Rep. Luis Gutiérrez Speaks on Puerto Rico Governor’s Visit with Oscar López Rivera

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By: Vanesa Baerga
Congressman Luis Gutiérrez and Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera have known each other since their youth in Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. Oscar was a community leader who achieved, along with other leaders, organizing this community and creating initiatives in education and health for the benefit of this poor and marginalized community. Luis Gutiérrez was a young student from the community who stood out for his leadership.
 
They are familiar with each other, recognize each other, respecte each other. Gutiérrez is one of the most important voices to constantly express support for Oscar’s release. 
 
On October 4, Gutiérrez visited Oscar in prison for the fourth time. The first three times they talked about their families, the Puerto Rican community in Chicago, and memories they had in common. “We were like old friends, remembering the past, times we shared. It’s like seeing a friend from 40-years-ago; we talked about things that happened 40-years-ago. We talked about the past, the present, and the future. Once I even talked to him about the importance of him applying for parole and how I saw things politically, from outside, and why he should do it,” Gutiérrez pointed out.
 
However, the fourth visit was different. This time Gutiérrez accompanied the Governor of Puerto Rico to visit him. For the first time, a governor of Puerto Rico visited the political prisoner that has mobilized the entire Country. Three young people from the Governor’s team went along. “It was an important meeting for Oscar. Oscar must understand that everything we say is true, and that’s why the Governor was there, not on behalf of his party, not as a private person, but rather as a people. I think that is its significance, and that is why this visit advances the cause of his release.”
 
Here is an interview with Congressman Luis Gutiérrez about the visit:
 
VB: This visit between Puerto Ricans of different ideologies and methodologies, what was it about?
 
LVG: I felt it was much more important for the Governor and Oscar to talk and to control where the conversation and the dialogue went. In that sense it was very different (from my previous visits).
I know Oscar; they had to get to know each other. Oscar talked to him about his philosophy of life and of struggle, and about his commitment to independence. There was like a historical survey of when Puerto Ricans arrived in the United States. He even told stories about when he moved from Puerto Rico when he was 14-years-old. He talked about the Vietnam War. He described his experience, how his way of thinking changed. He went to Vietnam as a soldier defending liberty and democracy and returned loving the Vietnamese, who were supposedly the enemy.
 
Oscar and the Governor talked about different historical stories, but mostly about Oscar’s thinking, which I think was very appropriate. The visit was for Oscar; it’s Oscar’s freedom that is sought, and what needs to be understood is Oscar, not us. We have our freedom. If you support Oscar’s freedom before knowing him personally, you’re going to be completely committed in a far deeper way after knowing him personally, which unfortunately few of us have the privilege of doing. They told stories that made us laugh, because there are always things that happen in life that make you laugh, and I saw a great fraternity between the Governor, who has his political perspective, and Oscar. 
 
To see them hug, to see the respect and at the same time affection, filled me with joy. What happened between the Governor and Oscar was an extension of what you see in the people of Puerto Rico, who he went there to represent. (In that meeting) you saw what you see in the streets of San Sebastián, where every single pole has “Freedom for Oscar” posted.
 
VB: How can governor García Padilla’s visit make a difference for Oscar’s release?
 
LVG: It can make a difference because, as Governor, he took the time to go to the prison, which for me is a first. I have great difficulty talking with government leaders about pardon, seeking to reduce sentences, even more so asking them to make a prison visit. I think that (something important) was how the meeting ended. He (García Padilla) asked Oscar for a message to take to the Puerto Rican people. I think that when you ask that question, it means you have a deeper commitment.
 
I think that the Governor has done exactly that, broaden. We have to keep broadening. I saw it in Puerto Rico with the ex-prisoners during the ’90′s; the Popular Democratic Party, the pro-statehood supporters, and the independentistas broadened (the mobilization for their release).
 
I remember on that occasion, we asked (Rafael) Hernández Colón and Dr. (Pedro) Rosselló to support the prisoners’ release. Nine years later, the first eleven were released. In fact, one of the young people who went with the Governor asked (Oscar): “Why didn’t you leave when the President offered you freedom? Why didn’t you accept?” I think it’s really important to explain that there are political people who have principles and that principle didn’t allow him to leave while someone else stayed in prison, because Carlos Alberto hadn’t yet been offered anything. He told them about that. I think those three young people left that prison transformed. You saw that they were excited to ask questions.
 
VB: Why do you think it’s been so difficult for Obama to release Oscar?
 
LVG: I think every historical situation is very different. At one time we had a president and an administration that would dialogue. (What has happened) since September 11 (2001) is very different. You have to understand the political realities that exist at this time. The country is much more conservative and, say whatever you want about Bill Clinton, he had a different perspective, which maybe this administration doesn’t have. The other thing is that this still isn’t over. There will come a time, I am sure, that various forces and spheres from our community will converge on the White House with this President, but that hasn’t happened yet. Various people are talking about and advocating for his release. I think that visits help to bring that together. It’s not so easy to visit Oscar. The Governor had to call and apply. 
 
Why do I think this visit will help? Because the Governor had to call Attorney General (Eric) Holder and say: “I want to go visit Oscar.” If he hadn’t done that, he couldn’t have visited him. People say, “Oh, they let him visit Oscar because he’s the Governor.” No. He had to seek a special visit to go see Oscar, which was granted by the (United States) Department of Justice. That means that the Department of Justice knows this is a matter of interest. If I were the Attorney General of the United States, and I got a letter from a governor, that’s going to have a certain weight for me. And it’s a letter asking to go to Terre Haute, which is in the middle of nowhere.
 
VB: Now that Attorney General Eric Holder has resigned, do you foresee that he will try to pardon Oscar?
 
LVG: Unfortunately there are elections in November. Unfortunate in the sense that it limits the possibility of talking and really getting something. Nothing is going to happen a month from elections, and Holder is still there. And, I might add, we have a good working group: (Representatives) Nydia (Velázquez), José (Serrano), Pedro (Pierluisi) and I. We’re working together. Maybe this is the only thing we have in common. Apart from our claim to be Puerto Ricans, maybe this is the only thing we have in common. We are Puerto Ricans and we want Oscar’s release. We are going to meet the week after the elections. We are going to continue our conversations, and I’m sure that we will talk about what steps to take.
 
VB: Do you think that the U.S. political and prison establishment have created some difference between Oscar and the political prisoners who were released?
 
LVG: It’s really hard for me to answer that question, but I will say this: The rules are very clear about when you can visit a prison in the federal prisons. They have extended to the Governor and to me opportunities to visit Oscar, which they would not do for a regular prisoner. That should be clear.
Translated from the Spanish by Jan Susler, J.D.
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Vanesa Baerga is a Spanish-language editor and a freelance journalist and copywriter based in Chicago. She was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico and moved to Chicago in 2010. She has worked for the weekly newspaper Claridad and for Prensa Comunitaria and have contributed to several media outlets in Puerto Rico and Chicago, including alterNativo, El Beisman, and La Voz del Paseo Boricua. She’s also taught the college-level course “Translation for Media” at the Puerto Rico Metropolitan University, Communications Department (SUAGM). Recently she started exploring audio production through VOCALO Radio Storytelling Workshops. She lives in Chicago with her husband and their cat Vito C. 

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