Obama low-key during Puerto Rico visit

Political motivation raised as reason for a short stay on island

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — President Obama visited this island for about four hours Tuesday, raising money for his re-election and raising criticism that his visit lacked substance on the thorny subject of the U.S. territory’s political status.

“When the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you,” the shirt-sleeved Mr. Obama told Puerto Ricans at a campaign-style rally in a sweltering air base hangar in San Juan.

The White House Task Force on Puerto Rico in March endorsed a two-phase referendum that would have island residents decide first whether to remain part of the United States or become independent. Depending on their decision, a second vote would determine whether to remain as a commonwealth, pursue statehood or choose a form of independence. The panel did not set a firm timetable.

Mr. Obama said the report provided a “meaningful way forward” for island residents. He pledged to “include Puerto Rico not just on my itinerary, but also in my vision of where our country needs to go.”

Puerto Ricans, who were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917, haven’t developed a clear consensus on their political status.

As the president’s motorcade made its way through San Juan, several people along the route held signs demanding “Statehood Now.” Mr. Obama made an unexpected stop for lunch at Kasalta, an upscale deli in the neighborhood of Orchard Park that ironically caters to a Cuban clientele.

The president ordered a “medianoche,” a Cuban sandwich made with pork, ham and cheese. Pool reporters traveling with him said Mr. Obama paid with two $20 bills for lunch for himself, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and a friend, Eric Whitaker, and told the cashier to “keep the change.”

Lydia Gonzalez, 60, a resident of Loiza who also stopped by the restaurant, criticized Mr. Obama for being “a little light in his commentaries today.”

“We have many important problems and important things to talk about with a president,” she said, adding that he should have spent more time with people of the island. “People feel this is not an important visit. It is important for him to get some money, but he is not talking with the people.”

The ambiguity over status and the scheduling of a Democratic fundraiser on the island furthered accusations that Mr. Obama’s visit, the first official trip by a sitting president since John F. Kennedy in 1961, was mainly political. While island residents cannot vote in presidential general elections, analysts say the trip will get the attention of Puerto Ricans living in battleground states such as Florida and Pennsylvania. There are about 4.6 million Puerto Ricans on the mainland who can vote in November 2012.

“The president’s visit to Puerto Rico is inconsequential,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles in Washington. “It’s purely a political stunt to try to look good with the growing Puerto Rican community” in Florida.

Regardless, many Puerto Ricans who greeted Mr. Obama were thrilled that he fulfilled a campaign promise from 2008 by visiting. People at the airport waved small U.S. and Puerto Rico flags.

“I am proud he’s come to visit,” said Sari Anduze, president of an organic farm in Maricao and an Obama volunteer. “It’s good for Puerto Rican society as a whole. I know a lot of people think it’s politically motivated, but I think it comes from his heart.”

Manuel Cidre, former president of the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association, said he was only looking for Mr. Obama to deliver “a strong message that the decision [on status] is in our hands, not in the U.S. government.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Mr. Obama made the trip because “he thinks the issue of resolving its status is very important,” as well as dealing with the island’s economic hardships. Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate in April was 16.4 percent.

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