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Obama warmly received in Puerto Rico

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P.R. isn’t just shorthand for “Puerto Rico” but for excellent Latino “public relations.”

Such was the consensus of experts about the whirlwind visit President Barack Obama made Tuesday to La Isla del Encanto, where he was warmly greeted in 90-degree heat by a crowd of more than fervent 1,000 admirers.

The president, who promised to visit Puerto Rico while campaigning in 2008, gave an unsurprising speech that acknowledged that statehood, independence or commonwealth was up to the Puerto Rican people.

“That’s like me telling you it’s up to you to breathe air,” cracked Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy in NYC. The historic trip – the first for a sitting president since John F. Kennedy’s stop in 1961 – “went as choreographed,” like a campaign stop, said Falcon. If anything was a surprise, it was the cordiality with which Gov. Luis Fortuno, a pro-statehood Republican who has been touted as a possible U.S. vice-presidential candidate, welcomed the Democratic president, Falcon noted.

The speech contained no surprises for Charles Papazian, 67, an electrical engineer from Riverdale. Statehood for Puerto Rico, which is plagued with unemployment and poverty at levels twice that of the mainland, “has been on the table for years . . . I don’t think that anyone can answer it except for the people of Puerto Rico themselves.”

What’s at stake for the president is the increasingly important Hispanic vote in the upcoming 2012 election. “There are now more Latino Democrats than Republicans in Florida,” a critical swing state which will have 29 electoral votes in the next presidential race, noted Falcon. The Democratic-leaning Puerto Ricans who live there “are already citizens,” unlike most other new Latino immigrants, Falcon observed.

The president carried 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in the last election. His visit to San Juan may help him score an even higher percentage in the 2012 elections, predicted Arlene Torres, professor of Africana and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. The visit appealed to Boriquenos on a number of levels, she noted: Puerto Ricans like to interact with their leaders and are gratified to be taken seriously with a flesh-pressing visit. Too, “Young children are socialized in the political process,” and Puerto Rican kids with political aspirations find him a particular role model “because he looks like us.”

It’s not just Puerto Ricans who were watching the O-man’s moves, noted Torres. Residents of the other U.S. commonwealths, such as Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands “are also watching very carefully how this plays out,” she noted.

(with Christine DiStasio)

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