Puerto Rico Gets First Presidential Visit In 50 Years

President Obama's itinerary this week includes a trip to Puerto Rico on Tuesday — a significant event for Puerto Ricans both on the island and the mainland. The island is buzzing at the prospect of the first official presidential visit since John F. Kennedy went there in 1961. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks to Puerto Rico's secretary of state, Kenneth McClintock, about the significance of the visit.

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JACKI LYDEN, Host:

Today is the annual Puerto Rican day in New York City. Puerto Ricans are a growing political constituency in the U.S., particularly in Florida where the population is booming.

On Tuesday, President Obama's will visit the island of Puerto Rico. He first went there as a candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2008.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN SPEECH)

BARACK OBAMA: I am absolutely confident that if we keep on working hard, there's always the one - no reason why we can't win here in Puerto Rico. And if we win Puerto Rico, we will win the nomination. And if we win the nomination, we'll win the general election. So...

Now the island is buzzing at the prospect of this first official presidential visit to Puerto Rico since John F. Kennedy went there in 1961.

Kenneth McClintock is Secretary of State of the Puerto Rican commonwealth. He led Hillary Clinton's campaign effort in Puerto Rico during the 2008 presidential primary. And he joins us from his office in San Juan.

Welcome to the program.

KENNETH MCCLINTOCK: Glad to be with you.

LYDEN: Now, we should note, sir, that U.S. Presidents have been in Puerto Rico in the last 50 years. Gerald Ford was there for an international economic summit in 1976. But President Obama will be the first since JFK to go there to meet Puerto Rican leaders and citizens.

So what are some of the key issues in Puerto Rico that you'd like to bring to the president's attention?

MCCLINTOCK: Well, the governor will decide what issue he wants to bring up and probably will be the issues that are most important for the people of Puerto Rico. Obviously the biggest issue in Puerto Rico is Puerto Rico's political status.

Within the state of party, you have conservatives like the governor who is the Republican National Committeeman. And you have Democrats like me. I'm the Democratic National Committeeman. But we're joined by our preference for statehood. Within the status quo party as well as the Independence party, you have the same situation.

LYDEN: When was the last time statehood was on the referendum in the Puerto Rican plebiscite?

MCCLINTOCK: 1998, and it was 48-point-something percent then.

LYDEN: For statehood?

MCCLINTOCK: For statehood. And 1993, it was slightly less than that. In 1967, it was 39 percent and it was 12 percent in 1952.

LYDEN: What do Puerto Ricans think statehood would achieve that being a commonwealth protectorate has not?

MCCLINTOCK: Well, the first thing is the right to vote for president has some benefits to that. The right to have voting representation in Congress has some benefits. The fact that you assume all the responsibilities but also all the benefits financially of being a state has its benefits also.

Just to give you an example. Since I was 17, I've been paying the same percentage of my income in Medicare taxes as you do. But the day that you turn 65, you're going to get 100 percent of the Medicare benefits. I'm only going to get about 70 percent of the Medicare benefits. That's patently unfair. If I'm paying the same as you, why should I not receive the same benefits?

LYDEN: There's close to five million Puerto Ricans on the mainland and that's greater than the island's population. So is this visit more about Puerto Ricans in the United States than those on the island?

MCCLINTOCK: Well, that's a question that you've got to ask the president. But, you know, when presidents have gone to Jerusalem, I'm pretty sure that it's not simply that they're curious to see La Via Dolorosa.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: Kenneth McClintock is secretary of state of the Puerto Rican commonwealth, thank you very much for being with us today.

MCCLINTOCK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: You're listening to NPR News.

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