KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
President Obama granted clemency to more than 200 people yesterday. Among them was Oscar Lopez Rivera. He has been in prison since 1981. To his supporters, he is a freedom fighter for the cause of Puerto Rican independence. To others, he's a terrorist. Maria Hinojosa is the host of Latino USA and has been reporting on Oscar Lopez Rivera's story for months. Welcome to the show.
MARIA HINOJOSA, BYLINE: Hey, Kelly.
MCEVERS: So tell us who he is. And what was the group he was involved with?
HINOJOSA: So Oscar Lopez Rivera is 74 years old now. He was born in Puerto Rico. He moved to Chicago when he was about 14, and he was drafted to serve in Vietnam as a young man. And actually, it was in Vietnam when he said that he became politicized. We spoke to him back in 2016 for our documentary on Latino USA, and he said it was there that he became more politicized - you know, the whole context of colonialism, Vietnam, political protest.
When he comes back from Vietnam where he earns a Bronze Star for his bravery, essentially comes back to Chicago, becomes a community organizer, becomes much more politicized. And there he becomes a part of the FALN, the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional, or the Armed Forces of National Liberation, which was a clandestine armed revolutionary group fighting against colonialism in Puerto Rico.
MCEVERS: The group was responsible for setting off over 70 bombs. The deadliest one was at the Fraunces Tavern. Tell us about that.
HINOJOSA: Right. That's in Lower Manhattan in the Financial District. It was January of 1975. And yeah, FALN had basically said they were not attempting to kill people, that they did want to harm property. But in this case, they did. Sixty people were injured. Four people were killed. The FALN left a note there in New York City saying that the bombing was targeting, quote, "reactionary corporate executives."
That day, the father of Joe Connor happened to have lunch at Fraunces Tavern. He was killed in 1975. And we spoke with Joe Connor, his son, and this is what he had to say about the release of Oscar Lopez Rivera.
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JOE CONNOR: I'm hearing he's a freedom fighter. He's done all these things. He's not violent. But what did he do if not being a terrorist? There's no answer to it because he was a terrorist (laughter).
MCEVERS: And Lopez Rivera wasn't tried or convicted for murder. The charge was seditious conspiracy related to some other bombings. Explain that.
HINOJOSA: Right. So the FBI had no physical evidence to prove that Lopez Rivera set any bombs himself. So instead, he was tried for a seditious conspiracy to overthrow the power of the United States in connection with 28 FALN bombings in Chicago.
So his supporters essentially say that seditious conspiracy is, quote, "a political crime for simply opposing the United States government." And they say that his 55-year sentence was essentially unfair. But his opponents say that he is essentially an unrepentant terrorist. He has never, you know, said anything, for example, about the Fraunces Tavern. He's denied his involvement. So there's a real divide here.
MCEVERS: What has been the reaction from people about this commutation?
HINOJOSA: Well, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of "Hamilton" who was actually - who asked President Barack Obama to do this, was ecstatic, saying that he was in tears. The speaker of the New York City Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito, also saying she couldn't stop crying.
But there are people who are just saying, you know what? This is somebody who should not have been released. He should be more repentant. And Joe Connor said, you know, he's upset that President Barack Obama is releasing a person who he says is a terrorist on the American people.
MCEVERS: Maria Hinojosa is the host of Latino USA. Their hour-long documentary about Oscar Lopez Rivera is airing later this month. Thank you very much.
HINOJOSA: Thank you.
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