Obama Makes Rare Presidential Visit to Puerto Rico

Posted June 14th, 2011 at 1:45 pm (UTC-5)
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President Barack Obama is in the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico, where he has expressed his commitment to helping residents of the Caribbean island.

After landing in San Juan Tuesday, President Obama told an enthusiastic crowd that the aspirations and struggles of Puerto Ricans mirror those across the United States. He highlighted efforts to address the challenges the island is facing, including with education, health care and the economy.

Puerto Rico received $7 billion in economic stimulus money, but is struggling with a 16 percent unemployment rate, far above the national level. The island's governor, Luis Fortuno, says the stimulus has led to net gains in employment, although it has taken a long time for the spending to have an effect.

Mr. Obama also discussed progress on the question of Puerto Rico's political status, which has long been a hot issue in the territory. The president supports a referendum to be held before the end of next year that would allow the island's residents to choose among statehood, independence or the current semi-autonomous Commonwealth status. He said when the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, his administration will stand by them.

Mr. Obama's brief trip to Puerto Rico is the first official presidential visit to the island in 50 years.

It also has significance for Mr. Obama's 2012 campaign as he continues to reach out to an increasingly powerful Hispanic voting bloc.

He is meeting with Governor Fortuno at the governor's mansion, and will later attend a Democratic National Committee event in the territory.

Tuesday's stop will last only five hours, but it fulfills a promise Mr. Obama made when he was running for office in 2008. Visiting Puerto Rico during the campaign, he vowed to return if elected president.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but the island does not vote in U.S. general elections. Puerto Ricans, however, are still an important part of the voting public, as those living within the 50 states make up the second-largest group of Hispanics in the U.S. after Mexicans.

Mr. Obama is the fifth U.S. president to travel to the island and the first since then-president John F. Kennedy went there in 1961.

Governor Fortuno says Mr. Obama's visit will allow the president to understand the issues that concern Puerto Ricans, particularly the need for job creation, and the impact of a worsening drug-trafficking problem in the Caribbean.

Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States by Spain in 1898 after the Spanish-American war. The island elects its own governor and sends delegates to major U.S. party nominating conventions. It also has a non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress.