In a last-minute clemency push on Tuesday, President Obama issued 64 pardons and 209 commutations. Coming in just under the wire, Obama’s actions will free a number of high-profile Americans, including former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. But while Manning will undoubtedly bear the brunt of the headlines—and some inevitable backlash—celebrities like Lin-Manuel Miranda are celebrating the release of another prisoner, Oscar López Rivera. After 36 years of incarceration—12 of which were spent in solitary confinement—López Rivera’s commuted sentence will now expire on May 17. The Puerto Rican independence leader is one of the longest-held political prisoners in the U.S.
After hearing the news, Hamilton auteur Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted, “Sobbing with gratitude here in London. Oscar López Rivera is coming home. Thank you, @POTUS.” The writer/rapper/Broadway star, who was born to Puerto Rican parents, also bemoaned the fact that he wasn’t with the Puerto Rican community in Chicago when the commutation was announced. He promised a show for “Don Oscar” in Chicago, writing, “It’ll be my honor to play Hamilton the night he goes.”
Despite having spent over three decades in prison, López Rivera has a remarkable personal history that might easily lend itself to a hip-hop musical. Born in Puerto Rico in 1943, López Rivera served in the Vietnam War before ultimately settling in Chicago. There, he became a well-known activist, fighting against discrimination and police brutality in Puerto Rican communities. Like Obama, he worked as a community organizer. He advocated for bilingual education in public schools, and participated in myriad political actions and acts of civil disobedience.
In 1976, he joined the fight for Puerto Rican independence as a member of the Armed Forces of National Liberation. According to NPR, the FALN claimed responsibility for more than 70 bombings in major U.S. cities between 1974 and 1983, causing a total of five deaths. The previous year, the FALN executed a fatal attack on Fraunces Tavern, a restaurant in the financial district. In a New York Daily News piece published the day after the explosion, the paper reported that four men were killed by a dynamite-powered fragmentation bomb.
Lopez became a fugitive after the FBI found an apartment linked to him, containing dynamite and FALN written materials. In May 1981, López Rivera was captured after a traffic violation, and sentenced to 55 years on a number of charges, including attempted armed robbery and “seditious conspiracy”. “They were sentenced not because of what they did but because of who they were politically,” said Jan Susler, López Rivera's lawyer. “Seditious conspiracy is really a thought crime. It’s agreeing to be part of challenging the United States government. And in this case it was agreeing to be part of the FALN.” Rivera himself believes seditious conspiracy to be an impossible crime—after all, “How can a Puerto Rican be seditious towards the US state when we never had any part in electing a US government?”
In 1987, Rivera received an additional 15 years on his sentence for conspiracy to escape. According to The Guardian, Rivera is often referred to as the “Mandela of Puerto Rico”. As recently as last year, López Rivera cited international law as justification for his actions, explaining, “I believe we were adhering to international law that says that colonialism is a crime against humanity and that colonial people have a right to achieve self-determination by any means, including force.” Still, he insists that he targeted property, not people: “For me human life is sacred.”
Over a decade later, in 1999, President Clinton attempted to commute the sentences of a number of jailed FALN members. Rivera ultimately rejected the President’s offer on the stated grounds that not all of his co-defendants were included in the deal.
As Obama prepares to leave the White House, López Rivera’s army of supporters—celebrities, politicians, and activists—made one final bid for the 74-year-old’s early release. In October, thousands of protesters convened outside the White House, urging Obama to set Rivera free. His most prominent supporters included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the governor of Puerto Rico, Alejandro García Padilla, the Hispanic caucus of the U.S. Congress, Jimmy Carter, and Bernie Sanders. Latino artists like Calle 13’s Residente and singer Rubén Blades have also collaborated to rally their fans for the cause. Ricky Martin enlisted his social media following, tweeting a petition for López Rivera’s release with a call to “come on gang, Sign and RT for President Obama to free Oscar Lopez Rivera before he ends his term as President.” The White House petition ultimately garnered over 100,000 signatures.
And then there’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. In October, Miranda tweeted at the President to “Please bring Oscar López Rivera home,” including the hashtag #HistoryHasItsEyesOnYou.” He also confronted Obama about López Rivera face to face during a White House visit last March. At the time, the President reportedly responded that López Rivera’s clemency petition was “on his desk.” Still, the political prisoner remained skeptical as the President’s term drew to a close, confessing to NPR that, “I do not practice wishful thinking.” Prior to Obama’s intervention, Rivera was destined to spend his 80th birthday in captivity, serving time until June 2023.
CORRECTION 1/25/17: This original version of this article did not properly cite source material from an NPR report. We regret the error, which has now been corrected.