On June 20, 2016, in both diplomatic and dramatic fashion, the peoples of the Caribbean nation of Puerto Rico stood tall and united on the international stage in an historic manner not previously imagined possible. The opening annual hearings on Puerto Rico of the United Nations Committee of 24, the Special Committee on Decolonization now led by Venezuelan Former Foreign Minister and Permanent Representative Ambassador Rafael Ramirez and made up of twentyseven nation-states, has long been a time of conflicting viewpoints publicaly aired regarding how best to move forward vis-a-vis the archipelago island’s status. This year, in the wake of crippling debt and amid widespread controversy about the recent US Supreme Court PR v. Sanchez Valle case and the Puerto Rican Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) – both of which place clear control of the island’s political and economic future under the direction of the US government – leaders of every major Puerto Rican electoral party and civil society organization petitioned the international body to intensify their support of a decolonization process which would remove US authority over the nation. Testimony by Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla, head of the commonwealthoriented Popular Democratic Party, was joined by Gubernatorial candidates from the pro-statehood, independence and nationalist parties, all of whom critiqued current conditions on the island and spoke with one voice on the need for immediate release of prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera, deemed the “Mandela of the Americas” by several Latin American heads of state at the 2015 Organization of American States summit. On the non-governmental level, June 20 was declared International Day of Solidarity with Oscar Lopez Rivera by a coalition led by the National Boricua Human Rights Network (NBHRN) and the Puerto Rican Human Rights Campaign (CDHPR), and included Olga Sanabria Davila, President of the Committee for Puerto Rico at the United Nations. Support actions for Lopez Rivera’s clemency were held in a startling fortythree countries, well beyond the original expectations of the coalition initiators, who had hoped for at least thirty-five actions representing each year of Lopez Rivera’s unjust imprisonment. At age 74 and behind bars since 1981, Lopez Rivera is the longest held prisoner in Puerto Rican history, convicted solely for the thought crime of seditious conspiracy – the same charge South African President Nelson Mandela served twenty-seven years in jail for. The June 20 actions began with a virtual “pray-in” for Oscar’s unconditional freedom coordinated by South African Archbishop Emeritus and Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu, in conjunction with four additional Nobel Laureates from a total of five continents. East Timor’s former President Jose Ramos-Horta, Argentina’s Adolfo Perez Esquivel, US-based Jody Williams, and Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Island all took part in the prayerful vigil; Corrigan Maguire added that she will light a candle for Lopez Rivera as the prominent human rights elders pledge to continue to work for Oscar’s release. In an unprecedented move at the UN Decolonization hearings – and in the context of both an in-session mobile phone conversation between Lopez Rivera and Ambassador Ramirez, and a standing ovation following the testimony of Oscar’s daughter Clarissa – Bolivian Permanent Representative Ambassador Sacha Sergio Llorenty Soliz proposed that the Committee of 24 engage directly in the work to free Oscar and commit to visiting him in prison, a proposal enthusiastically endorsed by the UN body. “Sometimes the historical moment strikes unexpectedly,” commented Hostos Professor Ana Lopez, New York Coordinator and a key international activist of the Campaign to Free Oscar. “It is said that the stars become aligned guiding the path of righteousness. On June 20, the unanimous passing of the United Nations resolution, calling for Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination and for Oscar’s release without delay, was such a moment.” Affirming the reach and response of the solidarity actions as “nothing short of miraculous,” Professor Lopez noted that the activities – which took place across six continents in Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Burundi, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, East Timor, Ecuador, England, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Euzkadi, France, Germany, Greece, Haiti, India, Italy, Kenya, Mauritius, Mexico, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Trinidad and Tobago, USA, and Venezuela – were extremely diverse in nature. In addition to the prayin and candlelight vigils, groups held demonstrations at key sites of international and US connections, including a quickly-dispersed civil disobedience in front of the US embassy in Athens, Greece. In the Indian Ocean African nation of Mauritius, the indigenous party Lalit held a protest linking Oscar’s freedom and Puerto Rico’s colonial status with the US occupation and use of Diego Garcia as a nuclear military base, much as the US occupied and used the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for decades. In some instances, support actions took on more personal forms, such as a small student petitionsigning in Taipei, China and faculty-led petition drives in Algeria, Australia, Nigeria, Trinidad and elsewhere. In a few cases, private meetings between government officials and Oscar supporters took place, and a few representatives of foreign governments made public statements in support of Oscar’s freedom; in others, solidarity groups sent broad messages of greeting and love to Oscar himself, or to President Obama, demanding that he exercise his power of pardon before leaving office in early January 2017. A former political prisoner and current popular radio talk show host in the Dominican Republic dedicated his June 20th telecast to news about Oscar’s case, and two young women from Eritrea – Meaza and Hanna Petros, whoset father and mother were both major leaders of the independence movement there and are now both political prisoners, held incommunicado since 2001 and 2003 – made and publicized signs in their native Tigrinya stating “Release Oscar Now!” Actions or vigils in the US took place in San Francisco, CA, Boulder, CO, and in front of the United Nations in New York, where Professor López and others from 35 Women for Oscar led chants and listened to reports from inside the UN, including from Puerto Rican former political prisoner Adolfo Matos; extensive coverage included interviews airing on Univision, Telemundo, TeleSur and in local print media.
by Matt Meyer
In addition to representatives of NBHRN and the CDHPR, the international coalition included Lopez, Sanabria, San Francisco-based solidarity activist Judith Mirkinson, National Lawyers Guild President Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, 1199 Service Employees International Union Vice President Estela Vasquez and this author. Professor Lopez concluded: “What we witnessed was indeed historic – a new consensus on Puerto Rican self-determination, with Oscar Lopez Rivera’s freedom at the center.” In addition to serving on the June 20, 2016 International Solidarity with Oscar campaign committee, author Matt Meyer is a representative of both the War Resisters International and the International Peace Research Association, for which he serves as UN representative affiliated with the Department of Public Information and the UN Economic and Social Council.