Forgive Us Our Revolution

Adolfo Matos wasn't about to apologize. The Puerto Rican nationalist was serving a 70-year sentence for conspiracy and weapons charges at a California prison. Last April he scoffed when a female friend asked about the hardships of prison life. It has been "one of the greatest investments of my life, to give my life for something I believe in," Matos said. Would he ask for a pardon? No, Matos said. "For the justice of my people... my desire has gotten stronger... I don't have to ask forgiveness from anybody." The conversation was full of "revolutionary rhetoric," and showed "no remorse," said one official. It also was captured on tape by the Bureau of Prisons, which monitors inmates' calls. "Aren't all these calls recorded?" the woman asked. Replied Matos, "I don't care."

Matos toned down his rhetoric last week. As part of a clemency deal offered by President Clinton, Matos and 11 other members of the radical Puerto Rican independence group, the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), signed statements renouncing violence. At the weekend, all but one of the inmates were free. But questions about why Clinton released them--over the objections of top law-enforcement officials--are still growing.

An overwhelming majority of Congress denounced the deal and scheduled hearings this week. Republicans accused Clinton of playing politics to win Hispanic support for Vice President Al Gore and for Hillary Clinton's New York Senate bid. Gore remained silent, but Hillary tried to distance herself from her husband's decision, telling friends that when she initially supported the clemency offer she assumed that her tough-on-crime husband had the backing of law officers.

Hillary's feeble retreat didn't help her cause. It angered Puerto Rican leaders in New York, yet she could do little but apologize for not consulting them before making her decision. Her camp groused privately that the president and his aides had blindsided them and that Hillary had been cut out of the loop. The First Lady's campaign aides could just imagine the FALN members starring in a new round of Willie Horton-style Republican attack ads.

The First Lady's change of heart actually may have persuaded some of the inmates to accept the clemency deal. FALN advocates had complained that the prisoners should be freed, not paroled like common criminals. But when Mrs. Clinton backed away, the inmates decided to take what they could get and accepted the parole offer. They will likely remain free regardless of what Congress thinks: granting clemency is a presidential prerogative and the prisoners cannot be jailed again unless they violate the conditions of their parole.

Still, with Congress demanding to know why Clinton released the prisoners and how dangerous they might still be, Justice officials are exhaustively searching for tapes of the inmates' phone calls to determine what else they might have said. It's still unclear why no one bothered to search earlier, before Clinton released the nationalists. But now they have their freedom, and Hillary Clinton may be left to pay the political price.

Forgive Us Our Revolution | News