Obama in Old San Juan

A month of steady rain has brightened the cobblestones of Old San Juan. Now they are as blue as the crabs hawked alongside the coastal roads of this Caribbean territory of the United States. Public employees must have been relieved that nature cooperated, after weeks spent sprucing up the city for Barack Obama’s arrival here on Tuesday morning.

His visit aggravated the city’s already grim traffic jams, called tapones, prompting some cynical reactions. A taxi driver named Reina Blanco waved her arm at the highway and told me: “Once again I’m going to be hearing tourists say they’ll never come back here because of the traffic”.

Nevertheless, most people consider the traffic a worthwhile inconvenience for the rare occasion of an official presidential visit, the first since John F. Kennedy came here 50 years ago. Welcome banners throughout the city picture the two presidents side by side with the words: “We are proud to be part of history, Kennedy 1961, Obama 2011”.

But how much do we have to celebrate?

A referendum on the future of Puerto Rico — independence, statehood or the status quo — will be held sometime in the next year or so, and Puerto Ricans are divided.

Hundreds of pro-independence protesters rallied Tuesday morning at the Plaza de Colón, named for Christopher Columbus, and El Morro fortress. One sign portrayed George Washington and read: “We too demand our independence”. At the same time, our pro-statehood governor, Luis Fortuño, celebrated Flag Day at the Capitol under the stars and stripes. (Mr. Obama didn’t attend.)

Earlier in the morning, with the streets closed off and quiet as a tomb, police officers at every corner, I spoke briefly to a slight woman who was passing through and was not a part of either extreme. “I was born under the two flags”, she said. “I was born in 1935, and every day in school we saluted the two flags”.

The daily newspapers have been full of ads from all sides of the debate and a litany of grievances. Official unemployment is over 16 percent, nearly half the commonwealth lives in poverty, and the murder rate is at a record high. Police abuses and civil rights violations, particularly against students, have intensified under the Fortuño administration, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The country’s premier university, where I teach, had a quarter of its budget slashed this year. A controversial natural gas pipeline has been planned to nearly span the island from south to north. (The government calls it Via Verde; its opponents, Via de la Muerte.) And early this year, Puerto Rico’s most famous political prisoner, Oscar Lopez Rivera, was denied parole after nearly 30 years of imprisonment in the United States.

But Mr. Obama may not know much about what the residents of this island — who can’t vote for him in a general election anyway — care about. Banners along the expressway criticizing the government’s policies were removed before he arrived. And he mingled mainly with the bigwigs who paid between $10,000 and $35,800 to attend a Democratic fund-raiser at the Caribe Hilton (though to his credit, he also met with an opposition leader).

In any case, his visit is mostly aimed at winning votes stateside — where there are some 4.6 million Puerto Ricans, compared with 3.7 million on the island — particularly in swing states like Florida that have large Puerto Rican communities.

At one of the many kiosks where vendors sold hand-crafted jewelry and bacalaítos, or cod fritters, I ran into a young man named Joel Casanova from Tampa, who said he had made the trip with his family expressly for Mr. Obama’s visit. His parents had voted for him, but he wasn’t sure if he would. (He was clear, however, about his support for the Miami Heat, which lost in the N.B.A. finals last weekend to the Dallas Mavericks and its Puerto Rican point guard, J. J. Barea.)

Even if the president’s visit changes little about life in Puerto Rico, it may, at least, endear him more to those who live here. Millions sensed themselves a part of history in the symbolic power of President Obama’s candidacy. I first remember feeling that during his speech in Selma, Ala., in March 2007, when he poignantly recalled his grandfather living under British colonial rule in Kenya.

I can’t help but wonder what Mr. Obama’s grandfather would have thought about the still-colonial status of the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico.

Maritza Stanchich, an associate professor of English at the Río Piedras campus of the University of Puerto Rico.

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