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Plea to Free Puerto Rican Political Prisoners–President Clinton Asked to Grant Clemency to 15 Puerto Rican Political Prisoners

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Convict Elizam Escobar, as well as Josefina Rodriguez, the mother of female inmates Alicia and Ida Luz Rodriguez, and Congressmember Nydia M. Velázquez, representing New York’s 12th District, discuss 15 Puerto Rican political prisoners. The convicts were alleged to be supporters of the Armed National Liberation Front (FALN) and the Puerto Rican People’s Army (EPB), also known as the “Macheteros,” which carried out a series of bombings and other armed attacks on U.S. government offices and military installations in the 1970s and early 1980s, including the spectacular $7 million Wells Fargo Bank heist of 1982.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy Now! Right now we turn to a different kind of prison story. Pressure is mounting on President Clinton to grant clemency to 15 Puerto Rican nationalists who have been in federal prison since the early 1980s on seditious conspiracy and weapons charges. And my co-host Juan González, a columnist for the New York Daily News, wrote a piece on this story yesterday. We’re going to go to Juan in a minute and then to one of those prisoners who’s been in jail for 17 years, Elizam Escobar. We’ll also be joined by the mother of two of the prisoners, as well as Congressmember Nydia Velázquez from New York. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, Amy. Good morning. The 15 political prisoners, Puerto Rican political prisoners, have been in jail, many of them since 1980. Some of them were alleged to be members of the FLAN, which is a group that throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, engaged in attacks on American institutions in an attempt to win independence for Puerto Rico. And a few of them were alleged to be members of the Macheteros, another group based in the island, in Puerto Rico, whose most spectacular action was the 1983 Wells Fargo robbery of $7 million, so that the 15 prisoners now, many of them were sentenced to — well, they were sentenced to an average of 70 years in jail each, although most of the ones who are in jail were convicted in Chicago not directly of any bombings or of any injuries to people, but on seditious conspiracy charges, attempting to overthrow the U.S. government’s control of Puerto Rico.

And so, we have with us Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, as well as, I understand, one of the prisoners, Elizam Escobar. But I would like to first ask Congresswoman Velázquez —

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, before we go to Congressmember Velázquez, we just have to break, and then we’ll go to all of our guests, from Washington to Oklahoma and out to Chicago. You’re listening to Democracy Now! And we’ll be back in 60 seconds.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. And, Juan, we have Elizam Escobar on the phone, the Puerto Rican prisoner for 17 years, presently a prisoner in FCI El Reno in Oklahoma.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, good morning, Elizam, and welcome to Democracy Now!

ELIZAM ESCOBAR: How are you doing?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you tell us a little bit about what your sense is in terms of the possibility for — what you’ve heard of the possibility of finally being able to get out of jail?

ELIZAM ESCOBAR: Well, I think that the campaign for our incarceration has been very effective, and we’ve had rally around [inaudible], you know, the fact that we have been given so long sentences.

AMY GOODMAN: Elizam, can you speak as loudly as you can?

ELIZAM ESCOBAR: OK. So, as I understand, in Puerto Rico, for example, all the political tendencies, all the ideological, political tendencies in Puerto Rico, agree that we should be discarcerated. And they have different opinions and different arguments to support that. But basically, I think that the young, or regardless of the different consensus that exist in Puerto Rico, our situation, that we live the last years of this century, which is supposed to be the last decade of colonialism, and I think that the United States has a responsibility to show that they have good faith in resolving our century-old, under U.S. domination, colonial problem. And so, this is not going to go away. And so I think that now is the time to show that good faith.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Elizam, what have been the conditions that you’ve had to confront the past few years in prison? Do you feel you’ve been singled out, or that you and the other prisoners have been singled out, for especially harsh treatment?

ELIZAM ESCOBAR: Well, I think that, you know, from the beginning, we have been singled out. I mean, in a very ironic way, sometimes we are saying that we are like everybody else, and others times they show that the security is very different for us. So, in individual cases, I think that some people have been under real harsh situations, like Oscar López, who is being — you know, right now he’s in Marion, after being in Florence and after being able to comply with all the requirements for the program to go to another prison.

So I think that the hardest condition that we have been — how do you say? — that we have lived through all the almost 17 years in prison is that we are basically isolated from the Puerto Rican community, that we live — I mean, like, I am in Oklahoma, which is very far away from any city where my family can come and visit me. And I think that culturally, this is another way of submitting us to a double way of being in a colonial situation. And so I have been deprived from my culture and —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You have a son in New York, don’t you? How often do you —

ELIZAM ESCOBAR: Yeah, I have a — yeah, I have a son in New York City.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: How often have you had a chance to see him?

