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Puerto Rico Profile: Luis Muñoz Marín

December 31, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The middle of the Twentieth Century marked a crucial period in Puerto Rican history. From the 1940s through the '60s, Puerto Rico was transformed economically, socially, and politically. What was once a poor, agrarian island became urban and industrialized; a strictly stratified social order cracked, allowing for the emergence of upward mobility and a strong middle class; and a people under the colonial "tutelage" of the United States won the right to internal self-government.

Luis Muñoz Marín was the guiding force behind this time of sweeping change. He understood the needs and desires of the people of Puerto Rico, and he worked closely with officials in Washington to satisfy them. He consequently initiated a much needed period of reform on the island, and he brought the people of Puerto Rico closer to realizing self-determination.

When Muñoz Marín was born on February 18, 1898, a life of politics and leadership seemed pre-ordained. For instance, his first year was arguably the most turbulent in the history of Puerto Rico, as the island experienced what historian Arturo Morales Carrión has termed "the hope and the trauma" of passage from Spanish to U.S. colonial rule.

In addition, his father, Luis Muñoz Rivera, was himself a great political leader. He was among the group of intellectuals, including José Celso Barbosa, who pushed for self-determination at the end of the Nineteenth Century. In fact, Muñoz Rivera had negotiated with Spain and secured a measure of autonomy for Puerto Rico in 1897. As the island became an American possession, Muñoz Rivera envisioned a course that included "a brief military occupation; the declaration of Puerto Rico as a territory, but with the full powers of self-government; and, soon thereafter, statehood." (Morales Carrión, Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History)

Young Muñoz Marín, destined to fulfill the second step of his father's scenario under the name of Commonwealth, spent most of his first 30 years away from politics and, indeed, away from Puerto Rico. He studied at Columbia University and became a published poet and journalist. During this time, he established close ties to the United States that would shape his public life. He compiled a long list of personal contacts on the mainland, and he was able to criticize U.S. policies without being anti-American.

Muñoz Marín returned to Puerto Rico permanently in 1931 and led the effort to relieve Puerto Ricans from the desperate poverty of the Depression years. In order to achieve this step, he implemented a two pronged approach. First, he worked with Washington to raise conciousness about the situation in Puerto Rico, becoming the New Deal's "golden boy" and spearheading new federal aid programs on the island. Second, he initiated a grass roots effort to reform the economy and weaken the power of absentee landlords and big sugar interests. By doing so, he laid the groundwork for bringing Puerto Rico into the Twentieth Century economically, socially, and politically.

After World War II ­ and the appointment in 1945 of the island's first Puerto Rican-born governor, Jesus T. Piñero ­ Muñoz Marín saw the opportunity to push even harder for progress. Through his efforts, in 1948 the people of Puerto Rico elected a governor for the first time. Muñoz Marín was the clear choice, and he wasted no time redefining the position from that of a tool of Washington to one which reflected the people's will.

The 1950s were a boom time in Puerto Rico, as federal subsidies and Muñoz Marín's "Operation Bootstrap" ignited the development of a healthy, industrial economy. With poverty and hardship receding, the question of political status emerged as a priority. Muñoz Marín was faced with a dilemma. His own preference was for an independent Puerto Rico. He realized, however, that such an option would mean the withdrawal of U.S. support when it was needed most. He therefore devised a new option in between statehood and independence, whereby Puerto Rico would secure internal self-government while continuing to receive tax incentives and other assistance from the mainland. After years of negotiation and persuasion on the island and in Washington, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was established on July 25, 1953.

With this break away from colonialism, Puerto Rico became a center of the "Democratic Left" in Latin America, and many writers and thinkers fleeing totalitarian regimes found a home there in the 1950s and '60s. Recognizing Muñoz Marín's role in the future of the whole region, President Kennedy awarded him the Congressional Medal of Freedom in 1963.

Luis Muñoz Marín died in 1980, leaving behind a transformed Puerto Rico. During his life, he ushered the island from the Nineteenth Century into the Twentieth. Now, at the approach of the Twenty First Century, the people of Puerto Rico are well-equipped to decide their next course.

Thanks to Muñoz Marín and his recognition of what the island needed fifty years ago, there is now a clear choice between permanent union with the United States through statehood, and independence. Both solutions involve problems and sacrifices, but as the crisis in Vieques has demonstrated, the current status of Puerto Rico has severe limitations. The people of Puerto Rico lack the voice in Congress to cause effective change, and the people of the United States are losing the appetite to subsidize the island indefinitely.

In his time, Luis Muñoz Marín built a foundation upon which Puerto Rico has prospered. Today, the people of Puerto Rico have a unique opportunity to draw inspiration from his legacy, and move toward a future of true self-determination.