SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Cheering crowds are expected to gather in the steamy tropical heat Tuesday when President Obama makes a rare visit to Puerto Rico.
But the nearly 4 million U.S. citizens who live on the island but aren’t allowed to vote in the general election aren’t really the point.
Organizers are hoping this trip, the first in decades by a president to the U.S. territory in the Caribbean, will generate goodwill on the mainland, particularly in Florida, where the fast-growing Hispanic population will be essential to Obama’s reelection effort in 2012.
“The past decade has witnessed a staggering growth in the Puerto Rican community,” said Andres W. Lopez, a member of the Democratic Central Committee who helped organize the visit. “They have become the quintessential battleground community in the nation’s battleground state.”
There are almost 1 million more Puerto Ricans on the mainland than on the island. They long had been concentrated in the Northeast, but the 2010 census shows that Florida is in second place, with about 841,000, mostly in the Orlando area. These transplants tend to be younger and better educated than their counterparts in established communities in places such as Hartford, Conn., and New York. As more recent arrivals they also tend to have closer connections to family back home.
Democrats consider the Puerto Ricans in Florida a potential counterbalance to the larger, traditionally Republican Cuban American community in a state Obama needs to win to be reelected.
That’s where this trip comes in.
“I am sure they will be happy about this,” said Pedro Pierluisi, the island’s nonvoting representative in Congress, who has been working to generate support for Obama on the mainland. “We have lots of Puerto Ricans in central Florida and I know they keep close eyes on Puerto Rico.”
Reaching out to Puerto Ricans is part of a broader effort to court Hispanics, who accounted for more than half the U.S. population increase over the past decade and now number about 50 million. It’s hardly a uniform community, but there are “shared issues” of concern that include support for education and social services, said Louis DeSipio, a professor at the University of California at Irvine.
The number of people of Puerto Rican descent, the second-largest Hispanic group in the United States after Mexicans, grew by 36 percent over the past decade, to 4.6 million, according the census. The island’s population fell by 2 percent during that time as people fled a dismal economy.
Puerto Ricans tend to be less interested in immigration overhaul because they are U.S. citizens and can move freely back and forth between the island and the mainland, but as migrants who often need to learn to speak English and face other challenges, they have similar experiences, said DeSipio, chairman of Chicano-Latino Studies at the California university.
“To the extent that the president talks about issues of bringing Puerto Ricans into the U.S. mainstream, that will certainly resonate with other Latino communities and immigrant communities generally,” he said.
George Colon, who moved to the Orlando area a month ago after losing his job managing memberships at a country club in Puerto Rico, said he’s undecided on the presidential election and won’t be persuaded by Obama’s visit. He said he will vote for the candidate best able to secure statehood for the island or “resolve its status,” as most people refer to the issue.
“If he’s not interested in resolving Puerto Rico’s status, then it doesn’t mean much,” Colon said of the trip.
The political aspect of the trip is a point of pride to Belmaris Santos, a marketing executive from Guaynabo, a San Juan suburb, who plans to show up at the airport for Obama’s arrival.
“It’s historic,” the 33-year-old said. “That a sitting U.S. president decides to come is a show of the importance that our island is generating in the American political system.”
Obama plans to spend only a few hours on the island. He is expected to commemorate the last official presidential visit, by John F. Kennedy in December 1961. Obama plans to meet with Gov. Luis Fortuno, a pro-statehood Republican, and attend a fundraiser.
Fortuno said in an interview that he didn’t expect the president to weigh in on Puerto Rico’s status. That’s a question Fortuno said would be put to the island’s voters before his term ends in December of next year.
“Any smart political leader in America nowadays understands the importance of courting the Hispanic vote, regardless of whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat,” he said.
Obama is also expected to draw attention to the $7 billion in stimulus money that went to Puerto Rico, perhaps visiting one of the schools or government buildings renovated under the program. Pierluisi said the aid came at a crucial time, with the local economy in recession since 2006 and the government slashing its budget and laying off thousands of public-sector workers.
“The people might not know all these details, but they see a president who has been supporting us,” Pierluisi said.
Obama is neutral on the statehood issue, which has been stalled for decades by conflicting sentiment on the island. The president supports a plebiscite in which Puerto Ricans would choose between statehood, independence, the current semiautonomous commonwealth status or a free association in which the island would be a sovereign nation that could define its future relationship with the U.S. through treaties.
The president has supported a plebiscite in the past.
The trip is a big deal on the island, where the government has begun a flurry of road and public works projects in recent days and the legislature has created a model of an Obama statue they intended to erect in the Capitol, to go with the ones of five other presidents who have visited.
The pro-independence movement has announced plans to protest, but they represent a sliver of public opinion. The majority of Puerto Ricans have voted consistently to maintain ties to the U.S., and enthusiasm for the visit is widespread.
Juan Carlos, 28, a bank teller from the San Juan suburb of Carolina, said he asked his boss for Tuesday off so he could see the president. “This is a moment that I will tell my children about when they are old enough,” he said.