03 November 2016

Increasing calls for Obama to pardon Oscar López Rivera

'I'm no threat' – will Obama pardon one of the world's longest-serving political prisoners?


Any day now, monarch butterflies will begin their epic migration from Canada to Mexico. It is one of the wonders of the world: insects whose distinctive orange and black wings barely stretch four inches flying on thermal currents up to 3,000 miles in search of a warm spot to spend the winter.

The phenomenon has entranced Oscar López Rivera since his childhood days in rural Puerto Rico. If he ever gets the chance, he says, one of his great ambitions is to trace the monarchs’ route, all the way from the Canadian border, across the US great plains into northern Mexico. “The monarch is fascinating to me,” he says. “The length of their journey and what they do to survive: how can an insect so small go so far?”

That’s an achingly powerful question when you consider who is posing it. For the past 35 years, López Rivera has been unable to fly, his wings clipped. He has been held in federal institutions, for 12 of those years totally alone inside a 6ft-by-9ft concrete box from which he had no view of the sky. The last time he saw a live butterfly, let alone a monarch, was in 1981.

López Rivera is one of the US’s, and the world’s, longest-serving political prisoners. Aged 73, he has spent more than half his life behind bars. He is convicted of killing no one, of hurting no one. His crime was “seditious conspiracy” – plotting against the US state in the furtherance of Puerto Rican independence. He still believes in what he calls that “noble cause”: full sovereignty for his Caribbean birthplace that is classified as a US “territory”.

But his views on how to attain that goal have changed. Two decades ago he and his fellow Puerto Rican independence fighters renounced violence and embraced peaceful political reform. The last year in which the militant group to which he belonged committed a violent act was 1983.