Oscar Lopez Rivera is one of the most important leaders of the independence movement of Puerto Rico. Born in Puerto Rico in 1943, he moved with his family to the United States in 1952. He began to gain popularity as an activist in the late 1960s when he actively participated in actions to institute bilingual teaching in public schools in the United States and with the Puerto Rican Armed Forces of National Liberation in the 70s.
The FALN, founded in the late 1960s, believed that only clandestine armed struggle could liberate Puerto Rico from its U.S. colonial status. After living for several years in hiding, Lopez Rivera was arrested and sentenced in 1981 to 55 years in prison for "seditious conspiracy." In 1988, he was sentenced to another 15 years in prison, accused of attempting to escape.
In January 2017, in one of his last acts, former President Barack Obama granted the commutation of his sentence. Despite having spent a good part of his 36 years in solitary confinement, under conditions considered by international observers as "cruel and unusual," Lopez Rivera never let go of solidarity not only with his fellow comrades but also with resistance movements around the world. In this exclusive interview with Nocaute, Lopez Rivera takes stock of the struggle for independence of Puerto Rico and comments on the U.S. interference in Latin America.
Aline Piva: Well, first of all, I would like to thank you for being here speaking with us, with the people from Brazil and everyone. Really, Oscar, it's a great honor.
What I wanted to ask you is that in recent years we have seen that Puerto Rico has been facing, suffering a series of serious economic and social problems. Many believe that much of the problem is due to their colonial status. What do you think about the current situation? Is it not a sign of the necessity that the Puerto Rican peopl achieve their independence?
Oscar Lopez Rivera: Well, we've been fighting for Puerto Rico's independence for many years. Unfortunately, we face the strongest empire in the history of the world. It makes us difficult, especially when that country, which is the United States, has a force within Puerto Rico because it is the Puerto Ricans who help administer the colony. Then the United States dictates and those who administer the colony do it. In the specific case of today, the United States decided to impose a fiscal control board on the Puerto Rican people. This board has only one objective: to make Puerto Rico pay a debt that is odious, which many consider a criminal act, to take from the Puerto Rican people US$72 billion, when we don't have a billion dollars to pay that debt. How is it possible for us, as Puerto Ricans, to pay that debt?
Well, what they are going to do is cut and cut programs. For example, cut from the University of Puerto Rico US$500 million. Close public schools, for example, now in August, there are 169 public schools that are going to be closed. Without the university and without public schools, the future of Puerto Rico is highly threatened, because it is the schools, it is the universities that help us develop human resources, and that human resource is the most important in the world. If we do not have well-prepared human resources, we are failing, we are truly, in very bad condition.
Another thing: if you take capital from Puerto Rico, it gets poorer and poorer. Puerto Rican poverty today is much greater than it was 20 years ago. Puerto Rico is completely privatized. Before, it was part of the public sector, for example, the telephone company, it was government-owned, it was owned by the Puerto Rican people. However, today it is completely privatized. The airport of Puerto Rico is privatized, the road system is privatized. If a person moves from one town to another, he is paying, he has to pay, a tax on that transportation system. Just by transporting yourself, moving from one part to another in your own car, you have to pay for it.
The cost of living in Puerto Rico is much higher than the cost of living in the United States. The foreign capital generated in Puerto Rico automatically leaves Puerto Rico, is transferred. This capital does not remain in Puerto Rico. It has been a constant robbery. But now it is even worse, because they are taking money to pay off a debt, and that money could be used to help the university, to help in health care, to help generate jobs, but that is not happening.
AP: And that has a great social impact, right? We were talking a little bit about the diaspora, here in the United States, right?
OLR: Well, the worst thing that happened is the depopulation of Puerto Rico grew immensely. There are more Puerto Ricans living in the Puerto Rican diaspora than in Puerto Rico. But at the same time, in the last 15 or 20 years, the worst thing that happened is that the person who emigrates, who is being forced to emigrate because in Puerto Rico there is no work for him or her, is the brain drain that we suffer. The doctors, engineers, nurses, social workers architects all of the professional class are leaving.
One of the cruelest things in Puerto Rico, for example, is the problem of teachers. Almost every day we can see teachers who have to immigrate to the United States, because in Puerto Rico schools are closed. If there is no work for them, they have to come to work in the U.S. And it is a loss, a great loss we are suffering. Also in Puerto Rico, there is what is called gentrification. Gentrification is the construction of buildings, expensive condominiums, which are specially built for foreigners. The government — or those who run the colony, because there is no government, let's be clear on that — those who administer the colony give incentives to those foreigners who don't have to pay taxes to buy in Puerto Rico. They buy and buy, but they are not paying any taxes for their entire life.
However, Puerto Ricans, if a Puerto Rican person buys a house, they have to pay tax. This is a big difference, and something that really affects us adversely. Puerto Rico, can not have any economic relations with foreign countries. Everything has to be bought in the United States. We can import food, for example, but we import 87 percent of what we consume. If you come from Costa Rica, that boat goes to the United States first and then to Puerto Rico. The lack of cabotage rights costs us about US$6 billion annually. And that money goes out of the pocket of Puerto Ricans. This is a cruelty and it is a reality that adversely affects our economy.
AP: Exactly. We are seeing now in Latin America in general, we see that it is going through a series of changes where it seems that the conservative forces again are regaining strength, and we also see an increase in U.S. interventionism.
OLR: Well, the United States has a policy of not allowing progressive governments to come to power in our countries. For example, when (Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva) Lula aspired to the presidency of Brazil, the United States was completely opposed to his candidacy. They did the same thing in Argentina, the same they did in Bolivia, for example, against Evo Morales, a lot of work was done in the United States to prevent their election. The same happened with (Rafael) Correa in Ecuador, the same happened when (Hugo) Chavez came to power.
In addition, the United States was the only government that immediately recognized the military junta that tried to seize the government of Venezuela. The only country! And today, they continue with an accelerated process of intrusion, of interference, of trying to dictate to our countries what to do, this is what is happening. But it is very calculated, it is not accidental. It is a well-developed position, and we can already see how a government in Brazil, the government of (Mauricio) Macri in Argentina, were imposed and it looks to do the same wherever it can do. Because the U.S. does not want to allow another Venezuela; or another Lula; or the Kirchners, who did some good work in Argentina when they were in power; or another Morales in Bolivia; or another Correa in Ecuador to come to power. They do not want that. They will not allow progressive governments. They want oligarchies and they want those servile governments that generally represent their interests, they defend the interests not of their countries, not the interests, say, of Venezuela, but the interests of the oligarchy and of the United States.
AP: Oscar Lopez Rivera, thank you very much.
First Published in Alba Moviemientos August 4, 2017.