September 11, 1999

Puerto Ricans freed in clemency deal arrive to hero's welcome

                  SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Crowds waving flags and chanting
                  nationalist hymns hailed a group of pardoned prisoners at San Juan airport
                  Saturday, even as some leaders warned that the controversy surrounding
                  their release could hurt the island.

                  "These people are not terrorists. They are heroes, and we support them 100
                  percent," said Leonore Munoz Gomez, 59, objecting to the widespread
                  condemnation in the United States of President Clinton's offer of clemency
                  for 16 pro-independence militants.

                  Eleven were freed Friday after some 20 years behind bars. Two prisoners
                  rejected the offer, one accepted a deal to serve five more years and two
                  who had already served out jail sentences were forgiven outstanding fines.

                  The act invited new criticism of Clinton, jeopardized his wife's nascent run
                  for the Senate and underscored the complicated relationship between
                  Washington and the island some still call a U.S. colony. Critics have said
                  Clinton was being soft on terrorism: the prisoners were convicted of sedition
                  and illegal possession of weapons in connection with 130 bombings in the
                  1970s and 1980s that killed six people and maimed dozens.

                  Nine of those freed have opted to live in Puerto Rico, and seven had arrived
                  by Saturday. Two more were expected Sunday. The other two chose to
                  return to families in Chicago.

                  "Bienvenidos a casa!" -- "Welcome home!" -- supporters yelled at the
                  airport, even though only one of the arrivals was born on the island. The
                  others were born in the U.S. mainland, where about 2 million Puerto Ricans
                  live, compared to nearly 4 million here.

                  The ex-prisoners met for several hours in an airport transit lounge, exploiting
                  a technicality allowing them to be together there without violating parole
                  conditions that forbid them to associate with convicted felons, including each

                  Then, they came out one by one.

                  "Viva Puerto Rico!" the crowd screamed as Ida Luz Rodriguez walked out
                  and thanked them "for all your work and for bringing us home." When she
                  left, her sister Alicia came forward to announce simply: "Here I am."

                  A beaming Carmen Valentin told the crowd she felt "intense happiness" to
                  "put my feet on this sacred ground." Dylcia Pagam, the fourth, said she was
                  "very anxious to integrate myself into my community." Adolfo Matos said the
                  probation constrictions had "converted my cell to invisible bars."

                  They left in separate cars. Plans for a big party were scotched because of
                  the parole conditions.

                  Last to arrive was Elizam Escobar, a graphic artist from New York City
                  who said they would fight for the release of three remaining Puerto Rican
                  prisoners and for independence.

                  He said the prisoners accepted the clemency deal as "the most beneficial to
                  the struggle for independence and that, despite the onerous conditions
                  imposed on us, we are going to do everthing possible ... to build a new front
                  for the struggle."

                  Hilton Fernandez -- a former member of the Macheteros guerrilla group
                  who spent 40 months in prison in connection with the $7.1 million robbery of
                  a Wells Fargo armored truck in Connecticut in 1983 -- said the parole
                  conditions "are for criminals."

                  The released prisoners said they saw themselves differently.

                  Edwin Cortes, a Chicago-born nationalist who arrived Friday night, had said
                  he hoped "to follow the examples (of) Nelson Mandela, Gerry Adams and
                  Yasser Arafat, who were also labeled as criminals and terrorists, but in the
                  minds of their people were patriots... Today, they are considered
                  international statesmen."

                  Supporters at the airport Saturday banged on leather "pandereta" drums,
                  furiously shook maracas and belted out nationalist songs in the drizzling rain.
                  They waved the lone-star flag of Puerto Rico and pictures of the
                  ex-prisoners. A bright yellow banner stood out in the gray morning with a
                  simple proclamation: "Liberty!"

                  Jose Vega, 43, brought his 8-year-old daughter, Marena, to meet Alicia
                  Rodriguez, whom he had visited in prison after hearing her mother speak
                  about her case. "Aside from all the politics, this is an act that helps unite us
                  as a people," Vega said of the clemency deal.

                  In fact, only a minuscule number of Puerto Ricans support independence for
                  the island, which has grown prosperous under 101 years of U.S. rule. Most
                  favor either the status quo as a semiautonomous territory or becoming the
                  51st U.S. state.

                  As a "U.S. commonwealth," Puerto Ricans do not pay federal taxes but
                  receive $11 billion annually in federal aid. They are U.S. citizens but cannot
                  vote for the U.S. presidents who have drafted islanders into the army. Their
                  sole representative in Congress doesn't have a vote.

                  That representative, Carlos Romero Barcelo, warned Friday that the
                  prisoners' release, and their embrace by islanders, further damages Puerto
                  Ricans' image in the United States.

                  "Right now, there's an impression in the United States that Puerto Ricans
                  support terrorism," he told Telemundo television on Friday. "There will be
                  repercussions (in the United States) for people who work, people who are
                  looking for employment and the Puerto Rican community in general."

                  Another leader warned it could scare away American tourists.

                  "We have to remember that these people belonged to groups that have
                  promoted their ideal through violence," said Jorge Davila, a former chief of
                  the government's tourism agency who is now secretary-general of the
                  pro-statehood New Progressive Party.

                  But many see the prisoners are symbols of a much-cherished nationhood.

                  "I'm very happy for these guys," said janitor Hector Rivera, watching the
                  chaotic airport proceedings apart from the crowd. "They are a symbol of
                  Puerto Rico.

                  "For me, they are like family."