Puerto Rican independence leader Oscar Lopez Rivera was released Wednesday from house arrest in Puerto Rico after former U.S. President Barack Obama commuted his sentence in January, days before Donald Trump was inaugurated.
"I thank the whole world, and I ask for love for the whole world," Lopez Rivera said to media in his first words once he was freed, adding that now that he has returned to the island, he will continue his fight for independence and reach out to Puerto Ricans to hear about their needs.
"I like to listen," Lopez Rivera said. "I want to visit each municipality, listen and see what we can do."
Lopez Rivera also spoke out about the massive cuts targeting the island's main public post-secondary education institution, the University of Puerto Rico, which has seen funding slashed as part of a harsh austerity plan to tackle the Puerto Rico's crippling debt, sparking widespread protests.
"The University of Puerto Rico has to exist, it has to continue to get better. To students, they need to fight," Lopez said. "We will never resign and will always push forward. We can. We are a beautiful people and I think we can come together."
In early February, Lopez Rivera was transferred from the Terre Haute penitentiary in Indiana, where the leading activist spent about two-thirds of his more than 30-year prison term, to his daughter's home in Puerto Rico.
His electronic bracelet was removed one day before his official release. Various artists are expected to perform at a party organized to celebrate his freedom on the island.
The independence leader will finally meet with his old comrades and plans to travel to Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, among other countries, in order to thank those who supported his release, said his lawyer to the media.
Lopez Rivera was born in Puerto Rico in 1943 and later moved to the United States. After being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War and returning to Chicago, Lopez Rivera joined the struggle for Puerto Rican rights. In 1976, he joined the fight for Puerto Rican independence from U.S. colonial rule as a member of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, also known as FALN.
He was arrested in 1981 and charged with “seditious conspiracy” for his role in a variety of FALN activities.
During his trial, Lopez Rivera and other FALN activists told the court their actions were part of an anti-colonial war against the U.S., declaring themselves prisoners of war and requesting that their cases be handed over to an international court. That request was denied, and Lopez Rivera was eventually sentenced to 55 years in prison — a sentence almost 20 times longer than those handed down for similar offenses.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton offered Lopez Rivera a pardon in 1999, but the independence activist rejected it in an act of solidarity with other Puerto Rican activists who had not been offered clemency and because he refused to publicly renounce the right of colonized peoples to resist through armed struggle.