Puerto Rico mourns the death of former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón at 82

Hernández Colón, who supported Puerto Rico's current commonwealth status, presided over a prosperous period in the island.
Rafael Hernandez Colon
Rafael Hernandez Colon waves to the crowd during a celebration at the Capitol in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on July 25, 2002.Lynne Sladky / AP file

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By Sandra Lilley and Associated Press

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Former Puerto Rico Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón died Thursday at his home in Old San Juan, five months after being diagnosed with leukemia.

He was 82.

Hernández Colón was governor from 1973 to 1977 and again from 1985 to 1993.

An attorney and one of the most influential leaders of the Popular Democratic Party, he advocated for the island's current status as a commonwealth of the United States. He was president of the PPD for 23 years.

Prior to serving as governor, he was the island's justice secretary and president of the island's Senate.

Hernández Colón served at a time when Puerto Rico's economy was stronger as U.S. companies, especially manufacturers, were a growing presence, drawn to the island through tax incentives that have since been phased out by the federal government.

"He was a figure of significant impact in the political history of the island,” historian Néstor Duprey told the island's leading newspaper, "El Nuevo Día."

Puerto Rican officials declared 30 days of mourning, as politicians in the island, including those from opposing parties, praised his leadership and intellect.

Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez, D-N.Y., worked with Hernández Colón during his tenure.

“This morning, Puerto Rico lost one of the giants of its modern political history. Rafael Hernández Colón was a statesman, a brilliant political mind and a tireless fighter for economic and social justice," Velázquez said.

"Early on, Rafael recognized that Puerto Ricans everywhere, on the island or the mainland, are one family," she said, adding that she worked with him on one of the most comprehensive voter registration programs in the U.S.

News of his passing was trending on Twitter as many, including Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y., took to social media to express their condolences.

Rubén Berríos, who ran against Hernández Colón as a candidate for the Puerto Rican Independent Party, said "Rafael Hernández Colón was a man of deep intelligence and faith, and a fundamental figure in Puerto Rico for the last half century."

A funeral Mass is planned for Saturday at the cathedral in the southern city of Ponce.