Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Obama in Puerto Rico: How Will His ‘PR’ Stunt Play Out?

Puerto Rico is abuzz with preparations for President Obama’s visit tomorrow.
The airport is being renovated, painted, and landscaped to welcome the president, the officials, and media accompanying him. The main highway linking the airport to Old San Juan is being repaved, adding to the customary traffic jams.
Local media has been running a countdown to the visit, featuring hard news along with lifestyle, first ladies’ fashion, and even cooking articles (“What Would You Serve Obama?”).
Security will be tight. The runway that Air Force One is expected to use has already been closed. Police are already stationed at all points where the president is scheduled to visit, and more officers will be added. In addition to the Secret Service, the FBI and the Air Force are on alert. Last Friday afternoon police received an anonymous phone call alerting them to a possible threat on Obama’s life: following an investigation, the police superintendent assured the public that the threat was unfounded.
While the continental U.S. media is focusing on the visit as Obama’s effort to court Hispanics, to bring attention to the $7 billion in stimulus money that went to Puerto Rico, and to discuss immigration issues, local media is not.
Obama may want to have a bloc of Puerto Rican voters that live in Florida who may lean Democrat as a counterweight to Cuban voters who lean Republican. However, current Governor Luis Fortuño is a bright star in the Republican Party, and was elected with an overwhelming majority. Puerto Rico’s economy is recovering due to Fortuño’s austerity program and his aggressive measures to reduce the size of government. He wants to privatize more sectors of the economy, including the airport where Obama is scheduled to land.
Immigration issues do not play in Puerto Rico as they do on the mainland. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens from birth, and Puerto Rico has an illegal immigration problem of its own: people trying to sail from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, often unsuccessfully. The U.S. Coast Guard and the Border Patrol frequently find the bodies of those who didn’t make it.
What will the visit be like, then?
Expect a large, enthusiastic crowd. Puerto Ricans love a party, and the first presidential visit to the island will be a great excuse. President Obama is scheduled to visit the governor’s mansion, La Fortaleza, to give a speech and visit with Governor Fortuño, whom he met when Obama was a senator and Fortuño a resident commissioner in Washington. It’s not clear yet if Michelle Obama will accompany the president, but if she does she’ll surely visit with Mrs. Fortuño, Lucé Vela.
Puerto Ricans expect that Obama’s speech will mention the subject of statehood. During the 2008 primary, Hillary Clinton declared herself in favor of statehood, while Obama supported a referendum. The Puerto Rico Democracy Act was introduced in 2009, but never became law after it passed the House in 2010.
Obama will likely mention the federal government’s many programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, that Puerto Rico receives to the tune of $20.7 billion in direct federal expenditures.
Following his speech, Obama is expected at a $10,000-a-plate fundraiser at the Caribe Hilton. He is expected to raise $1 million for his re-election campaign. One of the local radio stations said that $500,000 was already pledged days ago.

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