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In Nod to Latino Voters, Obama Makes Historic Visit to Puerto Rico Ahead of 2012 Elections

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On Tuesday, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Puerto Rico in a half century. His trip underscored the growing importance that Puerto Ricans will play in the 2012 U.S. elections. Although Puerto Ricans living on the island cannot vote for president, there are about 4.6 million Puerto Ricans living in the 50 states, including an estimated 857,000 in the battleground state of Florida. We speak with University of Puerto Rico professor Maritza Stanchich about reaction to Obama’s visit amidst the island’s slumped economy, and violent police repression of student protests against tuition hikes. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Puerto Rico in half a century. The last official visit was in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy.

PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: Today is a great experience to fly many hundreds of miles into the Atlantic Ocean to come to an island and be greeted in Spanish, to come to an island which has an entirely different tradition and history, which is made up of people of an entirely different cultural origin than on the mainland of the United States, and still be able to feel that I am in my country, here in this city and island, as I was in my country in Washington this morning.

AMY GOODMAN: President John F. Kennedy in Puerto Rico in 1961.

Well, on Tuesday, local officials spruced up the island for President Obama’s four-hour presidential visit, dispatching workers to paint Spanish colonial buildings in old San Juan and to clear the highway of potholes. When Obama disembarked from Air Force One at the San Juan military air strip, he briefly addressed the people of Puerto Rico at a restricted news conference.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re giving Puerto Ricans the tools they need to build their own economic futures. And this is how it should be, because every day Boricuas help write the American story. Puerto Rican artists contribute to our culture. And by the way, I don’t know if you noticed, but Marc Anthony decided to show up here today. Puerto Rican entrepreneurs create American jobs. Even in the NBA finals, J.J. Barea inspired all of us with those drives to the hoop.

AMY GOODMAN: Obama’s brief remarks centered on his plans to include the island in federal programs such as healthcare restructuring. He also vowed to bolster the island’s slumped economy and respect any “clear” decision Puerto Ricans come to regarding the island’s political status.

During his visit, Obama stopped by La Fortaleza, the executive mansion, to speak with Governor Luis Fortuño and other political leaders. He concluded his visit with an address to a fundraising luncheon at the Caribe Hilton hotel, where he picked up an estimated $1 million in local donations for his forthcoming presidential campaign.

Obama’s visit underscored the growing importance that Puerto Ricans will play in the 2012 elections. Although Puerto Ricans living on the island can’t vote for president, there are more living off the island, close to 4.6 million Puerto Ricans living in the 50 states, including an estimated 857,000 in the battleground state of Florida. With another 35,000 leaving the island each year, the Puerto Ricans in the Sunshine State could hover just under a million by next year’s election.

For more, we’re joined by Maritza Stanchich. She joins us from San Juan. She’s an associate professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico at the Río Piedras campus.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Stanchich.

MARITZA STANCHICH: Thank you so much, Amy Goodman. Thank you so much. It’s great to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about President Obama’s visit, its significance.

MARITZA STANCHICH: Well, it was something like being hit by a — it was like being hit by a tornado. Every — the whole place — you know, the whole place — it was as if a giant apparatus descended upon us. The preparations were extraordinary. There was a lot of cynical comments about how much that kind of money that was spent on preparations could be spent on schools and other things that are urgently, urgently in crisis right now in Puerto Rico. The fundraiser, which sounds pretty normal maybe to some people, a Democratic Party fundraiser with tickets from $10,000 to $38,500 was, by most accounts, a huge extravagance, considering the kind of crisis that Puerto Rico is in. Puerto Rico is in the worst crisis since the 1930s.

It was quick. It was scheduled to be five hours. It was actually — turned out to be less than that. Though, aside from it being heavily orchestrated, there was one aspect of it that was — seemed spontaneous, and that was that he briefly met with a candidate of the opposing party to the current governor, Luis Fortuño. And that was, I would say, probably the only really positive thing, noticeably positive thing that might — that could affect Puerto Rico. How this will affect Puerto Rico beyond the fanfare of yesterday, you know, is yet to be seen. I think people are quite cynical about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, as of April, the unemployment rate in Puerto Rico remains at over 16 percent. The recession that rocked mainland United States started even earlier in Puerto Rico, sent an estimated 365,000 middle-class professionals to Florida.


AMY GOODMAN: Obama addressed the island’s economic woes in his speech.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The aspirations and the struggles on this island mirror those across America, so I know that today a lot of folks are asking some of the same questions here on the island as they’re asking in Indiana or California or in Texas. How do I make sure my kids get the kind of education that they need? How can I put away a little money for retirement? How can I fill up my gas tank? How can I pay the bills? Everywhere I go, I see families facing challenges like these, but they’re facing them with resolve and determination. You know, these problems didn’t develop overnight here in Puerto Rico or anywhere else, but that means we’re not going to solve them overnight. But day by day, step by step, we will solve them.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama speaking in Puerto Rico. Can you talk about the unemployment and the recent wave of immigrants? Many are saying he was in Puerto Rico, though people there can’t vote for president, but because Puerto Ricans in Florida and throughout the United States can.

