Monday, December 1, 2008

Freedom for Arocena

Last week, when Pres. Bush released his list of pardons and commutations, some Cuban exile militants were upset to see that Eduardo Arocena [photo] was not on that list. On Spanish-language radio, some expressed their hope that Arocena would be pardoned by the Thanksgiving holiday, but now some are worried that Arocena might spend the rest of his life behind bars.

It was Friday afternoon, July 22, 1983, when FBI agents arrested Eduardo Arocena on suspicion that he was the leader of a terrorist organization called Omega-7. More than a year later he was found guilty and given a life sentence for several serious charges, including murder. Before being sentenced, Arocena told to the judge:

"[The US government] knows that I am an anti-communist till death and will continue to be until the last days of my existence. More than anything, I shall continue fighting for the liberation of my homeland until the final days of my life. And they won't, nor anyone will, prevent me from continuing to do so...

"[The US government] says I am a terrorist. If fighting for my country, and sacrificing everything the way I have, is to be a terrorist, then I am a terrorist...

"I regret nothing. Your honor, do your duty, for I have done mine

This past July marked 25 years since the arrest of Eduardo Arocena, and Cuban militants in Miami believe that he has paid for his crimes and should be released. But, since July, several different arguments have been given to release Arocena from federal prison.

First, it should be noted that the Campaign to Free Eduardo Arocena is NOT seeking a Presidential pardon for Arocena (despite its repeated uses of the word "pardon"), but rather a commutation of his sentence. This is the wording of the official letter that was sent to the Office of the Pardon Attorney.

The use of the word "pardon" (in Spanish "perdon" or "indulto") serves as propaganda for Cuban exile militants to send the message to the public that Arocena's past actions should be officially vindicated by the US government. This is the real motivation behind the campaign, regardless of the hidden fact that Arocena does not qualify for a Presidential pardon.

"Humanitarian reasons" have been argued in asking for a "pardon." But, concerns that Arocena's "health is failing" runs contrary to a 2007 Department of Justice report that says he is in good physical and mental health. Even if his health is truly of concern, it is not mentioned in the official letter to the US Pardon Attorney, nor on the official online petition. And, neither does his wife, Miriam, mention Arocena's failing health in a recent interview with the Miami Herald.

Miriam Arocena has appeared repeatedly on Radio Mambi to speak out for the release of her husband. Her main argument is that Eduardo is imprisoned in the state of Indiana, which is too far from his family in Miami. She has stated that it is very expensive for the family to go visit her husband, and that in the past 25 years she has only seen him 8 times. While this is a reasonable argument to relocate Arocena closer to Miami, I doubt it is sufficient to grant someone a "pardon."

Nevertheless, a commutation of Eduardo Arocena's life sentence is possible in the sole hands of the President. As P.S. Ruckman Jr., expert on executive clemencies, has noted, "[t]here are no rules" when it comes to the power of the President to grant clemency. Arocena can be freed by Christmas if Pres. Bush so decides.

Still, as this administration comes to an end, some militants are growing concerned. Immediately after the release of last week's pardon and commutation list, writers at the militant blog Nuevo Accion wrote:

"Everything indicates that [Pres.] Bush with give one last slap in the face to [us] free Cubans before leaving the White House."

On a more positive note, the Campaign to Free Eduardo Arocena, who is boasting of having sent 60,000 petition letters to the President, also published a response showing confidence that Arocena will receive his "gift" by Christmas:

"We are certain that this will happen, since in his [the President's] hands is the way to reciprocate this community who worked so hard and diligently to make him President on two occasions, and who arduously supported [Senator] McCain until the end. It's time that he reward us with that Christmas gift [for Eduardo Arocena]."

It's shameful to see how some people can easily debase the special powers of the Executive as simple quid pro quo.

Anyway, it should be clear to most readers that Cuban exile militants see Eduardo Arocena as the "patriotic ideal." His "pardon" or release by the President would be exploited by militants in Miami to officially vindicate their belief in violence as a legitimate method in their cause to free Cuba. This would be a harmful message for South Florida, or for any civil society.

While I personally believe that Eduardo Arocena has spent sufficient time in prison, the decision to release him should not come from the sole discretion of the President, but rather from honest "humanitarian reasons." Arocena's release from prison should be part of a larger human rights campaign to address the unfair conditions of the more than 100,000 persons serving life sentences in US jails and prisons, and more than 30,000 of those serving life without parole. [Read 2004 Report, PDF]

This is the humanitarian cause that Arocena's freedom should belong to, and not the militant propaganda that serves to "confront international communism." If Arocena is soon freed, he should be forced to renounce violence publicly. Otherwise, Miami's civil society (whatever remains of it) will suffer an unneccessary setback.

[A recent and excellent article on Eduardo Arocena by Tim Elfrink for the Miami New Times.]

[El Nuevo Herald online poll showing 59% of readers opposed to the release of Eduardo Arocena from prison.]

[Miami Herald editorial from 1985 concerning the imprisonment of Eduardo Arocena.]