US President Barack Obama spent several hours in Puerto Rico on Tuesday, giving the US territory its first presidential visit in 50 years while at the same time raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations at two controversial fundraisers.
Obama's trip to the bitterly divided island comes as Puerto Ricans gear up for two Washington-sanctioned referendums that could give lawmakers some indication whether they prefer independence, statehood or another political status option. Puerto Ricans voted in a 1993 referendum to keep the current commonwealth status quo, but that vote was held without the approval of the US Congress, which has control over the island's affairs.
Security in the capital San Juan was tight as demonstrators on both sides - independentistas and statehood supporters - held counter-demonstrations along Obama's motorcade route that snaked alongside the Caribbean island's picturesque Atlantic coast. This is Obama's second visit to the island. He made an eventful campaign stop during the 2008 campaign race. But not since John F. Kennedy visited Puerto Rico in 1961 had a sitting president made an official trip to the island.
As Obama tries to seeks support among Puerto Rican and other Latino voters who reside stateside, the president's trip has been marked by controversy by his two fundraisers. Donors at one event are being asked to contribute $10,000 each to hear the president's speech while at another exclusive appearance, about 20 supporters have been invited to have their picture taken with US leader at a cost of $35,000 each.
Critics have blasted the organizers of these receptions for holding them at a time when the island of 3.9 million residents are facing one of their worst economic periods in recent memory with a record 17-percent unemployment rate. Some also see the cash collections as an insult because, by law, Puerto Ricans who reside on the island are not eligible to vote for president. They are entitled to vote in both the Democratic and Republican primaries. Only those who move either stateside or abroad can acquire the right to vote for president.
"This is a golden opportunity to please the accomplices of the colonists - who use [Obama's] stroll through our capital as a distraction while the colony finds itself bankrupt - and allow a group of political investors to send him back to the White House with his pockets full," wrote the left-leaning Claridad in a June 10 editorial.
Civil rights activists have also insisted that White House officials push for a US Justice Department investigation into the local police force over incidents of police brutality that have taken place over the past months during demonstrations at the University of Puerto Rico.
After speaking in Miami, Obama arrived at an airbase in San Juan shortly before noon and was met by a host of dignitaries including salsa singer Marc Anthony. "When the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision [about their future,] my administration will stand by you," he told a cheering crowd.