He was a singular sensation even before he stepped onto the tarmac. A "national holiday" was declared to honor the occasion. A two-week spruce up-repave-repaint campaign was undertaken and completed with military zeal. Government employees were paid to line up and wave small Puerto Rican flags on the three possible routes the Secret Service had mapped out for the presidential limousine. But in the midst of this unusual celebration, not everyone in that chorus line was singing. "We cannot greet the colonizer with coffee and cookies," offered Juan Dalmau, gubernatorial candidate of the Puerto Rico Independence Party.
It was not exactly cookies that President Obama’s five-hour stopover in San Juan would net, but $1 million in campaign contributions (tickets ranged from $10,000 to $38,000 for a brief encounter at the Caribe Hilton). And so the wheels of American party politics revved up for yet another lap in the "Raise money here, gather votes there" mode that politicians ride when visiting the United States’ most populous territory. The 3.8 million residents of Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential elections, but the first official visit by a sitting president in fifty years was enough to open pockets and splurge in a presidential campaign of which they will play no part.
"We are grateful people," says Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock. But Dalmau has quite a different take on Obama’s visit: “[It’s] a rehearsal for the next political campaign in which Puerto Ricans are mere extras to court the Hispanic vote in the United States."
Still, the banners that lined the streets marked with pride what was termed a “historic event”: “We are proud to be part of history: Kennedy 1961—Obama 2011.” But beneath the facile historical comparison lies a world and a generation of change. The December 1961 visit by President Kennedy was a leisurely Christmas rest, highlighted by a ticker tape parade through Old San Juan, dinners, concerts by Pablo Casals and a now-famous sleepover (the bed Kennedy used has been given the “President-slept-here” treatment in the official tour of La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion). By contrast, Obama’s rush-and-hush trip—a logistical nightmare for local politicians—has proven to be an issue hotter than the sweltering 90 degree temperatures. With Puerto Rico’s 21 percent unemployment rate, 100,000 lost jobs and 500-plus murders in the last five months, the visit seemed a PR mistake. Then there is the issue of Governor Luis Fortuño, a member of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party—who has been a poster boy for the Republican Party and has been mentioned as a candidate for the vice presidency. The rarefied ambience of the oldest colony in the world has not even yielded a reggaeton tune in Obama’s honor.