The Washington Post

Obama courts Latino vote with visit to Puerto Rico

President Obama appeared at a series of events here Tuesday, becoming the first U.S. president to visit the island in more than three decades, in a largely symbolic trip that could aid his 2012 reelection prospects.

Rolling his R’s as he declared “buenas tardes” (good afternoon), Obama emphasized the ties between the rest of the United States and the commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

“Every day, Boricuas help write the American story,” he told a cheering crowd of more than 1,000 at a speech in the hangar of a San Juan airport. “Puerto Rican artists contribute to our culture . . . Puerto Rican entrepreneurs create American jobs. Even in the NBA finals, [Dallas Mavericks guard] J.J. Barea inspired all of us with those drives to the hoop. That guy can play.”

Obama cast the visit as simply living up to a promise he made in 2008, when he was running in the island’s Democratic presidential primary, to come back if elected.

But the trip had obvious political overtones. Although the nearly 4 million people who live on the island cannot vote in the U.S. general election, those who have moved to one of the 50 states can. Both parties consider the 4.6 million Puerto Ricans in the United States an important voting bloc, particularly the nearly 900,000 in Florida, a key swing state for Obama’s 2012 campaign.

Most Latinos nationwide supported Obama in 2008. But his sagging popularity among independent voters since the election makes it critical that he retain strong support from the group next year.

Cubans, who make up the largest group of Latinos in the Sunshine State, have traditionally backed the GOP because of its historically strong stance against Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Democrats have argued that their party is more supportive than the GOP of immigration reform, but that is less important to Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens.

“The large and growing Puerto Rican population in central Florida will be key to winning the state in 2012,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the Democratic-leaning NDN, which has advised the party on how to reach Latino voters.

Although Puerto Ricans can serve in the armed forces and vote in presidential primaries, the island does not have voting representatives in Congress.

Many in Puerto Rico prefer that the island remain a commonwealth, but others are pushing to become a U.S. state, and a small number want independence. Following a pattern of presidents of both parties, Obama has not taken an official position on the issue, instead calling for Puerto Rico to hold a plebiscite to resolve its status.

“When the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you,” he said in his speech.

The island is also struggling economically, with an unemployment rate above 16 percent. Obama pledged to work to increase job growth. But his four-hour visit was mainly about paying homage to Puerto Ricans.

He ate a medianoche sandwich at a San Juan restaurant, spent time at the governor’s office and attended a closed-door fundraiser.

Obama was the first U.S. president to visit the island since Gerald R. Ford in 1976. And John F. Kennedy was the last president to give a speech to the Puerto Rican people in San Juan.

As Obama’s motorcade rolled through the city, thousands of spectators waved American flags and took pictures. Signs on the streetlights included side-by-side photos of Kennedy and Obama, noting the years of their visits (1961 and 2011) and declaring “we are proud to be part of history.”

“We’re really happy he came here, especially a place like this that is local,” said Jose Rodriguez Garrido, who was eating at the restaurant Kasalta when the president arrived there. “There’s lots of excitement. We’re very friendly people and we enjoy visitors.”

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The Democrats debated Thursday night. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Chris Cillizza on the Democratic debate...
On Clinton: She poked a series of holes in Sanders's health-care proposal and broadly cast him as someone who talks a big game but simply can't hope to achieve his goals.

On Sanders: If the challenge was to show that he could be a candidate for people other than those who already love him, he didn't make much progress toward that goal. But he did come across as more well-versed on foreign policy than in debates past.
The PBS debate in 3 minutes
We are in vigorous agreement here.
Hillary Clinton, during the PBS Democratic debate, a night in which she and Sanders shared many of the same positions on issues
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the polls as he faces rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz heading into the S.C. GOP primary on Feb. 20.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
Fact Checker
Trump’s claim that his border wall would cost $8 billion
The billionaire's claim is highly dubious. Based on the costs of the Israeli security barrier (which is mostly fence) and the cost of the relatively simple fence already along the U.S.-Mexico border, an $8 billion price tag is simply not credible.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read


Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.