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Obama has political reasons for a quick visit to Puerto Rico

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • President Obama will spend about five hours Tuesday on Puerto Rico
  • Puerto Ricans are a growing U.S. Hispanic population group
  • Obama also will attend a Democratic National Committee event on the island

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama makes a rare presidential visit to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, spending about five hours there on a trip aimed as much at Puerto Ricans on the mainland as those on the island.

The roughly 4 million residents of the U.S. Caribbean territory are American citizens but can't vote for president, while the almost 5 million Puerto Ricans living in the 50 U.S. states have full voting rights, and Obama needs strong support in 2012 from what traditionally has been a largely Democratic constituency.

In particular, an influx of Puerto Ricans has moved in recent years to central Florida, a key swing state in Obama's re-election campaign. Other states with large Puerto Rican communities include New York and Connecticut.

However, high unemployment and crime rates back in Puerto Rico, as well as the continuing debate over possible U.S. statehood or independence for the island, adds uncertainty to Puerto Rican political support.

Obama's trip, the first official presidential visit to Puerto Rico in 50 years, shows "the importance the Hispanic vote has in his re-election campaign," said political analyst Angel Rosa.

Rosa noted that in Florida, Puerto Ricans from the island have boosted the Hispanic population in Orlando and central regions.

Though Gerald Ford traveled to Puerto Rico as president in 1976 to attend an economic summit, the last formal presidential visit was by John F. Kennedy in 1961. That touch of history is commemorated in large banners along Obama's travel route on the island that bear photos of the two Democratic presidents with the year of the visit.

Obama will make a brief speech on arrival at Muniz Air National Guard Base and then visit La Fortaleza, the oldest executive mansion in the Western Hemisphere, according to a White House document.

The president also will attend a Democratic National Committee event before returning to Washington on Tuesday night.

To some Puerto Ricans, the trip is too short to merit significance.

"I think it's a public relations visit. I say it as a Democrat. This visit does not satisfy me," said Sen. Cirilo Tirado of the island's Popular Democratic Party.

Luis Guillermo Febus, a public employee, called Obama's visit "too fast," adding: "It seems to me that there will not be time for us to talk about serious things and the problems that this country has."

However, private pilot Rafael Pesquera welcomed the Obama visit.

"It is a tremendous, tremendous honor to have him in Puerto Rico," Pesquera said. "I'm an Obama fan, for the way he performs his work, for what he offers."

The White House document noted the March delivery of the latest report by the President's Task Force on Puerto Rico's Status, which recommended that Puerto Ricans should hold a vote sooner rather than later on whether they want full independence, statehood or semi-autonomous status.

In addition, the task force expanded its focus under orders from Obama and made recommendations on economic development, education, health care and clean energy on the island.

As an unincorporated U.S. territory, Puerto Rico receives U.S. protection and is subject to congressional action.

CNN's Dania Alexandrino, Tom Cohen and Catherine Shoichet contributed to this report.