SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The last time a sitting U.S. president went to Puerto Rico, he didn't leave the hotel where the G-7 summit took place. But that was 1976, before 35,000 Puerto Ricans a year were moving to Florida.
This time, unlike Gerald Ford — who basically ignored Puerto Rico as he met with other world leaders there — President Barack Obama made an "official" visit Tuesday to the island, sprinkled his speech with words en espanol, went to a Spanish bakery for a medianoche sandwich and spent more than an hour at the historic governor's mansion.
And while the pro-statehood Republican governor positioned the celebrity visit as a nod for the island's statehood movement, Obama made a point of having a surprise guest while he ate at the Kasalta bakery in Ocean Park: Alejandro Garcia Padilla, a senator who's the opposing party's top gubernatorial candidate.
"The most important thing about President Obama's visit is that it changes the paradigm. After five decades, he gave respect and attention," said San Juan lawyer Andres Lopez, a Democratic National Committee member who organized the trip. "There is a lot of pride in Puerto Rico today, and justifiably so. The new census numbers show the Puerto Ricans in Orlando are the battleground constituency in the battleground state, and this White House took notice."
Even Gov. Luis Fortuno agreed: "Whoever shows up in person has 50 percent of the game on his side."
With his four-hour visit to the island, Obama became the first president since John F. Kennedy to make "an official" visit to Puerto Rico. Obama's trip, which was considered historic, underscored the growing importance that Puerto Ricans will have in the 2012 U.S. elections.
The whirlwind fundraising trip raised nearly $1 million for U.S. Democrats, said Kenneth McClintock, the island's secretary of state.
Obama was greeted at a National Guard base by several hundred dignitaries who'd waited hours in the sweltering sun to see him. He was met at the tarmac by Fortuno, singer Marc Anthony, Carolina Mayor Jose Aponte, San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini and Antonio Vicens, who heads the Puerto Rican National Guard. Delegate Pedro Pierluisi, D-P.R., flew down on Air Force One with Obama.
A roaring crowd responded enthusiastically to Obama's pep speech honoring Puerto Rican veterans and the Dallas Mavericks' J.J. Barea.
"Puerto Ricans ... have put themselves in harm's way for a simple reason: They want to protect the country that they love," Obama said. "Their willingness to serve, their willingness to sacrifice, is as American as apple pie — or as arroz con gandules."
Some 200,000 Puerto Ricans have served in the U.S. armed forces in every conflict since World War I. The president singled out two, a 100-year-old World War I veteran and Chief Master Sgt. Ramon Colon-Lopez, who lost both legs and an arm in Afghanistan.
"Every day, Boricuas help write the American story," Obama said, using a native title for the Puerto Rican people.
His brief remarks centered on his plans to include the island in federal programs such as health care restructuring. "We are going to put people back to work, here in Puerto Rico and all across America,'' the president said.
"When I ran for president, I promised to include Puerto Rico not just on my itinerary but also in my vision of where our country needs to go," he said. "... In that same spirit, we've been trying to make sure that every family on the island can find work and make a living and provide for their children. That's why our economic plan and our health care reform included help for Puerto Rico."
In a call with reporters afterward, the governor said he'd hit three topics with the president: job creation, clean energy and security.
Puerto Rico struggles with all three. Unemployment has passed 16 percent, sending many jobless professionals to the United States for work. Electric bills are astronomical, and the governor is fighting to build a natural gas pipeline to generate alternative energy. His battle with environmentalists comes as the crime rate rises.
"He understands the importance of creating jobs," Fortuno said of Obama. "He sees the need for diversified energy souces. He understands how important it is to address safety issues."
Fortuno said Obama promised to create a permanent Department of Justice working group on security in the region.
Reaction to the president's trip was largely positive, although a group of independence activists protested his presence and urged him to free Oscar Lopez Rivera, the last imprisoned Puerto Rican independence activist who participated in a wave of violent attacks three decades ago.
"I thought his speech was a bit insufficient: He didn't seem to recognize that thousands and thousands of Puerto Ricans have lost their jobs here," said Jose M. Rodriguez Baez, the president of the Puerto Rico Federation of Labor. "We have to get out of colonization that has held our people back."
Obama also vowed to to support any "clear" decision Puerto Ricans come to regarding the island's political status. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory. Some on the island would prefer it to be a full-fledged state; others would prefer independence. The president's task force on Puerto Rico was to remain on the island Wednesday to tackle economic issues.
Fortuno said Puerto Ricans would hold a plebiscite on its status within 18 months. The issue is already controversial, and he and the opposing party argue over the referendum questions.
"He had a message of inclusion," said Rep. Pichy Torres Zamora, a Republican who attended the welcome event. "Puerto Rico is part of the United States and has struggled by its side to defend democracy. We also have a lot of economic problems, and for not being a state, for having an ambiguous status, we don't have equality in federal funding."
(Robles reports for The Miami Herald)
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