Not since John F. Kennedy has a U.S. president visited Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico: Obama Visits a Commonwealth’s Uncommon Problems
It has been 50 years since a U.S. President traveled to Puerto Rico, and that’s indicative of how little Washington ponders America’s Caribbean island commonwealth. Only rarely, like the controversy over the U.S. naval base at Vieques a decade ago, do Americans even remember their ties to Puerto Rico. Even President Obama’s visit to the island on Tuesday, June 14, is being explained by most pundits as a way for him to curry favor with Puerto Rican voters in the U.S. The Miami Herald‘s Frances Robles has an insightful piece today on how Obama is eyeing in particular the burgeoning Puerto Rican community in central Florida, which is less reliably Democratic than more traditional communities like New York’s.
But beneath the superficial political considerations, Puerto Rico – which unlike Haiti is actually our responsibility – has big problems that the U.S. needs to engage. Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate tops 16%; its poverty rate is 44% and its median annual income is $14,400, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., which is well below the U.S. poverty line. Its violent crime has gotten so bad that last year Governor Luis Fortuño had to call out the National Guard in a bid to contain it. Little wonder that so many Puerto Ricans are leaving the island that according to Pew, there are more Puerto Rican-origin Latinos living in the U.S. today (4.6 million) than there are living in Puerto Rico (3.7 million).
In the 1990s, then President Bill Clinton formed a White House Task Force on Puerto Rico, whose current members will accompany Obama to San Juan, the capital. Its core directive, aside from addressing the social problems, is to help Puerto Ricans best solve the status issue that has divided the island for decades – and which may well be key to addressing the pressing social problems. The commonwealth designation Puerto has had since the 1950s was meant to give it political and cultural autonomy while keeping it part of the territory of the U.S., which wrested the island from Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898. (Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.) But today that quasi-colonial arrangement seems to have set Puerto Rico “in a political and economic twilight zone,” says Angelo Falcón, head of the National Institute for Latino Policy in New York. Read more: