MIAMI (AFP) – President Barack Obama heads to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, with votes on his mind, despite the fact that the Caribbean island’s 3.8 million US citizens cannot cast ballots in general elections.
Obama’s trip, the first official visit by a sitting US president since John F. Kennedy’s fondly remembered foray in 1961, is seen by some as a bid for the votes of Puerto Ricans in crucial swing-state Florida next year.
The president visited the island in 2008, in one of the final acts of his tussle for the Democratic nomination with Hillary Clinton, and promised to return.
Even though he lost that primary to the rival he would pick as his secretary of state, Obama will be back on Tuesday to meet the island’s governor, discuss the political status of the territory and bond with its people.
He will also hold a Democratic Party fundraising event, wrapping up a swing that took in events in swing states Florida and North Carolina on Monday.
The president’s stay, which will last only five hours or so, is also likely to focus on the debilitating impact of the economic crisis, which has cut a swathe through Puerto Rico, as it has throughout the mainland United States.
White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Cecilia Munoz said Obama was making a “really an exciting, important visit” and dismissed suggestions that Air Force One’s quick trip to the island was a public relations stunt.
“There’s a lot of administration engagement directly with people on the island which has been continuous since the administration got here and will continue after the president’s visit,” she said.
Obama’s trip will mark the latest effort to reach out to Hispanic voters in the United States — an increasingly crucial dynamic which Democrats hope could prove decisive in swing states like Florida, Nevada and New Mexico.
As he has cranked up his 2012 reelection effort, Obama has frequently highlighted his commitment to enact comprehensive immigration reform — an issue beloved of many Hispanics with ties to 12 million US illegal immigrants.
Obama’s immigration push comes despite the fact that few observers believe comprehensive immigration reform has any hope of passing Congress, as Republicans oppose the idea, and control the House of Representatives.
Analysts said that Puerto Ricans, however, are less interested in such a reform bid as they are already US citizens.
But the fast-growing Hispanic community in Florida may look kindly on an attempt to help their homeland out of constitutional limbo.
Puerto Ricans are US citizens but cannot vote for the US president, have no voting representatives in the US Congress and pay no US federal taxes unless they live on the US mainland, except for taxes on social security and the Medicare health coverage program for the elderly.
Puerto Rico, however, receives several billion dollars a year in US federal funding for a wide range of programs and got a healthy does of stimulus spending from the Obama administration.
Obama will also highlight his administration’s pledge to address Puerto Rico’s status, which were contained in a report in March.
The administration called on the Caribbean island to hold two plebiscites, one on whether Puerto Rico should be independent or part of the United States.
If a clear result is obtained, a second referendum would then be held to choose the island’s future status between statehood, independence, a free association or a commonwealth.
The plan also includes ideas for promoting job creation, education, health care and clean energy on the island.
Puerto Rico was ceded by Spain to the United States after the Spanish-American war in 1898.