San Juan – President Barack Obama on Tuesday sought to shore up his electoral support among Puerto Ricans living in New York and Florida by paying a four-hour visit to the U.S. commonwealth during which he said that the question of the island's political status is a priority matter.
Coming 50 years after the last official trip to Puerto Rico by a sitting president, made by John F. Kennedy in 1961, Obama's visit served to fulfill the promise he made during his 2008 presidential campaign to travel to the island after winning the election.
Obama said in a brief speech he made upon his arrival that the question of the island's status is a priority, adding that that was the reason why he had pushed for the creation of the White House Task Force on Puerto Rico's Status.
That group last March sent to Congress and the president a voluminous report which, in its political section, supports a process of self-determination for the island, via referendums, that would be under way before the end of 2012.
"When the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision (on the status issue), my administration will stand by you," Obama emphasized in his speech at San Juan's Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport.
The issue of the island's political status as the main reason for his visit was pushed to the side in recent days as the press insisted that the president's real motive for briefly visiting Puerto Rico was to curry favor with Puerto Rican voters in the United States.
While all Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, only those living in the 50 states are eligible to vote in presidential elections.
Obama tried with his Tuesday visit to garner support among the 4 million Puerto Ricans living in the United States, of whom 857,000 reside in Florida, a key state in the 2012 electoral contest.
Among the delegation that received Obama at the foot of the stairway he descended from Air Force One after landing was singer and actor Marc Anthony, whom the president kissed affectionately on the cheek.
The president also addressed the issue of the economy and the lack of jobs, the two issues that currently are of the most concern to Puerto Ricans, who are dealing with local unemployment of more than 16 percent.
Obama said that he is aware of those problems and wants to ensure "that every family on the island can find work and make a living and provide for their children."
With regard to the practical results of the visit, Gov. Luis Fortuño's office released a statement in which it said that the governor obtained Obama's commitment to accelerate efforts related to the island's status.
Puerto Rico came under Washington's sway in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War. Since 1952, the island has been a self-governing, unincorporated territory of the United States with broad internal autonomy, but without the right to conduct its own foreign policy.
On three occasions - 1967, 1993 and 1998 - Puerto Ricans have rejected the option of trying to become the 51st U.S. state.
The White House task force endorsed the idea of a two-stage referendum on political status. In the first phase, residents of Puerto Rico would be asked to choose between independence and remaining part of the United States.
If Puerto Rico's residents opted to maintain the link with the United States, the second round of voting would be on the nature of that association: whether to remain a commonwealth or to seek full statehood.
Fortuño's PNP party favors statehood, but the main opposition PPD supports a continuation of commonwealth status, albeit with modifications.