Obama's Puerto Rico visit spurs anger, discontent

Legislators in the territory's pro-statehood ruling party express resentment after president's short trip

Published June 18, 2011 7:18PM (EDT)

President Barack Obama speaks in an airport hanger at Muniz Air National Guard Base, Tuesday, June 14, 2011, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (AP)
President Barack Obama speaks in an airport hanger at Muniz Air National Guard Base, Tuesday, June 14, 2011, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (AP)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- President Barack Obama may have been in Puerto Rico for only four hours, but his brief fundraising visit has unleashed a growing political furor in this U.S. Caribbean territory.

Legislators of Puerto Rico's pro-statehood ruling party say they are resentful that he swooped in to raise about $1 million and did not offer any help or solutions as the island battles a soaring crime rate and higher unemployment compared with any U.S. state.

One legislator threatened to derail one objective of the president's June 14 visit: to woo Hispanic voters on the mainland in his quest for re-election.

Local Sen. Melinda Romero, a delegate of the island's chapter of the Democratic Party, said she has demanded an apology from Obama and will travel to the U.S. next week to meet with Puerto Rican leaders in key states including Florida and New York.

"The President did not bring anything to the table," she said in a statement issued late Friday. "His visit only served to take away dollars, just like they take away our young people to war."

She also demanded that he return the money raised.

White House spokesman Luis Miranda referred to Obama's recent interview with Univision, a Spanish-language broadcast and cable network, in which Obama states that an economic summit held after his visit aimed to find ways to reduce unemployment and increase manufacturing and tourism.

"We're going to be working with the government here in Puerto Rico, businesses, activists to find a comprehensive plan that can start moving the island forward," Obama said.

Residents of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, but they cannot vote in presidential general elections. However, the 4.6 million Puerto Ricans who live on the mainland can vote.

Adding to the resentment of the ruling New Progressive Party, led by Republican Gov. Luis Fortuno, is the unscheduled lunch that Obama had with opposition gubernatorial candidate Alejandro Garcia, and how the White House prominently posted a picture of the meeting on its website.

Hector Ferrer, vice president of the Popular Democratic Party, which favors the current commonwealth status, blasted the Obama critics.

"How do they expect that the President in a one-day visit provide them with solutions and solve the disaster that they have created in two years?" he said. Ferrer's party is not associated with the U.S. Democratic Party.

The island of 4 million people faces a 16 percent unemployment rate and last year recorded its second-worst year for homicides, with more than 955 killings reported.

The anger over Obama's visit comes as Puerto Rico seeks to define its status conclusively, with Obama calling for a vote on the issue by next year.

Puerto Ricans voted to maintain commonwealth status and rejected statehood in nonbinding referendums in 1967, 1993 and 1998. A small percentage favored independence.

The White House touted Obama's official visit, the first since that of President John F. Kennedy, as a follow-up to a recent federal report about the island's status that included recommendations about how to boost the economy.

Local political analyst Eudaldo Baez-Galib said he doubted the anger over Obama's trip would result in any losses of votes on the mainland.

"The president took away nearly $1 million ... and he made it known to Puerto Ricans in the U.S. that he was here just like Kennedy," Baez-Galib said. "He achieved his two objectives."

By Danica Coto

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