Obama pledges support for Puerto Rico
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - June 14, 2011 -- President Barack Obama told Puerto Ricans Tuesday that he's committed to the success and self-determination of the U.S. island territory, welcome words that could help him with Puerto Rican voters in all states as the 2012 election approaches.
Obama spoke to Puerto Ricans excited to host a U.S. president for the first time since John F. Kennedy stopped here in 1961, an event that's still remembered fondly. Residents of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens but cannot vote in presidential general elections - only in primaries - one of many factors that give rise to a sense of second-class citizenship among some here.
In remarks to a friendly crowd at a welcoming ceremony at the airport in San Juan, Obama quickly turned to the decades-old debate about the island's status, which has some pushing for statehood or even independence. The president reaffirmed his support for a referendum in which island voters would resolve the matter for themselves, eliciting cheers when he said: "When the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you."
The words could resonate not just here but with the millions of Puerto Rican voters on the mainland, including hundreds of thousands in politically important Florida, where Obama stayed overnight Monday before flying here Tuesday morning.
About 4.6 million Puerto Ricans live on the mainland, boosting a fast-growing Hispanic population that is becoming increasingly important in American politics.
Speaking at the arrival ceremony, Obama noted that he was making good on a campaign promise to visit Puerto Rico as president. He talked about his commitment to including Puerto Rico in his administration's initiatives, such as the health care bill, and praised Puerto Ricans' cultural achievements and contributions to American society and the military. The president singled out Dallas Mavericks player J.J. Barea, a celebrity here as a Puerto Rican athlete on a championship team.
"Every day, Boricuas help write the American story," the president said, using a term for Puerto Ricans. His feel-good message included references to Puerto Rican foods and sprinkled in a little Spanish.
The president spoke in front of American and Puerto Rican flags lined side by side. Then his motorcade took him through sunny streets lined with palm trees as he headed from the airport to a visit with the island's Republican governor, Luis Fortuno.
The president sped past crowds of thousands of islanders waving American flags lined up along the highway. Along the way, a huge banner filled eight stories of a building, featuring the images of Kennedy and Obama. "We are proud to be part of history," it said.
At the governor's mansion, La Fortaleza, Fortuno told Obama: "On behalf of the people of Puerto Rico we want to welcome you. I guess you saw a taste of it driving over here. We are proud to welcome you and we thank you for the visit."
"I cannot be more honored to be here," said the president, joking that he just wished he could jump in the ocean.
The governor's compound features stunning views of the Caribbean.
As the president's motorcade approached, protesters with megaphones could be heard in the distance calling for "Independencia para Puerto Rico" - independence for Puerto Rico.
About 20 demonstrators kept an all-night vigil at a colonial fort in San Juan to protest Obama's visit. They want the release of three Puerto Rican nationalists imprisoned in the U.S.
By venturing into Puerto Rico, Obama is courting a population that is concentrated in the New York region but that also has established a foothold in Florida, where about 841,000 Puerto Ricans live, according to the 2010 census.
While administration officials said the visit gives Obama a chance to interact with Puerto Ricans, he was spending only about five hours on the island. He was to be in a closed Democratic National Committee fundraiser for part of that time, after sitting for interviews with Puerto Rican journalists.
The president did make time to mix with residents, making an unannounced stop at a local lunch spot a couple of blocks from the beach. As customers snapped pictures with their cellphones, the president, in shirtsleeves, ordered the house specialty: a Medianoche sandwich - ham, pork and swiss with pickles and mustard on a sweet bread.
The recession hit Puerto Rico harder than the mainland, with unemployment rising to nearly 17 percent. It had dropped to 16.2 percent in April.
Fortuno said in an interview with The Associated Press that the economy is the biggest issue among islanders. And because they are U.S. citizens, immigration is not as potent a political subject as it is with other Hispanic groups.
Still, he said, "Many issues cut across the different subgroups within the Hispanic community."
The governor said he welcomed the attention his island is getting and credited a growing regard among politicians for the Hispanic vote.
"There is a heightened level of awareness about the importance of the Latino vote that hadn't existed for a while," he said.
Associated Press writer Ben Fox contributed to this article.
president barack obama, puerto rico, national/world
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