Puerto Rico Profile: Carlos Romero-Barceló
April 7, 2000
Carlos Romero-Barceló was born in San Juan on September 4, 1932, with politics in his blood. His maternal grandfather, Antonio R. Barceló, was a prominent leader of the Unión de Puerto Rico, or Unionist Party. The party was founded in 1904 on the principle of government by consent of the people of Puerto Rico. For the next 25 years, it was an important force for self-government on the island, with leaders like Luis Muñoz Rivera and José De Diego. In 1916, Antonio Barceló then President of the Unionist Party led a bipartisan commission to Washington to urge passage of the Jones Act, which would give the Puerto Rican people U.S. citizenship and the right to elect senators to the islands legislature. The following year, after passage of the bill, Barceló became the first president of the Puerto Rican senate. A few weeks later, the United States entered the First World War. Senator Barceló wired a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson, volunteering the new American citizens of Puerto Rico for the draft.
In many ways, Carlos Romero-Barceló has followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, who died in 1938. Both men devoted their careers to the fight for Puerto Rican self-determination; both came to Washington to urge action by the U.S. Congress; and both understood the importance of the Puerto Rican contribution to the national security of the United States.
Romero-Barceló was educated in the United States, at Philips Exeter Academy in Massachusetts and at Yale University, where he studied Political Science and Economics. He returned to Puerto Rico in 1953, when he was twenty years old, to enroll in law school at the University of Puerto Rico. In 1956, he received his law degree and was admitted to the Puerto Rico Bar.
Romero-Barceló has worked throughout his career for the cause of statehood for Puerto Rico. In the late 1960s, he belonged to the Republican Statehood Party, or PER; but he recognized the need to expand the basis of the statehood movement beyond the Republican Party. He was therefore instrumental in the creation of the New Progressive Party (PNP), a coalition of the various political forces that favored statehood.
In the early years of the PNP, Romero-Barceló helped to shape the partys message of "statehood as equality." According to Edgardo Meléndez, author of Puerto Ricos Statehood Movement, that message has two components. First, there is the moral argument that without statehood, the disenfranchised American citizens of Puerto Rico lack essential political and human rights. Second, and more pragmatically, statehood would provide the economic equality essential to ensuring progress and prosperity. Carlos Romero-Barceló outlined these viewpoints in his 1973 book La estadidad es para los pobres (Statehood Is for the Poor), which expanded the political base of the PNP and the statehood cause in general.
Romero-Barceló served two terms as Mayor of San Juan, from 1969 to 1977. In 1974, he was named President of the New Progressive Party. Two years later, he became the first Puerto Rican and the first Hispanic President of the National League of Cities. That same year, he was elected Governor of Puerto Rico, riding a wave of discontent over economic stagnation on the island. During his first term, Governor Romero-Barceló focused his attention on reviving the economy of Puerto Rico and building up its infrastructure. However, Puerto Ricos political status was never far from his mind. Indeed, making the island strong economically was (and is) seen by many in the PNP as a necessary precursor to statehood.
In 1980, Romero-Barceló was re-elected governor in a tightly contested, extremely close race. A major theme of his second term was "Statehood Now." Ever since 1898, Puerto Ricans had thought of statehood as an eventual goal. On July 4, 1981, however, Romero-Barceló made a speech announcing that statehood was no longer a future possibility but an immediate necessity. He asserted that Puerto Rico would remain in a colonial situation until it became a state, at which point it would finally achieve equality within the United States.
Romero-Barceló left office in 1985 and returned to private law practice. He did not, however, leave politics entirely; and in 1989 he was once again elected President of the PNP. From 1989-1991, the U.S. Congress was deliberating legislation on a plebiscite in Puerto Rico. As his grandfather had done almost 75 years earlier, Romero-Barceló led a delegation to Washington, this time to promote the cause of statehood before Congress.
In 1992, Carlos Romero-Barceló was elected Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico. As such, he became, and remains today, Puerto Ricos representative in the U.S. Congress. During his years in Washington, he has been a central figure in the effort to attain a congressionally sponsored plebiscite on the status of Puerto Rico. He has also made it a priority to raise awareness about Puerto Rico in the United States. "Puerto Ricos relationship to the nation as a colony, as an unincorporated territory, is a shadow on the democratic image of the country," he said in 1996. "The United States has to solve this problem, together with us [in Puerto Rico]."
Now running for his third term as Resident Commissioner, Romero-Barceló continues to push Congress to honor Puerto Ricos right to self-determination. He recently appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to address the issue of Vieques. He began by reminding the Senators on the committee that the objective of Puerto Ricans "has never been to dismiss the very real needs for the national defense; after all we have played such an outstanding role in this regard." He continued, saying that while 197,000 Puerto Ricans have served in all the wars of the past 100 years, they seem to be "equals in war and death, but unequal in peace and prosperity." Only by granting the people of Puerto Rico the right to full self-government, Romero-Barcelo asserted, can tragic controversies like Vieques be averted. "It is precisely our helplessness, our disenfranchisement, which exacerbates this issue," he told the Senate committee.