MARITZA STANCHICH: Yes. We’re in the middle of a historic exodus in Puerto Rico. Between 1945 and 1965, nearly a third of the population, nearly a million people, left, mostly — mostly unskilled labor from agricultural sectors. This time, the exodus — and it is an exodus — is possibly as high, as historic, and coming from the formally educated, middle and professional classes. This is causing its own crisis in Puerto Rico in terms of shortages of surgeons, nurses, etc., and they are not going to the traditionally historic places like New York, but more central Florida, Texas. We haven’t heard that much about Texas, but there’s a lot of migration to Texas, as well. And of course, especially in Florida, that can shift the demographics of the vote.

And quite frankly, even though Puerto Ricans are known in New York to traditionally vote Democrat and, because of the socioeconomic makeup of Puerto Rico, are seen as potential Democrats, the votes are seen as up in the air in regards to the parties, the Republican and Democratic parties. For example, the Republican Party may use hot-button Christian nuclear family-type issues, values-type issues, like abortion and gay marriage, in order to get the Latino vote — not just the Puerto Rican vote, but the Latino vote, that might be — the part that might be more leaning toward Democratic. So it’s — I think the Florida vote can make a difference, and I think it’s still up in the air to some extent how they will be voting — you know, how they will be voting in the future, if any patterns will be established in the future on how they will be voting. So, a lot of the reports said that was the reason Obama came here. In fact, yesterday I ran into Puerto Ricans who came from Tampa in a group to Puerto Rico on vacation, timed with Obama’s visit on purpose. So, there’s no question that Florida Puerto Ricans are aware of his visit.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about the status of Puerto Rico, a colony of Spain from 1492 until 1898. It’s been under U.S. control since then as a so-called non-incorporated territory. Island residents have voted consistently to maintain ties with the U.S., but there is a vocal minority favoring independence.


AMY GOODMAN: Early on Monday morning, 10 pro-independence activists were arrested while taking down signs welcoming President Obama. Twenty more demonstrators kept an all-night vigil at a colonial fort in Puerto Rico to protest the President’s visit. President Obama did address the issue of status in his speech. He vowed to respect any clear decision Puerto Ricans come to regarding the island’s political status.

PRESIDENT 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’m proud to say that we’ve kept that promise, too. First of all, we’ve addressed the question of political status. In March, a report from our Presidential Task Force on Puerto Rican Status provided a meaningful way forward on this question, so that the residents of the island can determine their own future. And when the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama speaking about Puerto Rico’s relationship with the mainland. Can you talk, Professor Stanchich, about the independence movement on the island and about the potential benefits and drawbacks of Puerto Rican statehood or being — remaining the way they are right now?

MARITZA STANCHICH: OK, yes. The independence movement is small, but yet very historically important and significant. They were out by the hundreds yesterday. It’s a very vibrant movement, though very fractured. I don’t think they will ever, ever, ever go away. I think the issue of Puerto Rican independence is like the issue of, say, Palestine and other places in the world where these things are just not going to go away, I don’t think, perhaps never.

The current governor is a pro-statehood governor, extreme right-wing Republican Party. It would be, I think, considered to be the ultimate — historically the ultimate surrender — that’s the way the independence movement would view it — to become a state. The benefits of becoming a state, I do think that there’s a few cogent arguments. One of them is that because Puerto Rico is so densely populated, it would have more than — more representatives in the U.S. Congress than 23 other states. Right now it has a non-voting resident commissioner who can only lobby and has a lot less power than the other Puerto Rican members of Congress.

The current situation — I didn’t talk about the unemployment before, but the current status of commonwealth appears to have run out of gas and has been in decline for the last decades, since the 1970s. The crisis in Puerto Rico cannot be compared to any state in the United States, as Obama did in his speech. It is far worse. It is noticeable to anybody. Walking down the street in Old San Juan after midnight now, every bench is occupied by homeless people. Crime has skyrocketed. Pretty much — you know, many of my friends now are getting mugged for their cell phones. The crisis is profound. Obviously, something has to change.

In a way, being that I’m a non-Puerto Rican who has been living here for about 15 years, I don’t feel 100 percent comfortable advocating for either — any status. But the country is sharply divided, even within families, on this question. I personally don’t expect the next status plebiscite to be much different than the last few ones, in which the vote was almost divided in half between statehood and commonwealth, with a small — less than five percent voting independence.

