Not since John F. Kennedy visited Puerto Rico fifty years ago had a sitting U.S. president set foot on the island. On June 14 President Barack Obama flew to the island that might someday become the nation’s 51st state. Thousands of Puerto Ricans lined the streets to wave flags and catch a glimpse of the presidential motorcade. Some observers said the president’s brief Caribbean junket was indeed about “PR”—public relations, that is. Obama was not only bringing attention to the future status of Puerto Rico; he was also highlighting the importance of the broader “Latino vote” in the upcoming 2012 presidential race. Obama held Democratic Party fund-raisers both in Puerto Rico during his stopover and in Miami, Florida, before the trip.
The United States won Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans gained citizenship in 1917, and the island became a commonwealth in 1952. Puerto Ricans cannot vote in U.S. general elections, though they can vote in primaries. But more people of Puerto Rican descent—about 4.5 million—live in the rest of the United States than there are Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico itself. And these Puerto Ricans, who can vote, are concentrated especially in the key electoral states of Florida and New York.
Obama met with the island’s Republican governor, Luis Fortuno, to discuss the findings of President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, which were released earlier this year. They also talked about ways to address issues such as the island’s almost high unemployment—at 16 percent it is almost double the national average—and the problem of drug trafficking in the region.
A referendum is tentatively scheduled for December 2012 on the question of statehood for Puerto Rico, which has long been a hot-button issue. The last time Puerto Rican voters were presented with options on the island’s future, the majority basically opted for “none of the above.”
Image credit: © Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
- Obama to Visit Puerto Rico
Learn about Puerto Rico’s status and the first official presidential visit to the commonwealth in five decades. (Source: VOA News, June 13, 2011)
- Barack Obama in Puerto Rico: A Tale of Two Agendas
Explore the context of President Obama’s visit in terms of Puerto Rico’s unique political status. (Source: BBC News, June 13, 2011)
- White House Blog: President Obama Visits Puerto Rico
Read the official Obama administration blog concerning the PR trip; includes video, photo gallery, and excerpts of presidential remarks. (Source: whitehouse.gov, June 14, 2011)
- A Demographic Portrait of Puerto Ricans, 2009
Learn the basics of the population and demographics of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans, with data from Census 2010. (Source: Pew Hispanic Center; accessed August 1, 2011)