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Profile: Orlando Llenza

August 2, 2002
Copyright © 2002
PUERTO RICO HERALD. All rights reserved.

A Puerto Rican teenager’s encounter with a U.S. Air Force recruiter addressing his junior high school class put into motion a military career that ended with the two stars of a Major General on his epaulets and a six-year command of the Puerto Rico National Guard from 1977 to 1983. Orlando Llenza, then 14, told the recruiter that he wished "to sign up right away," but he was admonished to "wait until you are a little older."

He did wait, but not very much longer. On college graduation day at Georgia Tech in 1951, he grasped his Bachelor’s degree in architecture in one hand and his Air Force ROTC commission in the other and quickly moved into pilot training to join in the United Nations fight to contain North Korea’s aggression against its South Korean neighbor. After his active duty in combat, he came back to Puerto Rico and joined the Air National Guard where he flew fighter jets. At the same time he began his civilian career as an architect in San Juan, establishing the firm of Llenza & Llenza Architects, where he is still active. The other Llenza in the name is his Orlando’s brother, Hector.

His military career also included attendance at some of the Department of Defense’s most prestigious schools, including the Air War College, the Air Command and Staff College and the Tactical Fighter Commander’s Course. "One day," he told the Herald, "Governor Carlos Romero Barcelo tapped me to be the Adjutant General of Puerto Rico and so I spent the rest of my military career there in charge of the National Guard of Puerto Rico." An accomplishment on his watch that Gen. Llenza is very proud of was the establishment in the Puerto Rican National Guard of an English language school. "We had a problem with Puerto Ricans joining the military–they had a problem with the English language so we set up the school to help them qualify for entrance and pursuit of their military occupation specialties. It’s been very successful and it’s still going strong."

The now-retired General says that among his fondest memories of military service were his associations with Puerto Ricans serving in the uniformed services of the United States. "There’s a long history of Puerto Ricans in the military," he recounted.. "There’s the famous 65th Infantry Regiment which fought in the second world war and also got medals for valor in Korea. I think it was one of the most decorated units in the Korean conflict. And there are a lot of Puerto Ricans in the Armed Forces; every branch of the Armed Forces, everywhere you go and they all are very competent. They’re proud of their US citizenship–they’re very proud to be in the military–they like it."

The future Major General was born in San Juan to Maria Isabel Lopez and Harry B. Llenza, a lawyer, in 1930. Until leaving for Atlanta, Georgia, for college, he was educated in the local schools, graduating from Central High School in 1947. In his long professional career, his base has been in Puerto Rico, except for three years as Director of all Ecuador operations for the U.S. Agency for International Development. "It was a wonderful and very satisfying experience," he told the Herald as he listed the many projects that his staff delivered to the Ecuadorean people. " We worked to restructure the agriculture of the country, especially in rice production, since their fields had been devastated by the effect of an El Nino current. We established health clinics and built housing for the poor."

Currently Gen. Llenza is Chairman of the American Veterans’ Committee for Puerto Rico Self-Determination. This national nonpartisan group, comprised of veterans and veterans' organizations, is working for passage of legislation providing the 3.8 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico with a congressionally-approved process, and clearly-defined status options, leading to a permanent political status for the island. Currently, Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States. As such, its residents have no voting representation in the U.S. Congress and are not allowed to vote for the President of the United States.

Asked why this process has not been achieved up until now, Gen. Llenza blamed both the citizen and the political process in Puerto Rico, where the leading political parties use status as a catalytic agent to energize support for their agendas. "They say one thing in Puerto Rico and another in Washington," he said. "We’re at fault in Puerto Rico for not demanding our rights. Would any mainland American citizen accept this situation where you don’t have the same rights as citizens in the other 50 states? That’s inconceivable–I think that something has to be done soon to stop that. It’s a colonial situation. How can the US be telling the rest of the world not to have any colonies and yet the US, with Puerto Rico, supports one of the oldest colonies in the world"

He used as an example the very recent recognition of the July 25th anniversary of fifty years of the Puerto Rico Constitution as an example of how local political parties manipulate public opinion on the status issue. Llenza watched the events on television and was dismayed by the content of the political speeches. "They promise the moon," he complained. "Many refer to the jubilee as a ‘celebration of Commonwealth,’ as if it were already an authentic political status. It is not. Only by Independence or Statehood can Puerto Rico gain sovereignty. The politicians know it and the Governor knows it. Still they continue with this charade while the American citizens of Puerto Rico are denied their full civil rights. They are stalling for time to prolong a status quo that nobody wants."

The starry-eyed teenager who was transported by the words of that long-ago Air Force recruiter still has a vision. He wants to see his Puerto Rico achieve a permanent political status. In his role of Chairman of the veteran’s organization, Orlando Llenza intends to take this message to other veterans to gain grass-roots support for congressionally defined status options leading to an authentic status vote in Puerto Rico. He says that he is receiving a positive response so far. "Americans understand that this is not just a Puerto Rican issue, this is a civil rights issue. We’re 4 million US citizens that do not have full rights, yet we’re US citizens, and that’s not right; it should be changed. One way or the other–whichever way–independence, statehood, associated republic, whatever they want to call it."

(To view a statement by Gen. Orlando Llenza, click here.)

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