LUIS MUNOZ MARIN, dead at 82, led Puerto Rico's modern political awakening and stirred its economic transformation. Puerto Rico's acceptance of "commonwealth" status in 1952 and the "Operation Bootstrap" program were great achievements in the Puerto Rican context. But four-time governor Munzo was much more than an island politician. It was his genius to make Puerto Rico's quest for progress and dignity a matter of concern and pride to all Americans. He did this not only by a virtuoso performance in the acquisition and manipulation of influence in Washington as well as in San Juan -- his political style followed the lines of his fellow aristocrat-turned-populist Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He did it by sensing, rather as a poet senses -- and Don Luis was himself a poet -- that the basic values of American democracy could be made to work well for Puerto Rico. This was so, he believed, notwithstanding the island's quality as a former Spanish colony and as an impoverished Caribbean island.

It is somewhat fasionable now to say that Gov. Munoz's time had passed. The Operation Bootstrap formula -- offering American corporations tax exemptions to set up branch plants -- has not served to insulate the resource-poor, labor-rich island from the punishing effects of oil-price increases, global recession and a high birth rate. The commonwealth formula -- offering Puerto Ricans American citizenship and financial benefits but not full political rights or the obligation to pay federal taxes -- is now widely recognized as an odd and ambiguous status that it is both difficult and vital to reform. Up until a month before his death, the indefatigable Mr. Munoz was out on the stump fighting for his conviction that an improvement in the terms of commonwealth rather than an initiative for statehood was Puerto Rico's only wise course.

Yet the contributions of Luis Munoz Marin are not to be measured simply by the fact that they are being argued over. He arrived on the scene when the economy was in a federal state and the relationship with the United States in an unqualifiably colonial state, and he transformed them both to the point where other options can now be considered. He did this, moreover, in a way that established the democratic process as the only conceivable mode of change and self-definition.A giant of a man, his proper monument is not simply the programs associated with his name, but the determination of his people to seek their own destiny with each other's consent.