SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – A new governor took office Wednesday in Puerto Rico, marking an ideological shift in a U.S. territory struggling to revive its economy and reduce violent crime.
Alejandro Garcia Padilla was sworn in on a stage overlooking the Atlantic Ocean outside the Capitol building in San Juan amid the cheers of thousands of supporters from his party, which opposes statehood. Garcia is a 41-year-old attorney and former local senator who narrowly defeated pro-statehood Gov. Luis Fortuno in November, thanks in part to support from labor unions angered when Fortuno laid off more than 20,000 government workers to help close a budget deficit.
Garcia said one of his priorities is to create jobs on an island where unemployment hovers above 13 percent, higher than in any U.S. state.
"The problems are very, very serious. We cannot minimize them or hide them," he said.
Garcia said Puerto Rico is facing a public debt higher than previously thought, as well as alarming crime statistics and a downgrading of the island's credit. He said the island needs to strengthen its industrial and commercial sectors, boost agricultural production and graduation rates and improve its education and justice system. The island of 4 million people reported a record 1,117 homicides in 2011, with just a small drop in 2012.
"Getting there will take time. Things are not going to solve themselves overnight," Garcia said.
Many union members and laid-off workers cheered Garcia at the inauguration, including 41-year-old Victor Omar Cotto, who was a supervisor at the Department of Transportation for 13 years until April 2010.
"I came to see the departure of the same person who laid me off," he said, adding that he was out of work for nine months, struggling to support his stay-at-home wife and two children.
The majority of Garcia's supporters wore the red color of his Popular Democratic Party, which supports the island's current commonwealth status. Many clutched umbrellas to protect themselves from a fierce sun and danced to the music of an orchestra clad in all white ahead of the speech.
Hundreds of invited guests were seated around the stage, including Danilo Medina, the president of the Dominican Republic, and ministers from countries including Haiti, Costa Rica and Panama.
Celebrating Garcia's arrival was 80-year-old Leonardo Rodriguez of Santurce.
"We want new ideas, we want the country's situation to improve," he said. "What worries me most is the crime, education and health."
Garcia didn't mention a two-part Nov. 6 referendum in which voters were asked to decide the future of the island's political status. On the first question, 54 percent said they were not content with the current commonwealth status. The second question asked voters to choose from three options. Of those, 61 percent supported statehood, with lesser numbers backing sovereign free association or independence. However, nearly 500,000 voters left that question blank, leading to arguments over the referendum's results.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said he would respect the people's will if there was a clear majority.