President Barack Obama arrives Tuesday in the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico, making the first official visit to the island by a sitting U.S. president since John F. Kennedy traveled there in 1961. Although brief, the visit to the territory has major significance for the people of Puerto Rico, and political overtones for the 2012 presidential race.
When he was running for president in 2008, Mr. Obama visited Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth whose citizens have a non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress but are still unable to vote in a U.S. general election.
Mr. Obama vowed to return if elected president. Tuesday's stop will last only five hours, and while it fulfills his pledge, it is just as much about 2012 electoral politics as he continues to reach out to an increasingly powerful Hispanic voting bloc.
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. Statehood has long been a hot political issue. A referendum on the question is scheduled to take place before the end of next year.
Mr. Obama will arrive from Miami after speaking at Democratic party fundraising events there. He will make brief airport remarks in San Juan, then go to the historic Governor's mansion for talks with Governor Luis Fortuno.
In an interview with VOA, Governor Fortuno called it puzzling that a U.S. president has not paid an official visit in 50 years, and said Mr. Obama's visit reflects a new reality in American politics: the influence of Hispanic voters. "We are so close to the mainland, that it is flabbergasting at times to understand why. Why this is happening now? It is clear to everyone that the Hispanic community is gaining ground, politically and otherwise, and I am glad that it is happening under my watch here," he said.
A Republican with strong views on statehood, Governor Fortuno says the visit will allow Mr. Obama 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 that affects the island.
Puerto Rico received about $7 billion from the Obama administration's economic stimulus. The island has a more than 16 percent unemployment rate, far above the national level.
Earlier this year, Mr. Obama and the U.S. Congress received a report from the President's Task Force on Puerto Rico's Status. The focus of that task force was expanded at the president's order to include economic issues, such as jobs, education, health care and clean energy.
Cecilia Munoz, who co-chaired the panel, said "There is a reason that the president asked the task force specifically to expand its mandate to look at economic conditions. That is tantamount to asking every Cabinet level agency to focus attention on the situation of Puerto Rico, the situation of its people and to engage in meaningful work to move the ball forward."
Governor Fortuno says the economic stimulus has been felt more in some areas than others, with net gains in job creation and other progress, but says "it has taken a lot of time to get there."
In his interview with VOA, the governor talked about the political status issue and the scheduled referendum next year. "The ball is on our side of the court, and we should conduct before the end of December 2012 a local plebiscite and assuming we have a clear mandate one way or another we will go back to Washington and will have an opportunity to request both Congress and the White House to act upon that mandate," he said.
Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli, who also co-chaired the presidential task force, says the goal is to allow the people of Puerto Rico to control the decision on their future. "The focus of all the recommendations is consistent with the president's commitment to give the people of Puerto Rico the opportunity to express their will and have it acted upon by the president and Congress quickly," he said.
Before he ends his brief visit to Puerto Rico, President Obama will attend a Democratic party event. That reflects the importance he and his advisers place on maintaining support there, and among Puerto Ricans living on the mainland, and potential contributions to his 2012 campaign.
For the president and Republican presidential candidates, appealing to Hispanic voters has become even more important as the percentage of the U.S. population that is Latino has increased, now more than 16 percent, and Hispanics wield increasing power to determine the winners of local, state and national elections.