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Puerto Rico Profile: Luis A. Ferre

January 28, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

In his 96 years, Luis A. Ferre -- successful businessman, art patron, and former Governor of Puerto Rico -- has had a unique opportunity to witness, and influence, a period of dramatic change on his native island.

Ferre was born in Ponce in 1904, soon after the transition of Puerto Rico from Spanish to American control. It was a time of great promise, and many Puerto Ricans believed they would soon enjoy the rights which they had been denied for so long. Ferre's father, a Cuban immigrant and the founder of the Puerto Rico Iron Works, described to his young son how, in 1898, the people of Ponce had welcomed U.S. troops landing on the island.

The arrival of American forces did not, however, bring the immediate advantages that some had predicted. Instead, the process of political, economic, and cultural growth in Puerto Rico which began in 1898 has lasted all of Luis Ferre's life.

In 1917, when Ferre was 13 years old, the Puerto Rican people were granted U.S. citizenship. "Of course I can't remember it distinctly," he said 75 years later, "but ever since, I've been very proud of that day. I feel it is a great privilege and a great honor to be a citizen of the greatest republic that we've had in the history of the world."

Ferre's respect for the United States dates back to his years as a university student in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That period away from home was formative, both professionally and politically. He recalled much later: "I was a part of the old Hispanic community, but then I went to the mainland to study, in Boston at M.I.T., and I became completely sold on the importance of having Puerto Rico become a state of the Union, on an equal basis with the rest of the states."

Ferre returned to Puerto Rico with a degree in engineering and a firm belief in statehood. He built his father's business into a hugely successful industrial enterprise, becoming a millionaire in the process. As his fortune grew, so did the movement among Puerto Ricans to govern themselves.

Luis Ferre entered politics at a propitious time in the island's history. In 1948, Puerto Ricans elected a governor for the first time, choosing Luis Muñoz Marín. In 1952 ­ the year before commonwealth status and internal self-government, Luis Ferre was elected to the Puerto Rican House of Representatives. From this position, he advocated commonwealth as a stepping stone to his ultimate goal of statehood for Puerto Rico.

Ferre saw the chance to further the cause in 1967, the year of the first political status plebiscite on the island. While commonwealth was the winning option, Ferre utilized the plebiscite to mobilize statehood forces and establish a new political entity, the New Progressive Party (NPP).

Ferre ran for Governor of Puerto Rico as the NPP candidate in 1968, and he won a close race. His victory marked the end of 25 years of political dominance by Muñoz Marín's Popular Democratic Party (PDP), and the beginning of a new era in which the NPP and PDP would vie for the support of the Puerto Rican people.

Ferre was Governor for one term, from 1969 to 1973. However, his importance stems not so much from what he achieved in those four years, as from the precedent that he set. After him came more statehooders like Carlos Romero Barceló, Hernan Padilla, and Pedro Rosselló. First under Ferre's guidance, then under his inspiration, the New Progressive Party ­ with its statehood agenda ­ has become a legitimate and powerful political force. As he noted in 1997, "when I became Governor of Puerto Rico, as a statehood governor, we had 400,000 votes. Today, we won the election in 1996 with 1,600,000 votes."

Along with his political astuteness and business savvy, Ferre is also a great lover and supporter of the arts. "Art is something that enriches all nations," Ferre said in 1997. "It is very important to teach [art to] children when they're young because it opens up their minds and imagination and keeps them alive. In accordance with this philosophy, he founded the Museo de Arte de Ponce in 1965. The museum features artwork from medieval times to the present, focusing on the relevance of European in Puerto Rico. Housed in an impressive, modern building, it is a major cultural attraction in Ferre's home city

Over the past century, Puerto Rico has grown in freedom, wealth, and influence. Similarly, Luis Ferre has attained the honored positions of elder statesman and philanthropist. He is one of four Puerto Ricans to have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (Muñoz Marín, Antonia Pantoja, and Gov. Ferre's sister, Isolina, are the other three.) Reflecting on this distinction, he said, "I honestly believe that this was a recognition by the people of the United States to the people of Puerto Rico. After all, the people of Puerto Rico for the last eighty years [since attaining citizenship] have been contributing, in many ways, to the enrichment and the growth of our country."