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Puerto Rico Profile: Luis Muñoz Rivera

February 9, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

One hundred years ago, in 1901, a bilingual newspaper called the Puerto Rican Herald was founded. With a circulation in New York and Washington, its purpose was to educate Americans on the mainland about the political and economic situation in Puerto Rico. The newspaper’s founder was Luis Muñoz Rivera: poet, journalist, politician, and the father of future Governor Luis Muñoz Marín, the man who would become the most influential Puerto Rican of the 20th Century.

At the dawn of that century, however, it was the father, not the son, who was considered the island’s líder máximo. He was the architect of Puerto Rican autonomy under Spanish rule, and he was instrumental in obtaining U.S. citizenship and other rights for Puerto Rico under the Jones Act of 1917. Indeed, during a spectacular career that was cut short by his death in 1916, Luis Muñoz Rivera was among the core group of leaders and thinkers who shepherded Puerto Rico through its most tumultuous epoch.

Muñoz Rivera was born in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico, on July 17, 1859. He attended a local private school and then worked in his father’s store. But this small town in the heart of Puerto Rico could not hold Muñoz Rivera for long. Frustrated by the social and political situation on his native island, which had been under Spanish rule for almost four centuries, he left Barranquitas to begin a lifelong quest for Puerto Rican equality.

Historian Arturo Morales Carrión has depicted Muñoz Rivera as "a brilliant and realistic mind, largely self-taught, a man with a sharp pen and an imposing, charismatic figure." While still a young man, he became an important journalistic and political voice in Puerto Rico. In 1887, he was among the founders of the Autonomist Party, which sought to establish an independent Puerto Rican government within the Spanish colonial system. In 1890, he founded La Democracia, a newspaper devoted to espousing Autonomist goals.

Muñoz Rivera left Puerto Rico in 1893 to study in Spain, where he immersed himself in Spanish politics. When he returned home, he helped his allies in Puerto Rico draft the Plan de Ponce, a document which demanded political and administrative autonomy for the island. From his travels in Spain, Muñoz Rivera realized that he needed support in Madrid to advance the cause of Autonomy. He therefore departed again for Spain in 1895 and ultimately convinced the leader of Spain’s Liberal Party, Práxedes Mateo Sagasta, to sign a pact with the Puerto Rican Autonomists.

Other politicians in Puerto Rico questioned Muñoz Rivera’s willingness to ally himself with the colonial power, but the strategy succeeded two years later. Sagasta became the Prime Minister of Spain after a terrorist assassinated his predecessor, Antonio Cánovas del Castillo; and on November 28, 1897, Sagasta granted the Autonomist Charter to Puerto Rico.

Under the terms of the Charter, the people of Puerto Rico obtained the right to internal self-government. That government finally convened on July 17, 1898, the 39th birthday of Luis Muñoz Rivera, who became the new Secretary of State and Chief of Cabinet. Just eight days later, a United States expeditionary force invaded the island, ending both Spanish rule and Puerto Rican autonomy.

Muñoz Rivera did not despair, but rather turned his energy to influencing the new colonial rulers. In 1899, while Puerto Rico remained under U.S. military occupation, he founded a newspaper called El Territorio. This periodical gave voice to Puerto Rican landowners who were unable to export their goods because of an American trade blockade.

In 1900, the U.S. Congress passed the Foraker Act, which returned Puerto Rico to civilian rule but under conditions that were undesirable to Puerto Ricans. Muñoz Rivera, along with many of the island’s political leaders, had requested a congressionally-sponsored plebiscite to let the people of Puerto Rico decide between three options: statehood, independence, or home rule.

The Foraker Act instituted none of these three choices, and instead established a government with power concentrated in the hands of a presidentially-appointed Governor and an Executive Council consisting mostly of mainland Americans. The act did allow, however, for the local election of a House of Delegates and a Resident Commissioner with a voice, but no vote, in the U.S. Congress. Muñoz Rivera would spend the last 10 years of his life using these elected offices to expand the rights of Puerto Ricans.

First, though, he moved to the United States, just as he had gone to Spain a decade earlier. From a base in New York, and in the pages of the Puerto Rican Herald, Muñoz Rivera railed against the Foraker Act and wrote open letters to President McKinley about the disgraceful nature of American policy regarding Puerto Rico.

In 1904, Muñoz Rivera returned to Puerto Rico and helped found the Unionist Party, which would dominate Puerto Rican politics for the next twenty years. He was elected to the House of Delegates in 1906, and he won reelection to his seat two times.

In 1910, Muñoz Rivera was elected Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, and he left the House of Delegates, and his native island, to assume his position in Washington on March 4, 1911. For the next several years, he would fight strongly for a repeal of the Foraker Act, which at that time continued to be the basis of American rule in Puerto Rico.

Finally, on May 23, 1916, a little more than five years after Muñoz Rivera was sworn in as Resident Commissioner, the U.S. House of Representatives passed what would become the Jones Act. This law allowed for several major changes in the status and rights of Puerto Ricans. It granted them United States citizenship, and it established a bicameral, popularly-elected legislature in San Juan.

The signing of the Jones Act into law, a major event in Puerto Rico’s political history, occurred on March 2, 1917. Muñoz Rivera, who perhaps more than any one person made the Jones Act a reality, did not live to see it go into effect. The writer, statesman, and indefatigable champion of equal rights for the people of Puerto Rico had succumbed to cancer four months earlier.

Over the course of a political career that lasted less than 30 years, Luis Muñoz Rivera ushered in fundamental change for Puerto Rico under two separate colonial rulers. His leadership on the island, his ability to negotiate, and his understanding of the power of the media made him a critical advocate for Puerto Rico in a time of great turmoil and uncertainty.

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