez Rivera then all hope will be lost.
“He will likely die in prison,” Jimenez said.
Lopez said his brother has garnered support from Puerto Ricans throughout the United States and on the island.
An online petition set up this month has generated more than 100,000 signatures asking Obama to release Lopez Rivera.
“We are exhorting President Obama to use his constitutional powers to release my brother,” Lopez said. “I feel in many ways my brother has been treated unjustly. Thirty-five is more than half his life. We think it’s the right thing for President Obama to do.”
Lopez said he’s asking people to contact the White House every Friday until Jan. 19 via Twitter, Facebook or email demanding the release of his brother.
Michael Puente is WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @MikePuenteNews.