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Obama pays first presidential visit to Puerto Rico since Kennedy

The brief trip — with just time for a fundraiser, a meeting with the governor and some interviews — is seen as an effort to woo Latino voters.

June 15, 2011|By Peter Nicholas, Washington Bureau
  • President Obama stands with Gov. Luis Fortuno and his wife Luce Vela de Fortuno, left, and Rep. Pedor Pierluisi (D-Puerto Rico), right as he tours La Fortaleza in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
President Obama stands with Gov. Luis Fortuno and his wife Luce Vela de Fortuno,… (Carolyn Kaster / Associated…)

Reporting from San Juan, Puerto Rico —  

Courting the Latino vote, President Obama made a quick stop in Puerto Rico to pick up some campaign cash and lavish attention on a territory that hasn't had an official visit from a sitting U.S. president since John F. Kennedy was in the White House.

Obama got a raucous welcome Tuesday after Air Force One touched down in Puerto Rico, with thousands of flag-waving residents packing the streets for a glimpse of his motorcade as he rode to the governor's mansion. Signs posted on street lamps showed side-by-side photos of Obama and JFK.

"We are proud to be part of history," the signs read.

With no pressing business calling Obama to Puerto Rico, the trip seemed part of a larger White House effort to mobilize Latino voters. Puerto Rico residents are allowed to vote in presidential primaries, but not in the general election.

Yet the symbolism of Obama's visit isn't likely to go unnoticed on the mainland. An estimated 4.6 million people of Puerto Rican descent live in the 50 states and the District of Columbia and are concentrated in a few key states, including one of the biggest prizes of the 2012 election:Florida.

Orlando has nearly a quarter-million residents of Puerto Rican origin, second only to New York City, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. The Tampa-St. Petersburg area, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami also rank in the top 10 metropolitan areas for Puerto Rican population.

Obama didn't linger. He was on the ground for only four hours, enough time for a quick talk with the island's governor, Luis G. Fortuno, a few interviews with local news media and a fundraising event.

In their private meeting, Fortuno spoke to Obama about drug trafficking, energy independence and unemployment. Puerto Rico's economy has been lagging, with unemployment at 16%, compared with 9.1% in the States.

The governor, a Republican, later told reporters he believed Obama helped himself politically the moment he landed.

"With Puerto Rican Americans, and with the Spanish-speaking community in general, showing up in this community is 50% of the game," Fortuno said.

Touring the 16th century governor's mansion, Obama told reporters in the Mirror Room that he would have liked to take a swim in the ocean.

He wore a dark suit and tie on a day when temperatures pushed 90 and humidity was 85%. Entering an outdoor courtyard in the company of the island's first couple, he stood with crossed arms under a punishing sun and smiled as a children's orchestra performed.

Obama thanked the musicians and told them about his daughters. "Malia and Sasha play the piano," he said.

When the presidential motorcade stopped for lunch at a modest restaurant called Kasalta, stunned customers snapped pictures as he stood at the counter and ordered.

At least one customer believed the trip was too short. Lydia Gonzalez, 60, told a reporter, "It is important for him to get some money, but he is not talking with the people."

Obama has had a rocky time with Latino activists since winning two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2008. He has been dogged by his unfulfilled promise of a comprehensive fix for the nation's ailing immigration system. Republicans and conservative Democrats alike have balked at proposals to provide a path to legal status for the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally.

The White House has had some success in persuading Latinos that Republicans are to blame for the lack of progress. In a new poll released by ImpreMedia, a New York-based publisher, 50% of Latino registered voters polled said they believed Republicans were blocking an immigration overhaul.

Another point of vulnerability for Obama is his aggressive deportation efforts. In its first full year in office, the administration set a record for deportations by the U.S., ousting nearly 400,000 illegal immigrants.

If he hasn't delivered an immigration solution yet, Obama has at least fulfilled one promise. While running for office he pledged to visit Puerto Rico as president should he win. He won, and he visited.

Christi Parsons and Brian Bennett in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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