Activist hero or terrorist? This documentary says he’s both

An undated early photo of Oscar Lopez Rivera in prison
An undated early photo of Oscar Lopez Rivera in prison

One of President Obama’s last actions - way back on Jan. 17 - was to pardon Puerto Rican independence advocate Oscar López Rivera, who was serving a 55 year sentence for "seditious conspiracy" with the once-violent group FALN. The move brought cheers from many, including "Hamilton" composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and Congressman Luis Gutierrez.

But Rivera's story is as complicated - politically, morally, and factually - as it gets. Some say that Rivera, who is 74 and has been in jail for 35 years, many of them in solitary confinement, was targeted for his political activism. Others say that he was an active participant with the FALN, a Puerto Rican independence group that in the 1970's and 80's was responsible for over 100 bombings around the United States, including one that killed four people.

In a bit of lucky timing, Latino USA, which produces radio programming on Latino issues in the United States for NPR stations and online, has just finished an hour-long documentary, "The USA vs. Oscar Lopez Rivera." It's narrated by founder and longtime host Maria Hinojosa, and includes interviews with Rivera, former FALN members, victims, and members of the FBI. (Although it will not air on South Florida's WLRN, it's available on Latino USA's website and podcasts.)

The Herald spoke to Marlon Bishop, one of the documentary's producers, who said they had started planning piece on Rivera two years ago, and got lucky on the timing.

"We knew this would be a big story," he said. "But the commutation... was a big surprise for us."

Here are some of Bishop's reflections on this complex character and his even more complex story.

- This seems like the kind of story where it's hard to discern the truth

MB - We discovered that as well. The more you look at the story the more morally complex it gets. What is right, what is wrong, what actually happened? Supporters of Oscar Lopez Rivera and of the FBI have been engaged in this spin war over who he was, political prisoner or terrorist. The complicated truth is the answer is both. That's what we tried to get into.

- Talk about the FALN and where they stood among the protest groups of the 60's and 70's.

MB - A lot of people had heard about the Weathermen or the Black Liberation Army. The FALN did more bombings than any of them. They were part of that whole moment when protests on the left went further and people decided to engage with violence. In the case of the FALN, many things in their comuniques were about progressive causes. But their main cause was Puerto Rican independence, and of course [Puerto Rico] is still not independent. So it's hard to say how much they affected the battle they were trying to win.

What makes things complicated is the bombings. The vast majority were symbolic actions against capitalism and only damaged property. Where public opinion soured was their most infamous bombing, of a restaurant in New York during lunch hour that killed four and injured 60. No one knows who was involved. But that's very different from bombing a bank bathroom in the middle of the night. That was a level of violence that many on the left were not willing to accept.

- What were some of the defenses for Rivera and the group?

MB - A lot of people arguing for his release said that whatever you think of Oscar López Rivera, you have no proof he touched a bomb or committed murder. He was convicted of seditious conspiracy, which is the idea of trying to over throw the U.S. government. His lawyers argued that opposing the U.S. was a political crime and should not be punished by sentences of 55 years in jail. Another argument as far as releasing him was that according to the United Nations [the FALN] had the legal right to fight colonialism, and they should not be criminalized [for that.] Other people I spoke with didn't approve of the violent tactics but saw the FLN as an example of what following your ideals with 100% commitment and giving your life to a cause that you believe is just. Many people in the Puerto Rican independence movement see him as a hero. But it's complicated. There are no clear good guys and bad guys.

You can listen to "The USA vs. Oscar López Rivera” at latinousa.org