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Phillip L. Velez
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July 2011 - President Obama’s Visit to Puerto Rico: Why did he really go?

On June 14, 2011, President Barack Obama made the first official trip by a U.S. President to the Caribbean territory of Puerto Rico in fifty years. Since the trip’s announcement in May, many political pundits and media outlets had speculated on the reason for the visit. However, more than a month after the historic yet brief island hop there may be several answers to the question, “Why did he really go?”

President Obama may have visited the island just to keep a promise to the residents of Puerto Rico. Back in the 2008 Presidential Primaries, which Hilary Clinton won, Obama visited the island for support and publicly stated that if he won the presidency he would come back and visit. His four-hour return to the island may have just been a simple act to show Boricuas he is a man of his word.

Another reason for the short visit could have been to draw attention to Puerto Rico’s unresolved political status. In March of this year Obama received a White House report written by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status. The report outlined recommendations on how people of Puerto Rico can determine their political future, including conducting another island vote on the issue by the end of 2012 or soon thereafter.

President Obama made reference to the matter on his June 14 visit to San Juan by saying, “When the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you.”

Puerto Rico' is defined as a "non-self governing territory" which means that the U.S. Congress and U.S. president retain ultimate governance of the island. The latest report from the task force recommended that Puerto Rico decide its own future.

Under the present arrangement, Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship, can serve in the military, have one non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives and cannot vote in presidential elections -- and they don't have to pay federal taxes on income earned on the island. With statehood, they would lose the autonomy and tax break but gain full U.S. citizen rights.

The U.S. government, and President Obama specifically, have also been criticized for its major lack of movement around immigration reform. With the attention surrounding new immigration procedures in Arizona last year and other states taking on similar unjust stances, Americans (especially Latino Americans) have been loudly calling for change.

Nothing has been done on a national level to address the issue of immigration reform. The closest attempt was the DREAM Act, which would have allowed undocumented immigrants who attended U.S. schools and the military a path to citizenship. However, the DREAM Act went down in flames and Latinos were left with no resolution on immigration reform.

Obama’s visit to Puerto Rico could have been his way of saving face with some sector of the Latino community, since there was no real action on immigration reform.

A fourth reason for President Obama’s visit may have been to bring attention to the dire economic situation on the island.

“The economic crisis on the island is very real and worse than it is in the United States,” Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, told the National Journal.

When Obama was elected in November 2008, unemployment on the island was at 12.7 percent. It was 13.1 percent when he was inaugurated. A year later, in January 2010, it was up to 15.9 percent, and it was at the same figure in January 2011. But in just three months, it jumped to the current rate of 16.4 percent recorded in April.

“The aspirations and the struggles on this island mirror those across America,” Mr. Obama said just after setting foot on Puerto Rico in June.

A fifth and most likely reason for President Obama’s visit to Puerto Rico is an early effort to win the Latino vote in 2012. The Hispanic vote increased by 30 percent between the 2004 presidential race and the 2008 race.

"In 2012, the Latino voter is poised to have a bigger impact than ever on the political landscape of America," Matt Barreto told USA Today. Barreto is a University of Washington political science professor and founder of Latino Decisions, a political blog that tracks the role of the Latino vote.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 3.6 million Puerto Ricans live in Puerto Rico, however none are eligible to vote for the presidency of the United States. However, the 4.6 million Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland can, and some say these are really the people Obama hoped to reach with his recent visit to Puerto Rico.

The 2010 Census counted 848,000 Puerto Ricans living in Florida. That's a 76 percent jump from 10 years earlier. There are almost as many Puerto Ricans in the Sunshine State as there are Cuban-Americans. Cuban Americans traditionally vote Republican, Puerto Ricans lean Democratic.

The 11 states with the most Puerto Ricans total 241 of the 270 electoral votes needed to give Obama a second term. They read like a roll call of battleground states: Florida (847,555 Puerto Ricans); New Jersey (434,092); Pennsylvania (366,082); Connecticut (252,972); Illinois (182,989); Ohio (94,965); and Virginia (73,958). (The other states in the top 11 are New York, Massachusetts, California, and Texas, none of which is considered a battleground.)

Whatever Obama’s reason was for visiting Puerto Rico, one thing for sure is that the visit, though only a few hours, shined a spotlight on the Caribbean island and got a lot of Americans thinking about Puerto Rico. It was a proud moment for all Puerto Ricans, both on the island and mainland, and one that most will remember in the fall of 2012.