ELIZAM ESCOBAR: Well, right now because of the help of friends and family, I’m able to see him once a year, sometimes two times a year. But it’s really big sacrifices, you know, in order to come here.

AMY GOODMAN: Josefina —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like —

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’d like to bring Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, who has been leading the fight with the Puerto Rican congressmembers to attempt to get a presidential pardon or clemency for the 15 prisoners. Congresswoman Velázquez, a couple of weeks ago, you met with Jack Quinn, the special counsel to the president. Could you tell us about that meeting? And what is your sense of where the administration might be going?

REP. NYDIA VELÁZQUEZ: Well, good morning, Juan, and thank you for allowing me to participate in this program.

The meeting, I found it very constructive. We make the decision of meeting right after the November election. We knew that nothing will happen prior to that, to the presidential election. And also taking into account the fact of the visibility of Latinos in this country, politically speaking, and Puerto Ricans particularly, we made an effort to reach out to the White House and Jack Quinn and to express to him the desire of the Puerto Rican family, here and in Puerto Rico, to get their sons and daughters released from prison. We explained to Jack Quinn that we understand that this is a political decision that the president has to make, that the call for their release enjoys white support here and in Puerto Rico and internationally. He was listening very cautiously and very carefully. I found him very receptive.

And he understands now that even though some people in Puerto Rico do not support this, such as the present delegate, Carlos Romero-Barceló, who sits on the House of Representatives, that even the current governor, Pedro Rosselló, that he has stated his belief that these prisoners have already served a reasonable time in prison. We explained to Jack Quinn that these people who are in prison today, they are serving extraordinarily lengthy sentences, which are disproportionate when compared to sentences for all other offenses, so that we understand that these are political prisoners, that they should support their release, and that they should not be afraid of political consequences in Puerto Rico.

So, the main argument for them is to — and I also explained to them, as an insider, as a person who worked for the government of Puerto Rico, I was able to try to explain to them that they should not fear that some sectors in Puerto Rico will not support this, that this is a very important issue that is an emotional issue that really brings together most of the people in Puerto Rico, even the most conservative forces in Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican community in the island. He explained to us that it was important that we get a meeting with the attorney general and that she made a recommendation to the president. But this is not necessarily so to get the president to act on this request.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, one thing that we should note, back in 1979, President Jimmy Carter freed four nationalists from jail after 25 years. And at that time, the attorney general recommended against a pardon. But recently declassified memos from Brzezinski, who was the head of the National Security Council at that time, shows that the recommendation from Mr. Brzezinski to Carter was to free them for political and international reasons, among which were that the United States would be seen in a better light in terms of its humanitarian and human rights policy around the world, and also because at the time there was actually a secret prisoner exchange where Cuba released six prisoners, American citizens that were in Cuban jails, so that that would seem to back up what you’re saying, Congresswoman Velázquez, that it is political.

REP. NYDIA VELÁZQUEZ: Yeah. So, Juan, also, we tried to explain to Jack Quinn that this is a great opportunity for the president. It’s ironic that the Clinton administration welcomes Nelson Mandela and Arafat and all these leaders who have been freedom fighters, and yet we denied the release of these people for the same goals that Mandela and Arafat and all these political leaders today have been fighting and they fought all their lives. So, it’s their love to the country. It was an act of love for their people, for the independence of Puerto Rico. And that’s a reality that we must face. You know, we haven’t resolved the political situation in Puerto Rico. These people are not criminals. They didn’t commit any crime. And they paid a long — they have been in jail for too long.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, I’d like to bring in Josefina Rodriguez from Chicago, who’s the mother of two of the prisoners, Alicia and Ida Luz Rodriguez. How has it been for you these past 17 years? And could you tell us about how the community in Chicago has responded to the issue of the prisoners?

JOSEFINA RODRIGUEZ: Well, first of all, good morning, and thanks for giving me the opportunity to be on this program.

To be honest with you, it has been very hard, not only for me as the mother, but the whole family. My daughters were arrested in 1980. And even though they were arrested together, they were tried and sentenced on the state level, and one of them, Alicia, was sentenced to 30 years at the state level, plus one year contempt, and Ida Luz was sentenced to eight years. That means that they were together for four years, and after four years, they transferred Ida Luz to the federal prison in New York, and Alicia stayed in Dwight Correctional Center here in Chicago. That meant that they were separated. And it was very hard for us, since we were able to see them every week together at Dwight. And Lucy was in New York for about 11 months at the MCC. And from there, she was moved to Alderson, West Virginia, for another probably 10, 11 more months. And from there, she was transferred to San Diego, and from San Diego to Pleasanton, Dublin, in California. And Alicia was still in Dwight. Alicia was there for 16 years. She was just moved about seven months ago.

