By DANICA COTO
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) â¿¿ 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.