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Obama Makes First Presidential Visit to Puerto Rico in 50 Years

June 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama traveled to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico today.

Ray Suarez begins our coverage.



RAY SUAREZ: The president’s brief visit, just a few hours long, is the first official trip to Puerto Rico by a sitting president since John F. Kennedy’s in 1961. Mr. Obama was keeping a promise he made when he visited the island in 2008 as a candidate.

BARACK OBAMA: when I ran for president, I promised to include Puerto Rico, not just on my itinerary, but also in my vision of where our country needs to go. And I am proud to say that we’ve kept that promise, too.

RAY SUAREZ: Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but pay commonwealth taxes to run their own government. And while they don’t pay U.S. federal taxes, residents do serve in high numbers in the military and participate in some federal programs, including food stamps and welfare. Those programs have been important in recent years, as the territory has been particularly hard-hit by the recession, with unemployment at nearly 17 percent.

The president has promised help.

BARACK OBAMA: We’ve been trying to make sure that every family on the island can find work and make a living and provide for their children. That’s why our economic plan and our health care reform included help for Puerto Rico.


RAY SUAREZ: While in the capital, San Juan, the president is meeting with Republican Gov. Luis Fortuno, who strongly favors the transition to statehood for the island’s four million residents.

GOV. LUIS FORTUNO, R-Puerto Rico: Decisions are being made in Washington, and we are not sitting at the table. So, if we are citizens — and we are proud of that — and we serve in greater numbers oftentimes than other states, why not participate in the decision-making process?

RAY SUAREZ: The president today reaffirmed his support for a referendum on the matter, which would allow island voters to decide for themselves.

BARACK OBAMA: And when the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you.


RAY SUAREZ: And while the commonwealth residents may soon be addressing that issue at the ballot box, they are not eligible to vote in the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

Nevertheless, many see Mr. Obama’s visit as an indirect bid for support in 2012 from the almost five million Puerto Ricans living in the United States.

The president’s previous stop, Florida, is home to nearly one million of them. They now make up 5 percent of voters in that battleground state, where Mr. Obama will likely need every vote he can get.