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Orlando Sentinel: Central Florida Puerto Ricans have front-row seat for Obama's visit to island

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By Jeannette Rivera-Lyles, Orlando Sentinel
5:58 p.m. EDT, June 14, 2011

When President Barack Obama entered a hangar at San Juan's Muñiz Air Force Base on Tuesday, Oviedo resident Betsy Franceschini had a front-row seat for the first presidential speech delivered in Puerto Rico in 50 years.

Franceschini, who works as a Hispanic outreach coordinator for the Democratic Party of Florida, is one of a handful of local Latinos — mainly Puerto Ricans — who were invited by the White House to meet the president on the island.

"What a phenomenal experience," Franceschini said in a phone interview. "This president has demonstrated that he sees Puerto Rico as part of this great nation, not just some afterthought."

Obama's visit was widely viewed as an effort to gain support from the 4.6 million Puerto Ricans in the mainland U.S. — almost one in five of whom are in Florida. Those living on the island can't vote in presidential elections, but Puerto Ricans on the mainland are eligible.

Among Central Florida Hispanics invited were Latino Leadership founder Marytza Sanz, businessman and civic leader José Fernández and local Democratic Party president Amy Mercado.

Like Franceschini, many local Puerto Ricans were basking in the White House recognition that the U.S. territory had lacked for decades. John F. Kennedy was the last president to visit.

Obama's speech was carried live by Puerto Rico's television stations, including WAPA America, seen widely in Central Florida via cable and satellite. The president spoke of Puerto Rico as an intrinsic part of the nation and said Puerto Ricans are struggling with the same problems as the rest of Americans.

"Today a lot of folks are asking some of the same questions here on the island as they're asking in Indiana or California or in Texas:  How do I make sure my kids get the kind of education that they need?  How can I put away a little money for retirement?  How can I fill up my gas tank?  How can I pay the bills?" Obama said.

On the contentious issue of the island's ambiguous political status, the president said his administration would stand by Puerto Ricans when they make "a clear decision" about it.

Puerto Ricans on the island are split about evenly on the issue, with half favoring statehood and half preferring the current commonwealth relationship, or some form of it.

"People are very happy about the president's visit," Fernando Negrón, a popular Orlando Spanish talk-radio host, said of his listeners.

However, Kissimmee Commissioner Art Otero, a Republican, wasn't impressed.

"It's a gimmick," Otero said. "The president's priority should be on the mainland. In 2012, what voters in Central Florida will remember is the administration's failure to address the economic problems our community has faced, such as foreclosures, double-digit unemployment and soaring energy and food prices."

Still, Longwood Commissioner Bob Cortés, also a Republican, argued that Puerto Rico is part of the United States and deserves the same attention as the 50 states.

"The Republicans should be paying attention and stop ignoring Puerto Rico," Cortés said. "To get the Puerto Rican vote in the next election cycle, they have to show that they care about them and also about what happens in the island."

jriveralyles@tribune.com or 407-420-5471