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Puerto Rico Profile: Rafael Hernández Colón

March 10, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

"Democracy is the answer to the Puerto Rico question," said Rafael Hernández Colón, three-time Governor of Puerto Rico, in 1998. "At the end of a century since the invasion of Puerto Rico by the United States, when the spread of democracy throughout the world ushers in a new millennium," he continued, "the question of self-determination for the Puerto Rican people presses upon the United States."

Hernández Colón, who retired from government in 1993, has spent nearly 50 years grappling with the question of Puerto Rico's unique relationship with the United States. He has been, and continues to be, a vocal and influential leader in the Popular Democratic Party (PDP). He is also a strong proponent of the Commonwealth status, which he considers the best way for Puerto Ricans to maintain their cultural identity while embracing the political and economic structures of the United States.

Rafael Hernández Colón was born in Ponce on October 24, 1936. His father, Rafael Hernández Matos, was a prominent lawyer and, later, a justice on the Puerto Rico Supreme Court. The young Hernández Colón was an exceptional student. In 1952, the year that Commonwealth was established, he enrolled at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where he received his Bachelor's Degree, with Honors, in 1956. He returned home to study law at the University of Puerto Rico, where he was first in his class when he graduated with a Doctor of Laws, magna cum laude, in 1959.

During his studies at Johns Hopkins, Hernández Colón wrote an undergraduate thesis on relations between Puerto Rico and the United States. As a law student, he expanded upon the work, and sent the results to the Governor of Puerto Rico and father of Commonwealth, Luis Muñoz Marín. Muñoz Marín was so impressed with the young man's work that he printed the text for distribution in the United States. He also appointed Hernández Colón, 24 years old and fresh out of law school, as Associate Commissioner of Public Services in Puerto Rico.

The ensuing rise to political prominence was astonishingly swift. In 1965, Muñoz Marín's successor, Governor Roberto Sánchez Vilella, named Hernández Colón Secretary of Justice of Puerto Rico. Three years later, he was elected to the island's Senate; and in the following year, 1969, Hernández Colón became President of the Senate, and then President of the Popular Democratic Party. He was 33 years old.

"All Puerto Rican youth have two aspirations," Hernández Colón once said. "One is to write a book, and the second is to be Governor of Puerto Rico." In 1972, with one book published, the 36 year old author ran for governor and won, becoming the youngest ever to hold that post. During his first term in office, Hernández Colón worked to raise awareness about Puerto Rico in the United States. "We are frankly tired of people who can't locate Puerto Rico on a map trying to tell us what we should do or what we should be," he said in 1976. Despite his sometimes harsh language, he exuded such charm and vitality that one American observer called him "a kind of Hispanic version of the JFK image." His appeal was undercut, however, by a severe economic crisis on the island. In the midst of rising unemployment and overcrowding, Hernández Colón was defeated in 1976 by Carlos Romero Barcelo.

Eight years later, Hernández Colón returned to La Fortalesa, the Governor's mansion in San Juan, for two more terms of office. During this time, he led an effort to convince the U.S. Congress to sponsor and guarantee a referendum on Puerto Rico's status. The failure of this campaign left Hernadez Colón bitter. "It is morally unacceptable," he said later. "It is unfair and harmful to Puerto Rico and to the United States, that Congress should leave status to 'business as usual.' That is, do nothing, wait for a Puerto Rican initiative, play with it for awhile, but take no action and wait for the next initiative to repeat the cycle." In 1992, Hernández Colón decided not to run for re-election, and he retired from public life the following January.

Since 1993, Rafael Hernández Colón has acted as an unofficial representative of the island in the United States and Europe. He has received Honorary Degrees from many prestigious American universities and is a trustee at Johns Hopkins. In addition, he was a professor at Granada University in Spain and was honored by that country's King Juan Carlos I with the Gran Cruz de Isabel La Católica.

Hernández Colón remains an ardent proponent of Commonwealth and an important voice within the PDP. He urged PDP followers to vote "None of the Above" in a crucial speech before the 1998 plebiscite. Last fall, he backed his son, Rafael Hernández Mayoral, in an unsuccessful bid to be the party's candidate for Resident Commissioner in 2000. In recent months, he supported the agreement on Vieques between Governor Rosselló and President Clinton.

While Hernández Colón espouses the Commonwealth option unabashedly, he continues to recognize the dangers of a political culture consumed by the issue of status. "At least 75% of the voters of Puerto Rico align themselves with status options, rather than with candidates, programs, or solutions to pressing problems," he said in 1998. "This distorts governance in a serious way."