Kamala Harris visits Puerto Rico for first time as vice president

Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Puerto Rico early Friday afternoon to embark on her first visit to the U.S. territory since being sworn in three years ago.

According to her office, the purpose of the trip is to highlight President Joe Biden’s “commitment to supporting Puerto Rico’s recovery” following hurricanes, earthquakes and the Covid-19 pandemic — with a special focus in promoting the administration’s investments on the island’s infrastructure and economic recovery initiatives.

Her five-hour trip included a visit to an area in the town of CanĂłvanas that received federal housing funds disbursed by the Biden administration to rebuild homes for about 6,300 families islandwide during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017.

“We’re making a difference,” Harris said in a speech delivered outside the home of an octogenarian CanĂłvanas resident that was ravaged by the hurricane and rebuilt with federal funds. The new home will be able to withstand future hurricanes and uses solar energy.

The Biden administration has invested a total of $140 billion in Puerto Rico across multiple sectors, including education and disaster response, Harris said in her speech. She also emphasized investments in small businesses, entrepreneurs, infrastructure and renewable energy initiatives.

“There’s more work to do,” Harris added.

Harris also commemorated the 151st anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico when it was under Spanish rule, alongside community leaders and artists in San Juan dedicated to celebrating the island’s cultural heritage and its African influence.

Since Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and not a state, people living in the island can’t vote in presidential elections even though they are U.S. citizens by birth.

But political parties allow them to participate in the primaries that help elect presidential nominees.

The Democratic primary in Puerto Rico is scheduled for April 28, and the Republican primary for April 21.

Close to 6 million Puerto Ricans live in the U.S. mainland, many in competitive states like Florida and Pennsylvania. Biden-Harris supporters hope that touting the wins of the Biden administration in Puerto Rico can influence Latino voters of Puerto Rican heritage who live in the U.S. mainland and can register to vote in presidential elections.

Charlie RodrĂ­guez, president of the Democratic Party in Puerto Rico, told NBC News he viewed the vice president’s visit as “a reiteration of the policies established by the President since he stepped into the White House, of staying focused on Puerto Rico a during his term.”

More often than not, people living in Puerto Rico don’t always see how decisions made in Congress and the White House affect their daily lives, Rodríguez said, adding that under the Biden administration investments in infrastructure and economic recovery has allowed for the revitalization of roads and some decaying buildings, the ongoing reconstruction of the electrical grid, and the expansion of federal nutrition programs and education funds.

‘These have extraordinary impact,” he added. “That’s why we have to continue spreading that message.”

Harris’ trip comes a week after first lady Jill Biden visited Puerto Rico.

Harris’ visit also drew protests, as dozens of Puerto Ricans like Joseline VelĂĄsquez, a spokesperson for the group Jornada: Se Acabaron Las Promesas, first gathered near Condado in San Juan and blasted the Biden administration’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, expressing concerns over U.S. involvement in Haiti and expressing discontent over Puerto Rico’s recovery.

Several counter-protesters in favor of the vice president’s visit showed up to San Juan Friday afternoon, chanting pro-statehood remarks.

“It is disrespectful,” VelĂĄsquez of the group Jornada: Se Acabaron Las Promesas, told Telemundo Puerto Rico in Spanish, adding that she believed Harris’ main purpose for her visit is to “walk through the streets of Puerto Rico to raise funds for the electoral campaign.” (Telemundo is part of NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.)

The Biden Victory Fund political action committee organized a fundraising event in an apartment complex owned by investor Nicholas Prouty, Puerto Rican national newspaper El Nuevo Día first reported. Harris stopped by the event before leaving the island.

Prouty, a New York native, is most known in Puerto Rico for being one of the estimated 6,000 wealthy investors who have moved to the island following tax breaks if they buy a residency in Puerto Rico and live there at least half of the year.

But in political circles, Prouty is a longtime campaign donor; Federal Election Commission records show Prouty has contributed to the campaigns of multiple Democratic candidates such as Biden, Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton since at least 2008. Fewer campaign contributions were done in favor of Republican candidates.

RodrĂ­guez said it’s common practice, especially during an election year, that elected officials take time from their official visits to participate in a fundraising event.

“There is no doubt that there are a number of people in Puerto Rico who are in a better position to be able to contribute generous amounts, within the framework of what’s allowed by federal law, and to give those types of donations,” RodrĂ­guez said in Spanish.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office is currently investigating the controversial tax breaks, known locally as Act 22, after four Democratic members of the House Natural Resources Committee requested they review parts of the Puerto Rico tax incentives law that may be allowing wealthy individuals from the U.S. mainland and some businesses to avoid significant taxes.

The U.S. Internal Revenue Service has also said it is investigating about 100 high-income individuals who attempted to avoid U.S. taxation by benefiting from a controversial tax break in Puerto Rico without meeting the appropriate requirements.