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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
"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
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
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."