San Juan – In an ideological shift for the island, a new governor took office in Puerto Rico Wednesday.
Alejandro García Padilla was sworn in under a deep blue sky, on a stage overlooking the Atlantic Ocean outside the capitol building in San Juan. He narrowly defeated pro-statehood Gov. Luis Fortuño in November.
García Padilla, now the tenth governor of Puerto Rico, is a 41-year-old lawyer and former senator in the legislature of the U.S. island territory. He won thanks in part to support from labor unions angered when Fortuño laid off more than 20,000 government workers to help close a budget deficit.
García said one of his priorities is to create jobs on an island where unemployment hovers above 13 percent, higher than in any U.S. state.
"The problems are very, very serious. We cannot minimize them or hide them," he said.
García said Puerto Rico is facing a public debt higher than previously thought, as well as alarming crime statistics and a downgrading of the island's credit. He said the island needs to strengthen its industrial and commercial sectors, boost agricultural production and graduation rates and improve its education and justice system. The island of 4 million people reported a record 1,117 homicides in 2011, with just a small drop in 2012.
"Getting there will take time. Things are not going to solve themselves overnight," García said.
Many union members and laid-off workers cheered García at the inauguration, including 41-year-old Victor Omar Cotto, who was a supervisor at the Department of Transportation for 13 years until April 2010.
"I came to see the departure of the same person who laid me off," he said, adding that he was out of work for nine months, struggling to support his stay-at-home wife and two children.
The majority of García's supporters wore the red color of his Popular Democratic Party, which supports the island's current commonwealth status. Many clutched umbrellas to protect themselves from a fierce sun and danced to the music of an orchestra clad in all white ahead of the speech.
Hundreds of invited guests were seated around the stage, including Danilo Medina, the president of the Dominican Republic, and ministers from countries including Haiti, Costa Rica and Panama.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.