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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"For me, they are like family."