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José Rodríguez-Suárez

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The Party Behind the Puerto Rico Primary

Posted: 03/19/2012 11:15 am

In Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory where American citizens are deprived of the right to vote for President, Republicans took to the polls giving Mitt Romney all 20 delegates. However, behind Governor Romney's landslide victory, there is a scene that could go unnoticed --a vibrant political party with a unique history and vast untapped potential.

The Republican Party of Puerto Rico is older than five states of the Union. Its history goes back to the beginning of the Island's relationship with the United States. Puerto Rico was officially annexed on April 11, 1899, and on July 4th of that year, the Republican Party of Puerto Rico was founded under the leadership of José Celso Barbosa.

Barbosa, a Latino of African descent, could very well serve as a symbol for the growth of the Republican Party in an increasingly racially and ethnically diverse country where Hispanics have become the largest minority and a decisive political demographic.

In 1875, when Puerto Rico was under the sovereignty of Spain, Barbosa migrated to New York where he attended the Fort Edward Institute to learn English. After a year, he was proficient enough to study medicine. Columbia University rejected him because of his race. But that did not faze him. In 1880 he graduated from the University of Michigan as the valedictorian of a class which included one of the Mayo brothers who went on to establish the famous clinic in Minnesota.

While studying medicine, Barbosa also learned about America, developing a deep and life-long affinity for our system of government and the principles on which it was founded. In Abraham Lincoln, Barbosa found inspiration to overcome the barriers of racial discrimination. And he even noted that Thomas Jefferson had advised a nephew to bestow great attention to learning Spanish, because part of the history of America was written in that language.

Under Barbosa's leadership, the Republican Party in Puerto Rico obtained the legislative majority from 1900 to 1904 and undertook the vast and delicate task of adapting the American legal system and institutions of government to an Island that had been under Spanish rule for four centuries. During those years the Republican majority approved legislation protecting freedom of religion, speech and the press; introducing the writ of habeas corpus and trial by jury; establishing English, together with Spanish, as an official language; and founding the first public school system as well as the University of Puerto Rico.

But, above all, Barbosa dedicated his life to putting Puerto Rico on the path to become a State of the Union. Following his example, several generations of Puerto Rico Republicans have persevered in their quest for political equality, giving more weight to convictions than consequences and following the enduring guidance of ideas and principles over political gain.

Among them is Rafael Martínez-Nadal, who presided over the Republican Party and the Senate of Puerto Rico from 1933 to 1941. His granddaughter, Zoraida Fonalledas, is Puerto Rico's National Committeewoman and Chairperson of Romney for President on the Island.

In 1967, Luis A. Ferré, a former Republican candidate, broadened the statehood movement by founding the New Progressive Party --named after Theodore Roosevelt's "Bull Moose Party".

An engineer who graduated from M.I.T. in the 1920's, Ferré became a successful industrialist but also found time for the arts and cultural life. He helped found the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in 1948, as well as the acclaimed Ponce Art Museum in 1956, which contains paintings originally acquired for his personal collection.

After his election as Governor in 1968, Ferré became known for matching "a conservative mind with a compassionate heart" decades before President George W. Bush had spoken of the need for the Republican Party to combine those attributes. In 1975 Ferré became Chairman of the Republican Party of Puerto Rico, leading it until his passing in 2003.

The deep Republican roots of Puerto Rico's New Progressive Party are still evident today with the Governor, the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House and the Mayor of the Capital City of San Juan all being affiliated with the national Republican Party.

Puerto Rico's Republican National Committeeman, Luis Fortuño, is a free market, pro-growth Republican who is also a conservative on social issues. As Governor, Fortuño shrank the size of the government, reduced spending and dramatically cut an inherited budget deficit while lowering taxes, receiving accolades from political experts, strategists and commentators such as George Will, Grover Norquist and Roger Stone.

Moreover, surveys by renowned Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin, along with those conducted on behalf of former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed, have shown that Puerto Ricans overwhelmingly embrace the conservative values of the Republican Party. By large majorities, Puerto Ricans are pro-life and pro-family, favor stricter law enforcement for violent criminals, support tax relief and welfare reform, right-to-work laws, the free market system and a strong national defense.

Not only have Puerto Ricans identified with the core values of the GOP, but stateside Republicans have also welcomed Barbosa's vision. The national Republican Party has consistently supported the right of the American citizens of Puerto Rico to petition the Island's admission into the Union. Beginning with President Dwight Eisenhower, all Republican presidents have made statements welcoming the prospect of Puerto Rico becoming a State.

The party that Barbosa founded more than a century ago is more than a political organization. Its history echoes the ideals of Abraham Lincoln and the principles and values on which our Nation was founded. It is the party that overwhelmingly voted for Governor Romney to become the Republican presidential nominee, and which can help the GOP become the party of Hispanics across the Nation.