Engineer, professor and public servant. He was the second governor elected by the people of Puerto Rico (1964-1968). Before he was governor, he held other public posts. He also participated in writing the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
Roberto Sánchez Vilella was born in Mayagüez on February 19, 1913, the son of Luis Sánchez Frasqueri and Angela Vilella Vélez. After completing his secondary studies at Central High School in Santurce, he went to the United States to continue his studies in engineering and graduated from Ohio State University in 1934. Upon returning to Puerto Rico, he worked as a public official, initially in the Puerto Rico Economic Reconstruction Administration (PRERA for its Spanish acronym). He also worked on the Garzas Lake hydroelectric project in Adjuntas.
Sánchez Vilella participated in the founding of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD for its Spanish acronym) in 1938 alongside prominent political figures such as Luis Muñoz Marín, the leader of the new party. As a member of the PPD and an advisor to Muñoz, he held the posts of assistant commissioner of the interior (1941), administrator of the Transportation Authority (1942-1945), administrator of the Capital (1945), special assistant to Senate President Luis Muñoz Marín (1946-1947), executive secretary and Secretary of Public Works (1951-1959) and Secretary of State (1952-1964). He also was the secretary of the Constituent Assembly of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (1951) and was a member of the Joint Committee on the Status of Puerto Rico in 1964. That same year, Luis Muñoz Marín tapped him as his successor in the next election. Sánchez Vilella won with a historic total of 200,000 votes, nearly 60 percent of the votes cast.
During his term in office, he continued and expanded the PPD’s political and social plans for the island, including the project of regionalization of the health care system, educational reforms, and business incentives, among others. He also reorganized the executive and judicial branches and created the Highways Authority, the Civil Rights Commission and the Women’s Rights Commission.
Sánchez Vilella worked to bring young politicians into the party leadership. These and other changes he implemented during his administration caused problems with the established leadership, particularly with Muñoz Marín. Part of the party did not want Sánchez Vilella to run in the following elections.
After Muñoz Marín backed Luis Negrón López as the Popular Democratic Party’s candidate for governor, Sánchez Vilella founded a new division of the movement, which led to the defeat of the party in the governor’s race by Luis A. Ferré and the New Progressive Party.
He became a professor in the School of Public Administration at the Río Piedras campus of the University of Puerto Rico. Later, in 1972, he ran for office as an at-large senator for the Popular Democratic Party but was not elected, which led him to retire from politics for good.
Sánchez Vilella also wrote essays. He published the book The Story of Puerto Rico: A Speech Delivered Before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., February 10, 1965. His articles published in periodicals included “El rol de los municipios” (the magazine Plerus, 1968) and “Las relaciones entre Puerto Rico y los Estados Unidos: necesidad de una revisión” (The Puerto Rico Academy of Arts and Sciences Magazine, 1986). He also delivered many speeches and book presentations on topics related to public administration.
Roberto Sánchez Vilella has been honored for his life-long administrative work in the Puerto Rico government. The Graduate School of Public Administration, the government offices in the Minillas area of Santurce, and the highway from Ponce to Mayagüez, which was built during his administration, are all named for him. In 2007, a bust of Sánchez Vilella was placed in the hall of governors in the Capitol, correcting a decade-old omission. Puerto Rican sculptor Tomás Batista created a bust in his honor.
He died at Auxilio Mutuo Hospital on March 24, 1997. The legacy of his efforts in government and his personal life have been the subjects of various publications and works of academic research, including Una opción ante la crisis del populismo: la gobernación de Roberto Sánchez Vilella a través de sus discursos y mensajes (1964-1968), a doctoral thesis (2006) by Ligia T. Domenech and “Roberto Sánchez Vilella y su visión profética” by David Noriega Rodríguez, Public Administration Magazine, 2002-2003, among others.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 11, 2014.
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