Rafael Hernández Colón (born 1936), Puerto Rican political leader and twice-elected governor, was one of the foremost defenders of commonwealth status for his country.
Rafael Hernández Colón was born on October 24, 1936, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, the son of Rafael Hernández Matos, a lawyer who served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, and Dorinda Colón Clavell. After receiving his elementary education at private schools in Ponce he attended high school at Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania, graduating in 1953. He then entered Johns Hopkins University, from which he graduated with honors in 1956 with a B.A. degree in political science.
Upon returning to Puerto Rico he studied law at the University of Puerto Rico; where he received his law degree in 1959, graduating magna cum laude and as valedictorian of his class. That same year he married Lila Mayoral, the daughter of a prominent Ponce industrialist. The couple had four children.
From 1959 to 1965 he practiced law, appearing before the Puerto Rican and U.S. federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. Between 1961 and 1965 he was lecturer on civil procedure at the Catholic University in Ponce. During this time he wrote various articles on legal matters, including several explaining and defending the commonwealth status of Puerto Rico, of which he was to become an authoritative proponent. He wrote a textbook on civil law which was published in 1968.
He showed an early interest in public affairs and in a career in politics. During the early 1960s he became one of the most prominent of the younger leaders of the Popular Democratic Party, and his talents were soon recognized by the party's founder and leader, Luis Muñoz Marín, and his associates. He was appointed to be a member of the Public Service Commission and served from 1960 to 1962. Muñoz's successor as governor, Roberto Sánchez Vilella, who was elected in 1964, named Hernández to his cabinet as attorney general (secretary of justice). Sánchez later broke with Muñoz Marín and the Popular Party; Hernández stayed in the party and resigned as attorney general in 1967.
He ran for the Senate as an at-large candidate in 1968, and although the opposition New Progressive Party won the governorship that year, the Popular Democrats won control of the Senate, and Hernández was elected its president. From this position he became principal spokesman and the highest ranking elected official of his party. In 1969 he became president of the Popular Democratic Party, and in 1972 he was its undisputed candidate for governor. In the elections of that year he won the governor's office from incumbent Luis Ferré. His administration coincided with the "petroleum crisis" of 1974 and a period of economic recession which adversely affected the Puerto Rican economy. Hernández ran for re-election in 1976 but was defeated by Carlos Romero Barceló of the New Progressive Party.
After temporarily relinquishing the formal presidency of the party he continued to work diligently in its re-organization and re-established himself as chairman and gubernatorial candidate. He was again defeated in 1980 by the incumbent Romero, but by a razor-thin plurality. In 1984 he succeeded, by a small but comfortable margin, in defeating his by now arch-rival Romero and on January 2, 1985, was sworn in as governor for the second time.
Throughout his political career Hernández was diligent in the defense of the commonwealth status and in attempts to modify and expand it in the direction of more autonomy for Puerto Rico. His role as the political inheritor of the legacy of Muñoz Marín seemed secure in the mid-1980s.
Governor Hernández Colón Popular Democratic Party ran the island colony from 1985 to 1993, having been reelected in 1989. His inaugural address that year put forth a plan to petition Congress and President Bush for a island-wide plebiscite to determine the future political status of Puerto Rico. Of the three options: continued commonwealth status, statehood or full independence; President Bush favored statehood, but supported the plebiscite proposal. Congress struck seventeen of Hernández Colón's twenty proposals from the petition, and found his plan for greater island autonomy within the existing commonwealth framework totally unacceptable on constitutional grounds, arguing that Congress must maintain ultimate authority over all U.S. territories. Nevertheless, Congress gave approval of the plebiscite, which was promised for 1998.
The rejection by Congress of Hernández Colón's plan for greater Puerto Rican autonomy within the colonial framework led to the defeat of the P.D.P. in 1993. Governor Pedro Rosello stated that he favors statehood and the continuation of tax credits and loans to bolster the chaotic island economy. The president of the statehood party, Baltosar Corrado del Rio, criticized the past governorship of Hernández Colón and employed scare tactics in an attempt to sway Congress and the island's electorate toward statehood.
There are some good volumes on Puerto Rican politics and Hernández Colón's contributions toward the resolution of the island's multiple problems. Examples are: Kal Wagenheim, Puerto Rico: a Profile (1970); Jorge Heine and J. M. Garcia-Passalacqua, The Puerto Rican Question (1983); Jorge Heine, editor, Time for Decision (1983); Raymond J. Carr, Puerto Rico: a Colonial Experiment, New York and London: New York University Press, (1984); Richard J. Bloomfield, editor, Puerto Rico and the Search for National Policy, Boulder, Colorado, and London: Westview Press, Inc., (1985); and Ronald Fernandez' The Disenchanted Island: Puerto Rico and the United States in the Twentieth Century, 2nd edition, Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, (1996.) All are clear, thorough and precise discussions of the island's political and economic problems and Hernández Colón's attempts to resolve these problems in a manner which is beneficial and amicable to both sides. □