And Dwight Correctional Center is well known as a very bad state prison for women. And she went through a whole lot of discrimination and faced a lot of problems. And that reflected all of us in the family. For 16 years she was there, she had to have a guard. Any time she was moved from one unit to another, she had to have a guard. She was there for 16 years. She was a model prisoner.

From now, she is in Pleasanton with her daughter — with my other daughter Lucy and the other compañeras, Carmen Valentín and Dylcia Pagan. So, you can imagine how hard it is for me, as a mother. My husband is a pretty sick man. He had two heart operations, open-heart surgery. He’s suffering now from ataxia cerebelosa, which is a problem that he hardly can walk. So, for us to visit in California, we’re able to visit once a year, and sometimes close to two years. It’s very hard.

But the question of how the community have responded to the issue of the prisoners, these prisoners from Chicago were born, most of them, and raised in Chicago in our same community that we live in. And they were all known. They’re well respected, because they were pretty much involved in issues that affected our community in every area. So, they were respected. They were loved. Nowadays — it was hard for the community people to accept their position of prisoners, where at the beginning it was that we had to talk to people and try to make them understand that position. It was hard. But nowadays every time we go in our community, we’re faced with the same response: They are not terrorists. They are prisoners of war. They are patriots. They are our community people. They were very well known. They were well respected. And we think that we need these people back in our communities —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to ask —

JOSEFINA RODRIGUEZ: — for our families —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — Josefina and also Elizam, if you’re still on: How do you feel in terms of the fact, for instance, in the year that you were sentenced, the average federal inmate who was sentenced for murder only got 10 years in jail; the average federal inmate who was sentenced for kidnapping got 21 years in jail; and you all ended up getting an average of 70 years in jail? What do you feel is behind that disproportionately high sentence that all of the 15 received?

ELIZAM ESCOBAR: Well, I think, basically, it’s to make us an example for those who dare to fight colonialism. I think that is something that it hasn’t worked, and it won’t work, because we have thousands of political prisoners in the U.S.-controlled Puerto Rico. And I fear that it’s like I say. You know, it’s not a good-faith sign of the United States. I fear that the new generation may be even more radical than we have been. I think that — well, I heard that there’s some students right now in a hunger strike in San Juan supporting our incarceration. And I hope that this is not something that will end in something negative, that put their lives in risk. And I myself will make a call for them not to do it, but we are really not in control of this. So, I think it’s important to understand that the sentence that they have imposed on us is based on the fear of the United States colonialist system to take a decision that is based on the highest concept of international law and the United Nations, including the U.S. Constitution. If we are frank and if we are honest, I think this is the time to try to take a decision and to avoid a worse situation that will raise from the perpetuation of a colonial system in Puerto Rico. I think that —

AMY GOODMAN: Elizam Escobar, we do have to wrap up the show. And I want to thank you very much for joining us. I know it was difficult for you as you speak to us from the FCI El Reno prison in Oklahoma. Juan, as we wrap up, could you let listeners know about what’s happening Saturday here in Washington, D.C., which is really quite unusual?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes. There’s going to be a service Saturday at All Souls Church in Washington, D.C. It’s an ecumenical service by a variety of leaders of major religious groups from both Puerto Rico and the United States —

AMY GOODMAN: President Clinton’s church.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — to increase the pressure on President Clinton to consider an amnesty. And that will be happening this Saturday. For those who are interested in more information, they can get it by calling area code 718-601-4751. That’s area code 718-601-4751.

AMY GOODMAN: And again, that All Souls Church is the church that President Clinton and Hillary Clinton go to on Sundays. Well, Juan, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Congressmember Nydia Velázquez, thank you for joining us, and Josefina Rodriguez, joining us from Chicago, the mother of two of the 15 Puerto Rican prisoners who are serving more than 70 years in prison.

Democracy Now! is produced by Dan Coughlin and Errol Maitland. Errol engineered from New York. Julie Drizin engineered from Washington. Julie Drizin is also our executive producer. If you’d like a copy of today’s show, you can call 1-800-735-0230. That’s 1-800-735-0230. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for being with us for another edition of Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!

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