Puerto Rico has a tradition of erecting a statue of any American president who visits the US territory, but the sculptors’ chisels have long been idled: John F. Kennedy was the last president to make an official visit to the island, in 1961.
Those chisels have been busy chipping away at stone once again, however, as President Obama plans to visit Puerto Rico for a few hours Tuesday at the end of a trip that is also taking in North Carolina and Florida.
North Carolina, Florida, and … Puerto Rico? The first two are political battleground states Mr. Obama won in 2008 and would dearly love to hang on to in 2012. But the people of Puerto Rico, while US citizens, do not have the right to vote in US presidential elections. So why tack a stop there onto what otherwise looks pretty much like a campaign swing?
The answer lies in demographics, and with the push both major political parties will make to win the nation’s burgeoning Hispanic vote.
Puerto Ricans make up the second-largest Hispanic population in the US after Mexican-Americans. More Puerto Ricans – almost 5 million – now live on the mainland than on the Caribbean island, where the population is falling.
And while traditional mainland Puerto Rican communities are primarily in New York and other Northeast states, more-recent immigrants have tended to favor Florida. Puerto Ricans now make up about 5 percent of voters in a state where Obama is expected to need every vote he can get.
“What explains the president’s visit to Puerto Rico is the fact that there are close to 1 million Puerto Ricans in Florida,” says Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy. “Florida is a swing state, and those are voters he wants to reach and votes he’d like to count on.”
But administration officials insist the visit has a broader purpose, and really reflects the emphasis Obama has given Puerto Rico since he took office.
“This is historic, commemorating President Kennedy’s visit 50 years ago,” says Cecilia Muñoz, White House director of intergovernmental affairs. “But the visit itself is part of a larger effort,” she adds, noting that it is the administration’s work “over all” that has the greatest potential for Puerto Rico.
In particular, Obama expanded a presidential task force on Puerto Rico’s political status created by President Clinton in 2000 to take up the island’s economic issues. That task force, co-chaired by Ms. Muñoz and Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli, issued a report in March that highlights the island’s potential for green energy development.
Obama also directed federal agencies to ramp up efforts to include Puerto Rico in their activities, Muñoz says. As one example, the Commerce Department on Wednesday will hold a business and trade conference on opportunities on the island, she says.
But it is the “status issue” that has dominated Puerto Rico’s relations with the mainland for decades. Obama is not expected to dwell on the topic, if he mentions it at all publicly, although aides say it is likely to come up in his meeting with Gov. Luis Fortuño, a Republican who backs statehood.
The percentage of island residents favoring statehood over other permanent status options – including independence or maintaining the actual commonwealth arrangement – inched up in plebiscites in past years, with some recent polls showing statehood now favored by a majority. Governor Fortuño says he plans to hold a vote before leaving office at the end of 2012.
And just in case that hasn’t happened by that date, the Justice Department’s Mr. Perrelli notes that the March task force report calls on the president and Congress to step in and come up with legislation paving the way for a vote on Puerto Rico’s status.
But even that initiative might, if undertaken, come across to some as suspiciously political. The University of Miami’s Dr. Purcell says such a move from Washington could be part of a Democratic Party “game plan” to bring in another reliably Democratic state.