Joy -- and a touch of bewilderment -- mark return of Puerto Rican
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Elizam Escobar searched deeply into his
past as he greeted friends and relatives whose faces had aged and voices
had changed during the nearly two decades he'd been away in prison.
"Do you remember me?" asked a man who hugged Escobar in his first hours
of freedom Saturday in his homeland of Puerto Rico. A glint of recognition,
then an avalanche of memories, as Escobar, a graphic artist from New
York, gave his friend a bear hug at his mother's house.
Joy and bewilderment filled Escobar and six other Puerto Rican nationalists
who came home to this Caribbean island over the weekend. They were
among 14 who had accepted a controversial clemency offer from U.S.
President Bill Clinton. Two more were to arrive later Sunday.
All had been imprisoned on sedition and weapons convictions stemming
from their involvement in the Armed Forces of National Liberation, a
pro-independence group blamed for 130 bombings in the United States that
killed six people and wounded dozens of others from 1974 to 1983.
As they returned home to a flurry of hugs and homecooked meals, the
former prisoners were able to forget, for the moment, the political firestorm
surrounding their case.
However, the criticism continued unabated on the mainland.
Republican presidential contender Steve Forbes said Saturday that the
releases amounted to a "terrorists-for-votes deal" to help Clinton's wife,
Hillary, in her possible campaign to win a U.S. Senate seat from New York.
He challenged Vice President Al Gore, also a presidential contender, to say
where he stands on the issue.
In the middle-class suburb of Bayamon, Escobar tugged at the cheek of
11/2-year-old Anel Rios, brought to him by his cousin Elizam Rios.
"She's never seen him. I've never seen him," said Rios, who was five when
Escobar was imprisoned.
Relatives and friends crowded into the sweltering house, where a 1991
poster honoring Escobar and his paintings hung on a wall. Curious neighbors
watched the gentle celebration from their porch across the street.
"So much time. So much time. But here we are," a beaming friend said.
In the kitchen, relatives prepared the national dish of rice and beans,
plantains, oven-baked bread, fish and salad.
The festivities lasted into Sunday, the anniversary of two important nationalist
events. It was the birthday of Pedro Albizu Campos, the founder of Puerto
Rico's independence movement.
Sunday was also the anniversary of the 1983 robbery of a Wells Fargo
truck in which militants of Puerto Rico's Macheteros guerilla group stole dlrs
7.1 million that officials said was to fund terrorist attacks against the United
States. Three of those convicted in that robbery were forgiven outstanding
fines under Clinton's clemency.
A reflective Escobar -- thinner than in a portrait displayed on a table
it all in stride, watching a television report on the freed prisoners' return to
Escobar said that he and the other prisoners were going to continue
struggling for independence. Escobar also wants to expel the U.S. Navy
from the outlying island of Vieques, where the Navy maintains a live-fire
bombing range within kilometers (miles) of some 10,000 inhabitants.
Another freed activist, Adolfo Matos, showed little remorse and expressed
adamant support for Puerto Rico's independence in a phone conversation
recorded by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons last April, Newsweek reported in
its upcoming issue.
"For the justice of my people ... my desire has gotten stronger," Matos
in the conversation, Newsweek said.
Escobar said parole conditions prohibiting him from associating with fellow
convicts "are more proof of our colonial condition."
A former art teacher at New York's Museo del Barrio, Escobar said he
planned to promote Puerto Rican art and culture as a way to defend the
island's nationality and champion its independence.
He was undeterred by the minuscule support that cause has in Puerto Rico,
a territory that has grown relatively rich under 101 years of U.S. rule.
Escobar said he did not know that he would be permitted to live in Puerto
Rico until he was walking out of El Reno prison in Oklahoma on Friday.
"This transition is going to take a lot of time," a somewhat weary Escobar
admitted. "I feel a great happiness ... but this is a very different reality."