Amid controversy surrounding a status referendum that several former Governors admitted was “confusing” and designed to “bring more of the same” uncertainty regarding Puerto Rico’s future relationship to the U.S., a major conference bringing together prominent human rights activists and legal scholars called sternly for adherence to international principles and norms. The Encuentro Derechos Humanos 2012, held at San Juan’s University of the Sacred Heart from December 7-10, saw a reunion of the key organizers who had led the successful campaigns for the release of eleven political prisoners (granted clemency by President Clinton in 1999) and for the closure of the U.S. Navy bombing range on Vieques (which took place in 2003-2004). Coordinated by noted sociologist, educator, and attorney Luis Nieves Falcon, theEncuentro (“Encounter”) called for a renewal of activism against continuing forms of colonialism.
“Our main goal,” proclaimed Monsignor Roberto Gonzalez Nieves, Catholic Archbishop of San Juan, “is to live in peace with respect and solidarity.” Though strongly asserting that “authentic change can only take place if it affects that sacred place within the human heart,” Gonzalez Nieves was nevertheless forceful in his position that the current political situation in Puerto Rico was not one particularly conducive to such goals. One leading reason for this, a recurring theme throughout the weekend, is the continued incarceration of Puerto Rican patriot Oscar Lopez Rivera, who is about to begin his thirty-second year behind bars.
Originally accused of being a leader of the armed pro-independence group FALN, Lopez Rivera has become a central symbol of the judicial and political injustices afforded all Puerto Ricans — especially those engaged in any form of dissent. Lopez Rivera’s decades of imprisonment are based on a conviction for the thought crime of “seditious conspiracy” without any connection to anyone harmed or killed. Nobel Peace laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland, and Jose Ramos Horta, former President of East Timor, all sent special video presentations to the conference which in part called on President Obama to immediately and unconditionally release Lopez Rivera. An English language edition of a new book by Lopez Rivera features a Foreword by Archbishop Tutu which states that in Lopez Rivera’s story “our own faith and hope can be restored.”
Former Harvard Law School professor Soffiyah Elijah noted that the U.S. is currently “the world leader in incarceration, including the number one leader in incarcerating children.” Elijah, currently director of the Correctional Association of New York, highlighted the growing misuse of solitary confinement and the continuing abuse of police power against people of African and Latin@ descent in her presentation on human rights in the U.S.A. “Police don’t even think the Constitution applies to Black and Brown people anymore,” she exclaimed. “We know they don’t think we have any human rights.” Chicago Congressman Luis E. Gutierrez continued this basic argument, as he documented the growing issues faced by immigrants and people of Mexican descent in the U.S. Southwest and Mid-west. Gutierrez was joined by Puerto Rican elected officials from all the major political parties, in a broad bipartisan call for unity in “the civil rights cause.” Even representatives of the pro-Statehood New Progressive Party, often associated with the U.S. Republican Party, joined a special news conference pressing for the release of Lopez Rivera.
The conference was attended by a multi-generational group of participants, representing local peace, religious, student, education, and legal groups. Puerto Rican Human Rights Committee chairperson Eduardo Villanueva Munoz urged that attendees understand that “rights can’t just be on paper. We must fight for rights, but in order to be able to do so, people need to know their rights, handle them, and seize them.” This proactive interpretation of rights’ issues permeated the gathering, which actively interspersed a wide variety of cultural performances at various points in the program. This made the conference a more socially integrated and inspiring affair, modeling how popular culture can be used in vital ways to build civilian resistance. Radio personality and environmentalist Wanda Colon Cortes, who was director of the Quaker-initiatedCaribbean Project on Peace and Justice, served as emcee for much of the weekend, linking all presentations to the need to deepen collective work.
Another unique aspect of the Encuentro was the inclusion of two Palestinian representatives, in a serious effort to promote communication and collaborative action between the two countries so tormented by settler colonialism. New York-based Al-awda activist Lamis Deek spoke vehemently about the connections between military occupation, land rights, and the imprisonment of a people, noting that there are still over 4600 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails but that the spirit of independent liberation, including through the widespread use of hunger strikes within the prisons, is undoubtedly growing. Reflecting on the ideals of solidarity and human rights espoused in Puerto Rico over the Human Rights weekend, it is clear that self-determination must be at the center of any liberation effort; as Deek stated, “no people has ever been truly freed but by their own hand.” That message might not be an entirely new one, but the connections made in San Juan last month give hope that new generations and new networks of people will carry on the global fight for peace and freedom.