US & Canada

Barack Obama in Puerto Rico: A tale of two agendas

A street in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Image caption The streets of San Juan have received a facelift ahead of Mr Obama's visit

Puerto Rico is using Tuesday's historic visit by US President Barack Obama - the first official trip to the island by a sitting US president in almost half a century - as a chance for change.

Cosmetic change, that is.

The capital of the Caribbean island, San Juan, has enjoyed a thorough facelift in the last few weeks.

Roads are being repaved, public buildings are glowing with new paint and welcome signs are being hung along the route President Obama will cover during his five-hour visit.

But other things have not changed.

Since even before President John F Kennedy's visit in 1961, the top political issue in Puerto Rico remains the same: the complex political status of this US territory, which was designated a "commonwealth" of the US in 1952.

Status debate

That status has given Puerto Ricans what some interpret as a limited version of US citizenship.

They pay some federal US taxes and the US president and Congress are the ultimate authorities over the island.

However, Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections or have voting representatives on Capitol Hill.

The acrimonious debate over whether the territory should become the 51st state of the union, be remodelled an independent republic or remain a "free and associated state" has long dominated politics on this island of almost four million inhabitants.

As some in San Juan say, discussing the issue is "the national sport" of Puerto Rico.

But when Puerto Ricans were formally asked to decide, for example in a 1998 non-binding referendum, the answer was inconclusive: more than half of the population chose "none of the above".

So why is Mr Obama flying in?

PR visit?

He made a campaign promise to return as president when he came to San Juan in 2008 to gain support as a Democratic candidate in 2008, since Puerto Ricans do vote in party primaries.

But many here believe the new visit is aimed at courting mainland America's Puerto Rican electorate - and Hispanic voters in general - as they could hold the key to his re-election in 2012.

Image caption Puerto Rico is a US territory but has no voting rights

"Obama is reaching out to people on the island to indirectly reach out to potential voters on the mainland," says Pedro Reina Perez, a history professor at the University of Puerto Rico.

"People feel that this is a PR visit that does not have to do with real policy."

The visit is certainly giving more exposure to the Puerto Rican status cause, says Governor Luis Fortuno, who strongly supports the statehood movement.

Speaking to the BBC at the government house in San Juan's historic centre, he questioned why Puerto Ricans were not involved in Washington decision-making despite being part of the US since 1898.

"We have been US citizens since 1917 and our men and women serve in the armed forces hand-in-hand with other US citizens," he points out.

Authorities in Puerto Rico hope the visit will inject momentum into US-backed plans to carry out a new, two-step referendum on the island's political status.

There are suggestions that vote could take place as soon as late 2012.

While non-binding, its results could be crucial for pushing Puerto Rico's desired cause to be at the forefront of national US politics.

"A clear mandate is what we need to do in order to go to Washington to demand our rights," says Mr Fortuno.

Polls quoted by local officials suggest the favoured option would be making Puerto Rico the 51st state of the union.

Economy 'on its knees'

In contrast to President Kennedy, Mr Obama is landing on an island that, by most accounts, has fallen on hard times.

A recession since 2006 has brought the economy to its knees. Unemployment is running at more than 16%, and crime rates are soaring in areas like the poor outskirts of San Juan.

Image caption Governor Luis Fortuno has been touted as a vice-presidential runner for the Republicans

Drastic spending cuts pushed through by the Republican governor - like the firing of thousands of state workers - have provoked widespread social discontent.

A dispute over tuition fees at the University of Puerto Rico, the largest on the island, paralysed the institution for two months in 2010.

Police clashed with students resisting a fee increase of $400 (£250) per term.

Accusations of police abuses abound and the American Civil Liberties Union has launched an inquiry into the repression of protests.

Mr Fortuno is a darling of the Tea Party movement who is being mentioned as a potential vice-presidential candidate in 2012 for the Republicans.

He defends the savings as part of his plan to "save Puerto Rico from bankruptcy", and suggests the aggressive response by police stems from a lack of appropriate training provided by previous governments.

Ahead of Mr Obama's visit, many people in Puerto Rico are more concerned about their day-to-day lives than the island's political status.

"I hope he brings good ideas here, working ideas for the progress of the island," says Zenaida Mendoza, who owns a cafe in Old San Juan.

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