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Pardoned Militants Return As Heroes

September 11, 1999

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, who has objected 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 by midday Saturday six had arrived. One more was expected Saturday and another two 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 other.

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.

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.″

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