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Obama visits a sharply divided Puerto Rico
Amid planned protests, Barack Obama to visit "world's oldest colony" in first US presidential visit in 50 years.
Last Modified: 14 Jun 2011 11:54

Fulfilling a promise made in his 2008 presidential campaign to address the political status of Puerto Rico, US President Barack Obama will arrive on the Caribbean island on Tuesday, June 14.

This will be the first official visit made by a US executive leader to the non-incorporated territory in 50 years. John F Kennedy was the last to make such a visit - in 1961.

Clean streets, potholes filled, freshly painted public housing and local artisan food kiosks, decorated with Puerto Rican and US flags, have been arranged to welcome the president.

Meanwhile, for the past three weeks, civil society organisations have been planning their show of force, to focus the president's attention on the socio-economic crisis that keeps nearly 50 per cent of the country just below the poverty line. As of April, the unemployment rate remains at just over 16 per cent.

Poverty-related violence and narcotic trafficking have also taken a toll on Puerto Rico, where, police say [Spanish] on average, three people are shot dead each day in disputes between drug gangs, episodes of mental disorder or hate crimes against women and minorities.  

The small Caribbean territory, whose economy is dependent on the presence of multinational pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and Merck, has been seeing the flight of factories to countries that can provide a cheaper labour market, as corporate tax breaks have been modified since 2005.

Not only have factories moved off the island, but so have people.

US Census reports indicate that close to 100,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to the mainland during the past five years, in search of jobs and education opportunities.

There are now more Puerto Ricans in the US (4.6m) than on the island (3.7m).

Obama is expected to talk to Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuño about the 2011 White House Task Force Report concerning future political options for the nation, often referred to as "the world's oldest colony".

Quick visit

Obama's agenda-restricted five hour visit, however, may leave many islanders disappointed.

"Obama will be here for a quick photo session, I doubt anything will happen. The gesture is purely symbolic," Etienne Figueroa, a Puerto Rican Comparative Law graduate told Al Jazeera from the caribbean island.

"Most likely, nothing will be dealt with in-depth", says Figueroa.

Obama's priority has been given to three events. First, upon disembarking from Air Force One at the San Juan military air strip, Obama will briefly address the people of Puerto Rico at a restricted press conference.

From there, he will be brought to the La Fortaleza executive mansion to speak with the pro-annexation governor and other local political leaders.

He will address a fundraising luncheon at the Caribe Hilton hotel, where he is expected to pick up local donations for his forthcoming presidential campaign.

Right wing conservative - and Republican party member - Fortuño will reportedly not attend the lunch.

Securing support

The most recent time he visited Puerto Rico, Barack Obama was a senator, campaigning for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in the 2008 US primary elections.

Found dancing the national plena, he proclaimed: "I want to make sure that the people of Puerto Rico are able to decide on the status of the island and make sure that they are able to create the government that they want." 

Even though Obama lost the Puerto Rican primary to Hillary Clinton, he has kept his promise by returning to the island as president - with a plan to permanently resolve the island's political status by the end of 2012.

Puerto Rico was a colony of Spain from 1492 until 1898, and has been under US control since then, as a "non-incorporated territory".

Puerto Ricans are US citizens but have no vote in the US Congress; they can vote in the presidential primaries but not in the general presidential elections.

Many among the more-than four million Puerto Ricans living on the mainland US recognise that Obama's visit will help secure the mainland Latino vote in the 2012 presidential elections, especially in New York, Florida and Pennsylvania - states where their communities are concentrated. 

A (de)colonial vote

The Obama administration's 2011 Presidential Task Force Report on Puerto Rico suggests a two-phase referendum.

The first part will ask islanders if they want to maintain a formal political relationship with the United States.

Puerto Ricans will then be asked if they prefer full annexation, making the island the 51st state, or to convert the political relationship into a free association among two nations, whereby Puerto Rico will receive greater autonomy.

But in order to gain independence, 60 per cent of the voting population has to support the change at the ballot box.

Luis Amed Irrizary, a teacher at the country's well-known Free School of Music, told Al Jazeera: "With a politically divided Puerto Rico, this will never happen."

Obama hasn't pronounced his preference but, unlike his predecessors, has committed to supporting the local government in organising the referendum.

Although referenda have been held before, the proposed agenda, still being developed, will be the first offering the choice of permanent political association with the United States to Puerto Ricans themselves.

While politicians see the status of the island as the main theme for this historic occasion, other citizens have a different focus.

"I feel honoured by his visit and hope that the president can work to guarantee that my six children will receive a good education, to have better opportunities than I had," the owner of a beach kiosk in San Juan, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Al Jazeera, while serving cold tropical fruit frappes.

The conditions of Puerto Rico's multi-level educational centres are in distress, and tensions have been rising between the Department of Education and the Teachers' Federation of Puerto Rico, which has gone on strike three times in three years.

On top of that, the University of Puerto Rico made world headlines in mid-2010 and early 2011 as long-term student strikes opposing privatisation and tuition hikes saw police crackdowns, and last week, in response to documented police brutality during the student strikes, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called on Obama to address Puerto Rico's governor on the issue.

"I am sure the ACLU has the best of intentions," Rene Reyes, a graduate student studying economics at the University of Puerto Rico, told Al Jazeera. "But Obama is campaigning now - you can't win a presidential campaign on civil rights." Reyes was arrested twice during the strike and beaten during civil disobedience marches.

'Obama go home'

Early Monday morning, ten political activists were arrested while taking down signs welcoming the president, and police superintendent José Figueroa Sancha stated that "interruption of the president's caravan will not be tolerated".

The island's minority separatist movement is planning a peaceful but angry demonstration - under the slogan "Obama Go Home" - just a couple of hundred metres from the governor's mansion, in Old San Juan.

Obama will arrive only a month after the FBI arrested Puerto Rican nationalist Norberto González Claudio of the clandestine organisation Los Macheteros, for his alleged involvement in the 1983 Wells Fargo robbery aimed at funding the armed struggle for independence.

The freeing of political prisoners such as Oscar Lopez, serving a 55-year sentence for seditious conspiracy against the United States and considered to be a political prisoner by pro-independence forces, is also a priority theme for this sector.

But the level of change as a result of Obama's visit is questionable.

"The political status has to be the least important issue for this kind of visit … More importance should be given to education, the economy and the environment," said music teacher Irrizary.

"But Obama is not likely to do this. He will pick up his millions at Caribe Hilton and secure the Puerto Rican vote on the mainland. Only we can solve our own problems." 

Source:
Al Jazeera
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