President Barack Obama’s visit to Puerto Rico drew a slew of positive feedback from a handful of private-sector executives invited to his welcoming Tuesday, with most concurring that the historic event was positive and could result in long-term benefits.
Chamber of Commerce President Raúl Gayá, said the trade organization he leads has been working with the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status to develop a 10-year economic and social development plan for the island that is not subject to political changes.
“What we’re looking to do is map out Puerto Rico’s recovery over the next decade, which will require all elements of society to come together and focus on that, above any political considerations,” said Gayá, while at Obama’s remarks to the people of Puerto Rico delivered from a hangar at the Muñiz Air National Guard Base in Carolina. “I just shook the president’s hand and he told me that he is pleased with those initiatives and will continue to support them.”
The CofC leader said he has a “very good impression” of Obama and set his hopes on seeing positive results from the Commander-in-Chief’s brief visit to Puerto Rico, marking the first time a sitting U.S. president has come to the island in 50 years.
That visit should be interpreted as a sign that Obama is interested in Puerto Rico’s affairs, said Arturo Carrión, executive director of the Puerto Rico Bankers Association.
“The United States contributes greatly to Puerto Rico’s economy, even if sometimes we don’t give that enough credit, so when the leader of that nation comes to visit, we must show him our respect, even if it’s just with our presence,” said Carrión. “I also think tomorrow’s [Wednesday’s] summit will tell us how important the president’s visit will really be.”
Carrión was referring to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Summit, which is being held today as a follow-up to the report issued by the President’s Task Force on March 16, 2011. The all-day summit will focus on four of the report’s central themes in the area of economic development: building competitive industries; strengthening Puerto Rico’s economic future; innovation, technologies and science clusters; and government procurement.
For Hernán Ayala, president of the Puerto Rico Shipping Association, Obama’s visit presented “an excellent opportunity to express what Puerto Rico feels with regards to the U.S.”
That includes working on improving its business relationship with the mainland, which could serve as a bridge to other countries.
“Puerto Rico and the U.S. have a mutual trade dependence and we have to build upon that, while focusing our efforts to exporting more to eliminate the trade deficit that we have,” Ayala said.
Opportunity to find self-sufficiency
“I believe this will help us continue to mend, because of the attention it brings and because we believe Obama will not come here empty-handed,” said Vicente Sánchez, president of the Puerto Rico Products Association, expressing high hopes for what could come as a result of the president’s focus on the island. “The visit of a president to such as small island denotes the importance we have to the U.S., of which we’re a part of.”
“We believe that interest will manifest itself in the resolution of some of the problems we have, especially of economic nature,” said Sánchez, who is also president of Empresas Barsán Inc. “I’m sure the U.S. will continue helping Puerto Rico, but the help we need is to develop ourselves to be able to achieve a self-sustaining economy.”
Former Economic Development and Commerce Department Secretary Bartolomé Gamundi echoed the thought, saying that any incentives that may come down from the U.S. mainland should be earmarked to fuel the growth of local entrepreneurship.
“We have massive job losses, yes, but we need to see that as a reason to create jobs through local entrepreneurship,” said Gamundi, a veteran manufacturing executive. “We need to grow from within and any incentive granted for that is good.”
Something he was expecting Obama to discuss were the island’s economic problems and how “we can help each other out.” However, that did not occur during Obama’s public remarks,
Meanwhile, Gamundi said he had spoken to people who would be in direct contact with Obama Tuesday, to suggest he requires that every U.S trade mission to foreign countries include representation from the island.
He also said the attention that Puerto Rico will receive related to Obama’s visit “is not a bad thing, especially when that attention will be for something positive, instead of negative.”
“But we can’t expect a president to come here and things to be fixed. We need to find a way to insert ourselves into other countries outside the United States to seek solutions to our problems,” said Gamundi.
Finally, Manuel Cidre, CEO of Los Cidrines, said Obama’s visit presents a win-win situation for the island, but the true benefit will be “how we capitalize on that visit.”
“Puerto Rico needs to define several things at once, and it’s not all about the status issue,” said Cidre. “We have to begin to define how we change our model of dependency into one of development. We have to change from a model of impoverishment to one of entrepreneurship.”
However, achieving that will depend on how the island’s politicians deliver that message and how the president receives it.
“That is the great uncertainty, but hopefully this visit will help us out on this,” the Arecibo executive said.