LARES, Puerto Rico (AP) -- As Congress debates President Clinton's
release of imprisoned Puerto Rican militants, independence supporters
rallied in the mountains Thursday hoping to welcome home their heroes.
But they were disappointed: the nine prisoners who accepted the clemency
arrangement and now live in Puerto Rico stayed away from the rally in
Lares, about 100 miles from San Juan, apparently fearing law enforcement
agencies hostile to their release could claim they were breaking parole and
The parole conditions, much-criticized here by nationalists who preferred
full pardon, prohibits them from associating with other convicted felons --
including each other.
Lawyers on Wednesday "told us we would be taking a risk if there's a
picture of us embracing someone or being greeted by someone with a
criminal record," said Luis Rosa, one of the freed militants. "So we're trying
to be careful."
The release of the independence supporters has sparked a storm of
controversy in the United States, and Congress has criticized Clinton for
granting the 14 inmates clemency two weeks ago.
Senior FBI official Neil Gallagher told a congressional hearing Wednesday
that he still considered the nationalists "terrorists (who) represent a threat to
the United States."
Clinton has said the offer was motivated not by politics, as critics have
charged, but out of concern for the "extremely lengthy sentences" the
separatists were serving. Most of those who had their sentences commuted
were serving between 35 and 90 years for seditious conspiracy and
possession of weapons and explosives.
Elizam Escobar said that until Wednesday night he had intended to go to
Lares, but he decided against it for fear of breaking parole.
"The decision to not participate at Lares .. was difficult," he said.
"I knew it was going to be hard for them to come," said a disappointed
Alsira Morales, who traveled to Lares from the San Juan area. "We want to
The several thousand who gathered in Lares made do with listening to
supporters read messages from the freed prisoners, who served about 20
years in U.S. jails for charges related to a series of bombings from 1973 to
1984 that left six dead and dozens maimed.
Streets of the town were crowded with vendors selling T-shirts and posters
bearing the island's lone-star flag and pictures of the released prisoners.
Bands blared Puerto Rican salsa and old pro-independence anthems.
Thursday's celebration marked the anniversary of an 1868 armed revolt
against Spanish colonizers.
The 4 million islanders are U.S. citizens who serve in the military and
federal funds, but don't pay federal taxes or vote for president or Congress.
Still, support for independence is meager: less than 3 percent chose it in a
December plebiscite on Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States.
Gov. Pedro Rossello, who favors making the island a U.S. state, on
Wednesday challenged nationalists to a referendum that would simply ask
whether Puerto RIcans favor or oppose independence, leaving out complex
"I assure you that if the people of Puerto Rico wanted independence, they
would be given it tomorrow," Rossello said.
Copyright 1999 The Associated Press.