Puerto Rican activist spent 20 years behind bars
By BRANDON SPRAGUE
LIHU’E — Mainstream polls — and news stories, for that
matter — usually focus on whether Puerto Ricans want statehood or to stay a
commonwealth of the U.S., which the small island nation of nearly 4 million has
been since 1952.
But Puerto Rican activist Alicia Rodriguez, who was
imprisoned for nearly 20 years by the U.S. government, says many people want a
third option: Independence.
“There has always been resistance to colonial
rule. This went on even during the Spanish regime,” she says.
was invaded by the U.S. in 1898 — the same year Hawai’i annexation was passed
by Congress. The Americans quickly disbanded Puerto Rico’s monetary and postal
system and immigration laws. This was in violation of the Puerto Rican Charter
of Autonomy, which was given to the country after it won its independence from
Spain, according to Rodriguez.
“In actuality, they suppressed every form of
existence for us and they imported something that was foreign,” she said. That
included the suppression of Spanish language in the schools until 1952, she
“As much as the U.S. wants to erase their tracks, they have to be
held responsible that they invaded Puerto Rico, and there’s been a struggle up
until this time for us, a people trying to gain our independence,” she said in
an interview while visiting Kaua’i as part of a speaking tour of Hawai’i.
Rodriguez said that due to its long period of colonialism, history has
been denied to “Puertoriqueños.” But for her, the history is there in
the blood of those who struggle for independence.
Ten months ago, she was
serving her 20th year of a 85-year sentence in federal prison. She claimed that
during her time inside she was singled out, intimidated and “not allowed a
private thought” because she was there out of principal and conscience, and not
due to any crime.
In August 1999, under pressure from individuals like
former president Jimmy Carter and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and
from the international community as a whole, President Clinton ordered clemency
for Rodriguez and 10 other activists. She was freed and released to Puerto
“What really infuriated my jailers was I didn’t allow my spirit to
be broken,” said Rodriguez, 46.
That spirit has been with her all her
life, even though she was not born in Puerto Rico.
As a child, Rodriguez
said, she had to defend her family against discrimination suffered as Puerto
Rican immigrants in Chicago. At 21, she earned enough money to travel to the
only place she could really call home: Puerto Rico.
Rodriguez, then a
biology major at the University of Chicago, was appalled at what she saw when
she arrived in Puerto Rico. She said the beaches of the island nation were
privately owned and off-limits to ordinary residents, many foreign corporations
were operating in blatant violations of environmental laws, and the beautiful
island of Vieques was being used by the U.S. Navy as a bombing site. It still
is 25 years later.
“Here I was as a young child always defending who I was
and then to come home, and see what they’ve done to my home and people — it
was awful,” she says.
Back in Chicago, Rodriguez got involved with
community activists fighting for rights of Latinos. That escalated when her
sister joined a group of activists working underground, leaving Rodriguez to
care for her nephew.
How involved was Rodriguez and what exactly did they
“Time will tell,” she says.
The activists—said by the government
to be members of FALN, a militant independence group operating a bombing
campaign in Puerto Rico and the U.S. were arrested by FBI agents in
“They charged us with seditious conspiracy, but that is a treason
charge and that cannot be applied to a Puerto Rican because the U.S. is not a
legal government (there),” she said.
Rodriguez and the others claimed
prisoner of war status and requested their trial be held in an international
court or a neutral country.
“When you have been prostituted as a nation,
you don’t go up to the person who’s violating you and feel you are going to
receive justice,” she said.
Rodriguez said pursuing that route meant the
group wouldn’t put up a defense in any state or federal court. The resulting
sentences that were handed down were indeed stiff. Rodriguez and her sister Ida
Luz both received 85-year terms on non-violent charges. Other sentences ranged
from 35 to 90 years.
“But many of us , if we had put up a defense in court,
we wouldn’t have spent a day in prison,” Rodriguez said.
With the clemency
order, she said, an unprecedented window of opportunity has opened.
window that’s normally sealed and has repercussions in a very positive way for
indigenous people and people who fight because they have the moral right all
over the world,” she said.
What’s more, the U.N. Decolonization Committee
unanimously passed a resolution last year asking for the release of the
“It took 19 and a half years, but it happened,” she
The committee in September will vote on a resolution calling for the
U.S. to get out of Puerto Rico, once and for all.
Rodriguez said there is
international movement, which includes the native people of Hawai’i, many of
whom are calling for sovereignty from the U.S.
The main thing is to not let
fear overpower the truth and intimidate you into silence, she says.
shouldn’t be afraid. That’s spoken as a woman who has been in prison for 20
years. I’ve seen many faces of fear,” she asserted.
For 16 and a half
years, Rodriguez was put in a maximum security facility in Dwight, Ill. There,
she says, she was subjected to psychological torture from her guards, who
answered directly to Washington, D.C. Still, Rodriguez was a model prisoner,
earning several degrees and mastering ceramics, she said.
Now that she is
out, she says there is a lot of work to be done. The degradation of the land in
Puerto Rico continues, she says.
“I still have that anger of coming to the
island of Puerto Rico for the first time and seeing how these corporations hurt
that region, and they have to be held responsible,” she said.
She says that
the resistance, especially now against the bombing at Vieques, has opened up
Pandora’s Box for the U.S.
“And they don’t know how to close it,” she
Deputy editor Brandon Sprague can be reached at 245-3681 (ext.
226) and email@example.com