MARION, Ill. — In the solitude of his cell, Prisoner 87651-024 has time to reflect--on his Puerto Rican childhood and his baptism of fire in Vietnam, on his life in Chicago and his years on the run from the FBI.
Time for many things. But not for regrets.
"I cannot undo what's done," says Oscar Lopez Rivera. "The whole thing of contrition, atonement, I have problems with that."
At age 55, after 17 years in federal prison, with 53 years left on his sentence, Oscar Lopez is a graying reminder of another America, of a time when radical leftists planted bombs against the "imperialist" state, and Puerto Rican separatist groups like the one Lopez helped lead, the FALN, were rated by the FBI as the most active and violent terrorists in the United States.
History has left them behind--in Cuban exile or anonymous middle age or the maximum security of U.S. penitentiaries. But history may now lead Oscar Lopez into the spotlight again.
In this centenary year of the U.S. takeover of Puerto Rico, activists on that Caribbean island and in the United States are seeking presidential clemency for Lopez and 14 other Puerto Rican militants they describe as political prisoners. The White House says it has received 100,000 cards and letters on their behalf.
At the same time, the Puerto Rico question--should it be a state, an independent nation, something in between?--is being debated more seriously than ever in Congress, as it decides whether to authorize a referendum on the issue in the U.S. territory.
Puerto Rican voters have regularly rejected pro-independence candidates at the polls, and Lopez said he and his ex-comrades would accept their decision in a plebiscite. But if independentistas find the process is rigged against them, they will react violently, he said.
"If annexation [statehood] is the answer, I would say there would be a good number of Puerto Ricans who would advocate and practice armed struggle," he said.
The FBI's latest report on domestic terrorism said support for Puerto Rican militants has waned, but "some extremists are still willing to plan and conduct terrorist acts in order to draw attention to their desire for independence."
The Marion U.S. Penitentiary, Lopez's home for much of the last 17 years, is a low-profile, high-security compound among the soybeans and Holsteins of southern Illinois. His 360 neighbors here include New York crime boss John Gotti and Colombian drug lord Carlos Lehder.
Interviewed via an intercom phone through a glass divider, in an otherwise empty visitors' room, the once-feared Puerto Rican militant is a small, lean man in red prison garb, with a thick brush mustache, big eyeglasses and stubby gray ponytail. He speaks with a high voice and wry smile--and a supply of up-to-date political information gleaned from phone conversations and news articles.
But when the questions turn to the violent work of the long-dormant FALN, Lopez turns uninformative.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the FALN--the Spanish-language acronym for Armed Forces of National Liberation--claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings of public and commercial buildings in such U.S. cities as New York, Chicago and Washington, as well as in Puerto Rico. Few caused injuries, but one still-unsolved bombing, at New York's landmark Fraunces Tavern in 1975, killed four people and injured more than 60 in a lunchtime crowd.
At their trials in 1980-81, Lopez and his Chicago-based FALN comrades were not tied to specific bombings. Instead, he was convicted of seditious conspiracy ("to overthrow the government of the United States in Puerto Rico by force"), armed robbery and lesser charges.
Asked now about Fraunces Tavern, Lopez says, "I don't know who did it." In fact, he adds, he has "problems" with "that particular action."
"I as an individual would never set out to inflict pain and suffering on any person not identified as my enemy."
His time as a U.S. infantryman in Vietnam in 1966-67 "taught me the fragility of life," he said. Vietnam, where he won a Bronze Star for valor, taught him other things as well--such as how to make bombs.
He said he carried out his first "armed action" for Puerto Rican independence--he won't say what--not long after his Army discharge. He worked, aboveground, as a Chicago community organizer, but by 1977 he was under federal indictment on explosives charges and on the run. He was captured in May 1981, stopped by police in a Chicago suburb when the car he was in made an illegal turn.
The sentencing judge ordered maximum prison terms on most of the charges against Lopez, a punishment that clemency petitioners call disproportionately harsh. Seventeen years should be enough, they say.
But others, including Puerto Rico's pro-statehood governor, believe that Lopez and his partners should offer something in exchange for freedom.
"Maybe some of them are willing to say that they made a mistake or that they would not do it again," Gov. Pedro Rossello told Associated Press in San Juan.
Waiting for Oscar Lopez's words of contrition could take a long time.
"I have no regrets for what I've done in the Puerto Rico independence movement," the ex-FALN leader said. "The onus is not on us. The crime is colonialism.
"If Puerto Rico was not a colony of the United States, I would have had a totally different life."
In the silence of his cellblock, the aging "freedom fighter," as he called himself at his trial, has time to reflect on a different life, as a free man.
"I would settle down in Puerto Rico and have a life with my daughter and granddaughter," he said.
And remain an active independentista?
After a long, quiet moment, Lopez replied, "I cannot stop being a Puerto Rican. I cannot be anything but a Puerto Rican."