The Wall Street Journal, By Zach Dorfman
The decision to honor Oscar López Rivera, a terrorist who spent 35 years in federal prison, at New York’s Puerto Rican Day Parade Sunday unleashed a firestorm. Organizers named López Rivera—released in February under an 11th-hour clemency from President Obama —the parade’s first-ever “National Freedom Hero.”
In response, major sponsors such as Goya, Coca-Cola , Univision, Jet Blue and the Yankees pulled their support. New York Police Department Commissioner James O’Neill is refusing to march, as are several Democratic politicians, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
The wariness over López Rivera—who’ll still march, though he’s said he’ll forgo the “hero” designation—is well-founded. The group he helped lead, the pro-independence Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña, or FALN, was one of the most prolific terrorist organizations of its time. Between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, the FALN perpetrated more than 130 bombings. It was responsible for the 1975 explosion at Fraunces Tavern, which killed four and wounded 63; a bombing spree in New York City in August 1977 that killed one, injured six, and forced the evacuation of 100,000 office workers; and the purposeful targeting and maiming of four police officers, among many other vicious crimes.
Carnage on this scale was possible because of the FALN’s organizational and operational sophistication—including its numerous connections to communist Cuba and its intelligence services. Those connections have been known to law enforcement for decades.
According to court documents, Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, who is believed to have helped co-found the FALN, told an undercover NYPD officer in 1983 that he had received explosives training in Cuba. And the FBI estimated that by 1973, roughly 135 Puerto Rican militants had received “extensive instruction in guerilla war tactics, preparation of explosive artifacts, and sophisticated methods of sabotage” from Fidel Castro’s intelligence services.
The full extent of the FALN’s Cuba connections is unknown. But they may be more enduring than has been publicly reported. According to an NYPD document I discovered at the Hoover Institution archives at Stanford—undated, but apparently circa 1977—by that time officials had come to believe that “the FALN was started in the mid-1960’s with a nucleus of Puerto Rican terrorists that received advanced training in Cuba. . . . After their advanced training in Cuba they returned to Puerto Rico and a wave of bombings and incendiary incidents struck the [latter] island. Within the last few years they have shifted their activities to the mainland. . . . It is believed that they have maintained close links and may in fact work closely with Cuban intelligence operatives.”
That training would help explain the FALN’s professionalism, as well as its ability to bedevil law enforcement. An FALN instructional manual, which I also found at Hoover, includes sophisticated directives for compartmentalized clandestine communications between different “cadres,” or cells, as well as espionage and countersurveillance techniques. “One must observe religiously the rules and regulations of security in order to protect the organization, its cadres, its secrets, its documents, its arms, [safe] houses, and other instruments of work,” the document says. According to the manual, this hyperattention to security even extended to meetings of the MLN, the FALN’s above-ground political organization.
Viewed from this broader perspective, the FALN was not merely a “highly motivated and intelligent adversary,” as the NYPD document I found puts it. It was an instrument in the decadeslong shadow war between the U.S. and Cuba.
This is not to minimize the pro-independence sentiment in Puerto Rico, or the historical, cultural and emotional bonds that tie the two islands together. The Spanish-American War, which gave Cuba its independence, also led to Puerto Rico’s annexation by the U.S. But from Castro’s perspective, training a group of dedicated Marxist militants, whose actions would then destabilize major American cities such as New York and Chicago (as well as Puerto Rico itself), would help form a relatively low-cost, and covert, strategy for weakening his greatest antagonist.
On May 17 López Rivera was released from house arrest, 3½ months after departing prison. The Cuban regime applauded. “Please accept our fraternal congratulations on behalf of the Party, government and people, who share the joy of your liberation,” said President Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother. “We await you in Cuba, with all the honors and affection you deserve, whenever it may be possible for you.”
Mr. Castro neglected to mention that Cuba already plays host to another FALN leader: William Morales, one of the group’s bomb-makers, who after escaping from a U.S. prison in 1979 found his way to Havana. Much of the story of Oscar López Rivera and the FALN takes place far from the streets of Spanish Harlem, Humboldt Park or San Juan.
Mr. Dorfman is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.