Political prisoner’s advice to sovereignty backers: Fear not

Puerto Rican activist spent 20 years behind bars

By BRANDON SPRAGUE

TGI

Deputy Editor

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.

Puerto Rico

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

added.

“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

Rico.

“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

do?

“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

1980.

“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.

“It’s a

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

political prisoners.

“It took 19 and a half years, but it happened,” she

said.

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.

“You

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

said.

Deputy editor Brandon Sprague can be reached at 245-3681 (ext.

226) and bsprague@pulitzer.net

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