Obama's Puerto Rico trip breaks 50-year record

The Miami HeraldJune 13, 2011 

President Barack Obama will break a 50-year record Tuesday, when he becomes the first president since John F. Kennedy to come to San Juan and meet with Puerto Ricans.

But experts say the whirlwind visit to an island crippled by a soaring murder rate, mass exodus and 16.2 percent unemployment has less to do with the island’s overwhelming problems and much more to do with Florida’s I-4 corridor. The state’s Puerto Rican population shot up 75 percent in the past decade, and Obama is eager to curry favor with first-time voters who have largely settled in central Florida, supporters and critics agree.

“If there’s a political motivation to this visit, it’s legitimate: There are 3.8 million Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico, and another 4 million in the United States,” said Pedro Pierluisi, a Democrat who is the island’s non-voting representative in Congress. “If it’s political, I like it. I welcome it. I’m going to campaign for him in Florida and other states where there are Hispanic voters.”

Puerto Rico is the final leg of a trip that will take Obama to Durham, N.C., on Monday to attend a meeting of the Jobs and Competiveness Council before flying on to Miami for fundraisers and an overnight stay.

The recession that rocked the United States started even earlier in Puerto Rico, sending an estimated 365,000 middle-class professionals to Florida. While most descended on Orlando, Broward County also saw a 36 percent surge in the Puerto Rican population over the decade, according to the 2010 census.

Decidedly different than the flow of blue-collar islanders who came to the mainland in the 1940s and ’50s, these newcomers often have college degrees — and are more interested in Puerto Rico’s status than in traditional Republican-Democratic party politics, experts say.

“There’s a lot riding on this trip,’’ said former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré, who was born in Puerto Rico and follows both Florida and island politics closely. “It’s all about Florida. It has nothing to do with Puerto Rico or anything else.”

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