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Former Puerto Rican radicals celebrate 10 years of freedom

Members of the FALN who were released from prison under a clemency deal offered by President Clinton in 1999 remember their fight. Some now seek the release of two comrades.

September 16, 2009|Oscar Avila

CHICAGO — Alberto Rodriguez is either a patriot or a terrorist, depending on whom you ask.

Imprisoned for 16 years for his membership in a radical Puerto Rican coalition that was tied to a series of bombings, he now is a full-time father, taking one of his children to school for the first time.

"I don't regret anything. I can't even imagine me, who I am, without those experiences," said Rodriguez, 56. "But I did miss a lot because of the choices I made."

Ten years ago this month, 11 members of the groups known collectively as the FALN, which advocated for Puerto Rican independence, were freed under a controversial clemency deal offered by President Clinton.

Some of the former prisoners, who were required to renounce armed revolution, have moved fitfully into middle age. Others are looking to keep their cause relevant in an age when a Supreme Court justice of Puerto Rican descent speaks to the advancement of their people in the United States.

The former FALN members want President Obama to free two comrades who remain in prison. But they acknowledge that would be a political minefield for Obama, who already has wrestled with the ghosts of radicalism because of his association with William Ayers, a domestic bomber who is now a respected university professor.

During his confirmation hearings this year, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. drew criticism because he had repeatedly pushed for the clemency appeal when he served under Clinton.

From initial fights against police brutality and discrimination in the 1970s, the young Chicago FALN members took up the cause of Puerto Rican independence. In Spanish, the group's acronym stands for Armed Forces of National Liberation.

Until the early 1980s, the FALN set off scores of homemade bombs, robbing banks and other businesses to finance their operations. The group's bombings killed six people in New York, although most caused no injuries.

The "FALN 11" went to prison, convicted of "seditious conspiracy" and other crimes associated with their movement to free Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth since 1952.

Clinton's granting of clemency ignited a firestorm. Mayor Richard M. Daley said the released prisoners were a threat to Chicago.

Emotions on both sides of the issue haven't disappeared.

"We Americans have to make clear that we will not tolerate officials who would put our lives in jeopardy by releasing terrorists. It is a disrespectful affront to all Americans," wrote Joseph Connor, whose father was killed by an FALN blast, in a newspaper commentary during Holder's confirmation hearings in January.

Yet several of the freed "political prisoners," as they are termed by supporters, say the FALN's actions were as justified as those of South Africans who fought against apartheid.

Ricardo Jimenez, 53, a convicted FALN member who recently moved back to Chicago, said armed revolution was no longer necessary, but emphasized that "our actions were in line with what the world was doing."

Rodriguez is even more defiant toward those who would call the group terrorists, saying the U.S. government itself had wreaked destruction.

"When the powerful wage terrorism, they call it war. When the weak wage war, they call it terrorism," he said. "It's such a loaded word."

Rodriguez works as a researcher at the People's Law Office, which helped advocate for his release and represents others who it considers wrongfully convicted.

After leaving prison, Rodriguez swapped his radical ways for domesticity. He survived a bout with cancer, remarried and has a 5-year-old son in addition to two adult children.

Several former prisoners are focused on the release of Carlos Alberto Torres and Oscar Lopez. They argue that three decades in prison is excessive for two men never directly convicted of murder or serious injury.

Torres is eligible for parole, but his release has been held up by a weapons charge in federal prison, which his supporters say is a setup.

Alejandro Molina of the National Boricua Human Rights Network said he was hopeful that Obama would be sympathetic. He emphasized that the released prisoners have lived low-key lives as teachers and artists "without even a speeding ticket."

In a Chicago arts center, about 150 community members recently honored the prisoners with songs, poems and excerpts of a play, "Crime Against Humanity." The stage included a replica of a prison cell.

With paintings of the two remaining prisoners staring down at them, a new generation of young Latino activists portrayed their heroes in an effort to keep the FALN's memory alive.

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oavila@tribune.com

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