By Alejandro Garcia Padilla, Governor of Puerto Rico
The morning was colder than anticipated: 48 degrees Fahrenheit. I arrived the night before in Indianapolis, Indiana, from where we left, driving for an hour and a half, to the Holiday Inn in Terre Haute. That morning we met to have breakfast with Puerto Rican Congressman Luis Gutiérrez. Then we left for Terre Haute Federal Prison. Arriving, the cold hit us again. We walked to the entrance. There we identified ourselves and waited a few minutes to enter.
That prison was built in 1938 and later adapted for current requirements. It’s made of dark brick. It looks well maintained, clear and clean on the inside. Photos of the building as it looked in 1938 adorn the lobby. While I looked at them, the guard called me to go in. We passed the first and second gates. Then we walked through an internal yard that leads to the main building. Walking out to this yard, it was still cold. I thought of all the souls gathered there since 1938. How many deserved it. How many didn’t. How many who deserved it never got there. How many who deserve it now aren’t there.
We arrived at the main building. Another gate. A hallway, another door, and then another gate. Then a waiting room with some one hundred chairs. Comfortable. Like an airport. Placed in line across from each other. They’re assigned by number. We sit down. At the other end, a family with a prisoner.
Soon, from a door at the other end, out came the man I came to see. A short man, showing his years. He looked at me and smiled. He’s the same as he looks in the photo published with the column this newspaper publishes on Saturdays. He went to the guard and then walked over to us. Luis hugged him and they greeted each other with affection, like people who have known each other for more than 40 years. Then I greeted him. I gave him a big hug, and he returned it. I told him about the solidarity of his people and the affection all of us in Puerto Rico have for him. We hugged strongly again. We sat down.
For almost three hours we talked about his childhood in San Sebastián. About his life in Chicago. About people in Chicago at the time. About his friends. About people in Puerto Rico at the time. About people in Puerto Rico now. We talked about Vietnam, where he was declared a hero. We talked about why he joined the independence movement. We talked about the current problems in Puerto Rico and about the most important thing to resolve them: solidarity.
Oscar López Rivera has been in prison for 33 years. He hasn’t been accused of committing any violent act. He hasn’t been connected to any violent act. He was accused of conspiring. The line that divides “conspiring” from “thinking” is very fine. I don’t think Oscar would be a danger for the future of our country, of our community, or of our family. His sentence, far too excessive, violates the most elemental principles of humanity, sensitivity and justice. Oscar López Rivera owes no debt to society, and if he ever did, he paid it a long time ago. He hasn’t done us any harm.
Who has harmed us are corrupt politicians or those who mortgaged the future, our present, borrowing without caring who had to pay. But they’re not in Terre Haute. What has harmed us are the advertisements of the Republican ultra right of the U.S. press, sponsoring a local political party. But they’re not in Terre Haute. What has harmed us are those who only worry about votes, or about their counterpart in the media, ratings. But they don’t even know where Terre Haute is. Who harms us are the parents who aren’t concerned about their children’s education. But they aren’t even interested in knowing about what Terre Haute is.
After about three hours, I asked him what message, if any, he wanted me to take to you. He thought for a moment. He said he was grateful for what has been done for his release. Then he spoke of hope and of solidarity. Yes. This man who has been in prison for 33 years. Who is already 71 years old. He still has heart and spirit to talk about solidarity and hope. What a lesson for so many people!
The time arrived for me to leave. I had to go back to Indianapolis to catch my flight. I wanted to talk longer with him. I gave him a big hug. I told him that we would keep working for his release. I asked God to bless him. He thanked me. I thanked him.
Leaving, it was still 48 degrees Fahrenheit. But for me, now it was a warm morning.
I hope to greet that compatriot again, in Puerto Rico.