Obama Making Rare Presidential Visit to Puerto Rico

Posted June 14th, 2011 at 12:05 pm (UTC-5)
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U.S. President Barack Obama has arrived in the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, greeting an enthusiastic crowd with the Spanish greeting, “buenas tardes,” or “good afternoon.”

Upon landing in San Juan Tuesday, President Obama told Puerto Ricans gathered at the welcome event that he was grateful for the “unbelievable reception” and expressed his commitment to families on the island.

Among other efforts, he highlighted progress on the political question of statehood, which has long been a hot issue in the territory. Mr. Obama 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 is the first sitting American president to make an official trip to the island in 50 years.

He is meeting with the island's governor, Luis Fortuno, at the governor's mansion. During the talks, the president is expected to draw attention to the $7 billion in stimulus money Puerto Rico received. Governor 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.

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

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

Citizens of Puerto Rico are not able to vote in a U.S. general election, but Puerto Ricans within the United States make up the second-largest group of Hispanics after Mexicans.

Mr. Obama is the fifth U.S. president to travel to the island and the first since former president John 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.