|With the passing this week of 99-year-old Luis A. Ferré, Puerto Rico lost not only one of its most valiant fighters in the battle for statehood, but one of its most accomplished citizens of the last century.
Ferré, a former governor and founder of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, was known as "Mr. Republican" and the patriarch of the statehood movement, but he was also the closest thing the island has ever produced to a Renaissance man.
Ferré, perhaps more than any other Puerto Rico governor, is known as much for what he did outside office as for what he did while at La Fortaleza, as well as the other public offices he held serving in Puerto Ricos Senate and House of Representatives.
Yet, his scant four years as Puerto Ricos governor were filled with activity he broke ground on the large highway connecting San Juan to the south coast, instituted the application of the minimum wage and brought the right to vote to 18-year-olds. And his political career went well beyond La Fortaleza. He served as a lawmaker both before and after his term as governor, and his political activity spanned his entire adult life.
In the initial years of the islands commonwealth status, with the Popular Democratic Party under former Gov. Luis Muñoz Marín firmly in control of political life, Ferré ran often under the Statehood Republican Party and never let the electoral defeats embitter him or make him stray from his ideal of statehood. When he finally won the governorship in 1968, after forming the New Progressive Party, he not only took power but also created a viable two-party system in Puerto Rico that lives on until today.
After leaving office, as the long-time chairman of Puerto Ricos Republican Party, he continued to be a major force in the fight for statehood until his death this week -- often pressing the issue with the presidents and Congressmen he came to know over the years.
Ferré, however, was more than a politician. He may be the best example of a model citizen of Puerto Rico over the last 100 years. He was a successful businessman, who contributed to worthy causes over the years through the Ferré Foundation, an accomplished classical musician and a patron of the arts who founded the Ponce Art Museum and a gracious host who befriended fellow Puerto Ricans of all social classes. He also earned his 99 years of life, with daily workouts, as well as a balanced lifestyle, responsible for his robust health over the decades.
Perhaps the greatest tributes to the man, among the multitude that came in the wake of his death this week, came from his political opponents, who noted how Ferré never allowed partisan differences to ruin his civility.
Ferré did not fulfill his dream of celebrating his 100th birthday, nor seeing the accomplishment of his statehood ideal for Puerto Rico. But he will be remembered as Puerto Ricos "Century Man" nonetheless, and the most enduring of the many who have labored for a resolution to Puerto Ricos political status.
Action On The Status Front
Ferré passed away Tuesday, the day that local newspapers, citing unidentified Bush Administration officials, reported that the White House was set to restart a task force to look into Puerto Ricos status options.
The move, while attacked by political opponents of statehood, such as Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, as a ploy to appease the Hispanic vote, is the most significant sign that Washington is ready to address the perennial problem of Puerto Ricos status since President Bush took office.
The task force, originally begun under former President Clinton, found that the commonwealth status proposed by the PDP could not be attained under the U.S. constitution. That verdict came from the U.S. Department of Justice. The Bush task force is expected to have about 20 members, culled from the White House, the Justice Department, the Department of State and other agencies.
No timeline for a report on Puerto Ricos status options has been set, and the unidentified officials said they are not going to pre-judge any status alternative, according to the reports. Two years ago, White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Rubén Barrales, who is expected to play a key role on the task force, said that a final solution on status should be a vote between independence or statehood.
Meanwhile, at the first meeting of the PDP General Council in five years, Acevedo Vilá announced last Sunday that he would call a referendum if elected governor next year during his first months in office, in which voters would decide how to solve the status issue. The four choices would be a constituents assembly, a referendum with status options approved by Congress, a referendum defined by the local Legislature or any other option voters want to propose.
Opponents attacked the plan. Some said the number of options proposed would splinter support so much its result would have no real meaning. Others called it a stalling tactic, another sign the PDP is not really committed to a status resolution. Independence supporters want a constituents assembly convoked now to address the status issue. Statehood supporters, meanwhile, want a referendum on whether Puerto Rico wants to petition Congress to address the status issue, while former Gov. Pedro Rosselló has also called for taking the status fight to federal courts.
Ferrés death stopped the bickering over status, as well as an increasingly heated NPP primary fight over the gubernatorial and resident commissioner nominations, as politicians declared a truce during the seven days of mourning convoked for his passing. But Ferrés life, dedicated as much to modernizing and enlightening Puerto Rico as bringing statehood here, will serve as another reason for resolving the status issue as islanders of all social classes and political beliefs remember it this week.
John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net