August 11, 2022

In Visit to Puerto Rico, Obama Has Eye on Mainland

Not that there is anything wrong with that, many Puerto Ricans say. After five decades of cold shoulders from a succession of presidents, most Puerto Ricans are primed for a presidential visit, even if it is brief and unlikely to sway the longstanding debate over Puerto Rico’s identity as a United States territory.

Here the short-term benefits of the visit are already evident: Spanish colonial buildings, including the governor’s residence, boast new paint, a major highway is pothole free (although not without causing major traffic jams and epic grousing), statues gleam after rounds of polish and rusty old signs have been dutifully replaced.

On his whirlwind stop, the president is expected to meet with Puerto Rico’s governor, Luis Fortuño, a Republican who supports statehood, attend a business round table, deliver a speech in Old San Juan and attend a quick fund-raising event. He will also encounter a throng of “Obama Go Home” protesters — Puerto Ricans who want the island to break free of United States control.

Other presidents have visited since 1961 but only on business unrelated to Puerto Rico. President Gerald R. Ford visited the island in 1976 to address the Group of Seven economic summit, and President Lyndon B. Johnson stopped at a military base in Aguadilla in 1968.

“This is huge,” said Pedro R. Pierluisi, a Democrat and Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative in Congress. “No president has been here in 50 years. It tells the world that he cares about Puerto Rico.”

“Some say he is coming here with political motivations,” said Mr. Pierluisi, who sat outside a local Starbucks. “I say, ‘So what?’ Presidents should care about us and come down here and familiarize themselves with our issues. It should be so. We should be treated fairly and responsibly.”

Mr. Obama will arrive at a vulnerable time for this Caribbean island of 3.7 million people. Hit hard by a recession that began here in 2006, Puerto Rico has an unemployment rate that remains stubbornly high, 16.2 percent in April, compared with 9 percent on the mainland. The island has also been rocked by a sky-high murder rate, much of it related to the drug trade, which has led to widespread anxiety.

Being careful to keep expectations in check, Puerto Ricans say they are nevertheless hopeful that Mr. Obama will speak about the economy and crime and make mention of Puerto Rico’s longstanding identity crisis regarding its political status. Few Puerto Ricans have forgotten that when Mr. Obama came here twice to campaign during the primary against Hillary Rodham Clinton (he lost), he promised to return to the island as president and to resolve Puerto Rico’s status during his first term.

About half of Puerto Ricans here advocate statehood. The other half are satisfied, more or less, with Puerto Rico being a commonwealth, mostly because they are concerned about keeping its cultural identity intact. A minority would like independence.

As members of a commonwealth, Puerto Ricans hold American citizenship and can be drafted. But the territory has no voting representative in Congress. And while Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico can vote in a primary, they cannot do so in a general presidential election. That privilege is reserved for Puerto Ricans in the United States.

Mr. Obama has tried to hew to his pledge regarding the island’s political status. The President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status issued a report in March recommending that the island hold another plebiscite, actually two plebiscites, by the end of 2012. The first would ask whether Puerto Rico should be independent or part of the United States; the second one would narrow the options further.

Correction: June 11, 2011

An article on Friday about President Obama’s impending visit to Puerto Rico described incorrectly a visit there by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. Mr. Johnson stopped at a military base on the island; he did not inaugurate a military aircraft.

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