Congressman Luis Gutiérrez and Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera have known each other since their early years in the Puerto Rican community in Chicago. Oscar, a community leader who, along with other leaders, managed to organize this community and create educational and health initiatives for the benefit of the poor and marginalized. Luis Gutiérrez, a young student in this community, who stood out because of his leadership.
Between them, there is familiarity. They recognize each other. They respect each other. Gutiérrez is one of the most important voices that constantly speaks in favor of Oscar’s release.
On October 4, Gutiérrez visited Oscar in prison for the fourth time. During the first three visits, they talked about their families, the Puerto Rican community in Chicago, and the memories they have in common. “We are like old friends, remembering old times, times we shared. It’s like seeing an old friend; we talked about things that happened 40 years ago. We talked about the past, the present, the future. I even talked to him once about how important it is for him to request his release from prison, about how I see the political environment, and about why he should do it,” said Gutiérrez.
However, this fourth visit was different. This time, he accompanied the governor of Puerto Rico to visit Oscar. For the first time, a governor of Puerto Rico visited the political prisoner who has mobilized the entire country. Along with the Governor, there were three young persons from his workgroup. “It was an important meeting for Oscar. Oscar should understand that everything we say is true and that was why the Governor was there, not on behalf of his party, not on his own behalf, but on behalf of the Puerto Rican people. I think that’s the meaning of this visit and why it advances the cause of his release. “
Below, Congressman Luis Gutiérrez’s interview with CLARIDAD about his visit to Oscar with the Governor of Puerto Rico:
What was this visit, between Puerto Ricans of different ideologies and methodologies, like?
I was aware that it was very important for the Governor and Oscar to talk and control where the conversation and the dialogue was going. In that sense, it was very different (to my previous visits). I already know Oscar, they had to get to know each other. Oscar spoke about his life philosophy, about the struggle, and about the reasons for his commitment to independence. There was a historical review of the arrival of Puerto Ricans to the United States, including stories from when he moved from Puerto Rico at age 14, and about the war in Vietnam. He described his experience, how his thinking has changed. He arrived to Vietnam as a soldier to defend freedom and democracy, and came back loving the Vietnamese, who were supposedly the enemies.
Oscar and the Governor talked about different historical events, but they talked more about Oscar’s thoughts, which I think was very appropriate. The visit was for Oscar, the freedom being requested is for Oscar and the one people need to understand is Oscar, not us. We have full freedom… If you support Oscar’s freedom before you’ve met him, you will be fully engaged after getting to know him personally, which unfortunately only a few of us have had that privilege. There were stories that made us laugh because there are always things that happen in life which make us laugh, and I saw a great sense of brotherhood between the Governor, who has a different political perspective, and Oscar.
Watching them hug, seeing their respect and affection, fills me with joy. What happened between the Governor and Oscar was an extension of what you see from the Puerto Rican people. He was there to represent them. (In this meeting) we witnessed the same that is seen in the streets of San Sebastian, where I haven’t seen a lamp post that doesn’t say “Freedom for Oscar.”
How does Governor García Padilla’s visit make a difference regarding Oscar’s release?
It may make a difference because he, as governor, took the time to go to jail, which –to me– is unprecedented. I have a hard time talking to executives about pardon, seeking to minimize sentences, it is even harder to convince them to go visit someone in prison. I think that (something important) was how the meeting ended. He (García Padilla) asked Oscar for a message to take back to Puerto Rican people. I think that, when you do such a request, it means you are truly committed.
I think the Governor has reached out. We must continue reaching out. I saw it in Puerto Rico with former prisoners during the 90s; Populars, Statehooders, and Independents were reaching out (mobilizing for the release of the prisoners). I remember that, back then, we asked (Rafael) Hernández Colón and Dr. (Pedro) Rosselló to support the release of the prisoners. Nine years later was when the first eleven prisoners were released. In fact, one of the young persons with the Governor asked Oscar, “Why didn’t you come out when the President offered you freedom? Why didn’t you take his offer?” I think that is very important, (to explain) that there are political people who have principles and that that principle wouldn’t allow him to leave someone else in jail while he was released; Carlos Alberto had not been offered anything at the time. He told them about that too. I think the visit to the prison changed those three young people. You could see that they were eager to ask questions.
Why do you think it has been so difficult for Obama to pardon Oscar?
I think every historical situation is very different. Back then, the president and the administration kept good communication. (The way we have been living) after September 11 (2001) has been very different. You have to understand the political realities of these times. The country is much more conservative and, say what you will about Bill Clinton, he had a different vision, one that this administration may not share. The other thing is that this isn’t over yet. At some point, I’m sure different leaders and areas of our community will meet in the White House with this president; this has yet to happen. There are different people talking and advocating for his release. I think the visits help to bring more people together. It isn’t easy to visit Oscar. The Governor had to call and make a request.
Why I think this visit will help? Because the Governor had to call the Attorney General (Eric) Holder and tell him, “I want to visit Oscar”. If not, he wouldn’t have been able to visit. People say, “Oh, they let him visit Oscar because he is the governor.” No, he had to get a special permission to see Oscar and that was granted by the Department of Justice (United States). That means that the Department of Justice understands how important this is. If I were the Attorney General of the United States and I saw a letter from a governor, to me, that would have some weight. (Also), it is a letter with a request to go to Terre Haute, which is out in the sticks.
Now, after the resignation of the United States Attorney General, Eric Holder, can you imagine, from your position, any possible attempt to pardon Oscar?
Unfortunately, there are elections in November. I mean unfortunate in the sense that it limits the ability to talk and really get something. Nothing is going to happen a month before the elections and Holder is still there. And, let me tell you, we have a good work group: Nydia, José, Pedro and me. We are working together, maybe it’s the only thing we have in common aside from being Puerto Rican. We are Puerto Ricans and we want Oscar to be released. We will be meeting the week after the elections. We will resume our conversations and I’m sure we’ll talk about the next steps.
Do you think that the prison system and the political establishment of the United States have differentiated between Oscar and the rest of the former political prisoners?
It’s very difficult for me to answer that question, but I will tell you this: The rules are very clear when you visit a prisoner in a federal prison. The fact is that the Governor and I were given the opportunity to visit Oscar, a privilege that not just any prisoner gets. That should be clear.