AMY GOODMAN: The level of poverty is quite something. I mean, the highest overall poverty for a U.S. jurisdiction is Puerto Rico. Forty-five percent of adults, close to 60 percent of children, are impoverished. But I wanted to go to the issue of the protests that have been taking place. You teach at the University of Puerto Rico, where students have been striking on and off for months to protest budget cuts, fee hikes, school privatization. In February, speaking on the House floor, Democratic Congressmember Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, who’s Puerto Rican, condemned the police crackdown on Puerto Rico — in Puerto Rico on these student activists.

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ: I want to talk to you today about a part of the world where the rights of citizens of all walks of life to protest and speak their minds is being denied, with clubs and pepper spray, a part of the world where a student strike led the university to ban student protests anywhere, anytime on campus, and where, when the students protested the crackdown on free speech, they were violently attacked by heavily armed riot police. What faraway land has seen student protests banned, union protesters beaten, and free speech advocates jailed? The United States of America’s colony of Puerto Rico.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Congressmember Luis Gutierrez speaking on the House floor. I wanted to continue on this issue of police brutality at your university, the University of Puerto Rico. The American Civil Liberties Union called on President Obama to press Puerto Rican leaders about a pattern of police brutality and governmental suppression of First Amendment rights. We reached William Ramírez-Hernández of the ACLU in Puerto Rico last night.

WILLIAM RAMÍREZ-HERNÁNDEZ: The ACLU of Puerto Rico, beginning back in 2004, began to document a series of reports of police abuse against highly vulnerable communities, such as the Dominican community, homeless people, the black community in Loíza. And as of 2008, we began to formally file complaints with the United States Justice Department alleging patterns in practice of police abuse in Puerto Rico. Now, this was previous to the current administration that just came into effect in 2009, into power. And since the beginning of this new administration, what we’ve been documenting and alleging is that this new administration has taken the police abuse to a whole different level, where the police is being used in a way that we call sort of like a political police, a police that watchdogs dissidents and goes after protesters and anyone who in any way dissents against this government’s policy, so that in any event where there is a mass rally, you’ll always find that our SWAT team and our riot squad is there before there is a riot.

AMY GOODMAN: That was William Ramírez-Hernández of the ACLU, speaking from Puerto Rico. Professor Maritza Stanchich, could you respond to what’s happening on your campus, as we wrap up?

MARITZA STANCHICH: Yes. I mean, right now, campus is quiet because it’s — the academic year is over. I want to mention the political prisoner, Oscar López Rivera, that was the focus of a lot of the protest yesterday, who has served 30 years, and there’s hopes that possibly Obama could pardon him. And yes, we have been under assault. There’s no other way to describe it. Our civil rights and the intimidation and the fear, the climate of fear that has been cultivated over the past year, both at the University of Puerto Rico and at union protests — literally, an army has been called out.

One of the most amazing things that the ACLU pointed out, to me, in its recent reports on this is that the police department here is the second-largest in the country after the NYPD. I have watched all year my students, my former students, protesting, being systematically beaten, arrested and released. It’s been a harrowing experience. There’s no other way to describe it. I personally don’t think — you know, I don’t think that this administration would stop at anything, if there wasn’t some kind of legal intervention like the type that the ACLU is performing.

Even if you don’t go to the protests, there’s a climate of fear about speaking out. One of the reasons I have become vocal is because of this. I’ve become vocal in response to even — I have felt myself intimidated, and I have felt myself, you know, among colleagues, saying, “Oh, be careful about what you say.” And I think that it’s one of those — dissent is one of those things, if you don’t use it, you lose it. And without a doubt, without a doubt, there’s — and it continues. The Supreme Court here has been stacked and expanded. The Supreme Court — not just in terms of violent riot police with all the gear showing up at relatively small protests, but the Supreme Court ruled that no protests could occur on our large flagship campus of over 20,000 students. It’s been nothing short of a harrowing experience this past year.

AMY GOODMAN: And the budget cuts, what would it mean for increase in student fees?

MARITZA STANCHICH: The student fees were increased $400 a semester, $800 the first semester. It was not only the fees, but the style in which — the provocative style in which they were imposed. The university — despite the budget crisis, the cuts are targeted, and they’re draconian on purpose. The university is clearly being targeted as a potential enemy. It is unlike — there’s no Ivy League in Puerto Rico; this is it. This is the premier institution. And as a result of the fees, about 10,000 students have already dropped out, in this worse economic climate. The private universities are much more expensive. Their owners are — some of them are supporters of Fortuño and campaign contributors of Fortuño. And students will be — have become indebted, take out loans in order to be able to go to these other private institutions.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Maritza Stanchich, I want to thank you very for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Associate professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras campus.

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