SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — President Barack Obama made a historic four-hour visit to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, where he vowed to "stand by" Puerto Ricans should they make a "clear decision" about whether to remain part of the United States.
He sprinkled his speech with Spanish, went to a Cuban bakery and had a medianoche sandwich for lunch, and spent more than an hour at the historic governor's mansion. Then he tapped deep-pocketed supporters who paid $35,800 each to raise nearly $1 million for his campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
With his whirlwind trip, Obama became the first president since John F. Kennedy to make an "official" visit to Puerto Rico. Because Lyndon B. Johnson and Gerald Ford didn't meet with local officials during stops here, Obama's trip was considered significant and underscored the growing importance that Puerto Ricans have in the upcoming elections.
The last presidential visit was from Ford in 1976 — well before current trends showing 35,000 Puerto Ricans a year moving to Florida.
"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 Republican Gov. Luis Fortuño agreed: "Whoever shows up in person has 50 percent of the game on his side."
Accompanied by Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's nonvoting Democratic delegate to Congress, Obama was greeted at a National Guard base by several hundred dignitaries who waited hours in the sweltering sun to see him and a roaring crowd who responded enthusiastically to Obama's speech honoring Puerto Rican veterans and Dallas Mavericks star 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'’ (a rice and peas dish).
Some 200,000 Puerto Ricans have served in the U.S. armed forces in every conflict since World War I.
"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."
Obama also vowed to support any "clear" decision Puerto Ricans arrive at regarding whether to stay a commonwealth, seek statehood or become independent.
Fortuño said Puerto Ricans would hold a plebiscite on the island's status within 18 months. The issue is already controversial, and he and the opposing party argue over the referendum questions.
And while the pro-statehood governor positioned Obama's visit as a nod for the statehood movement, the president made a point to have a surprise guest while eating at the Kasalta bakery in Ocean Park: Alejandro Garcia Padilla, a senator who is the opposing party's top gubernatorial candidate.
Jose M. Rodriguez Baez, president of the Puerto Rico Federation of Labor, said, "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. We have to get out of colonization that has held our people back."
A White House Task Force on Puerto Rico, which accompanied Obama, will remain behind today to discuss the jobless situation.
Rep. Pichy Torres Zamora, a Republican legislator who attended the welcome event, liked Obama's message.
"He had a message of inclusion," Torres said. "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."
In a call with reporters afterward, Gov. Fortuño said he 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 here are astronomical, and the governor is fighting to build a natural gas pipeline to generate alternative energy.