Kamala Harris marks first visit to Puerto Rico as vice president, riling some in the US territory

People take photos of a U.S. flag that was set fire during a protest against the visit of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Friday, March 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Alejandro Granadillo)

People take photos of a U.S. flag that was set fire during a protest against the visit of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Friday, March 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Alejandro Granadillo)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visited Puerto Rico on Friday as part of a whirlwind trip to tout the federal aid the U.S. territory has received following deadly hurricanes and attend a Democratic fundraiser.

Her visit comes days after U.S. President Joe Biden launched a campaign targeting Latino voters ahead of the November general elections. While those in Puerto Rico cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections despite being U.S. citizens, more than 5 million Puerto Ricans live in the U.S. mainland.

Accompanying Harris for the roughly five-hour visit to the island were U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Housing and Urban Development Deputy Secretary Adrianne Todman. Welcoming them was Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, a Democrat whose New Progressive Party has long pushed for statehood.

Harris’ first stop was to visit a new home in the northern municipality of Canovanas, located near the capital. It had been destroyed after Hurricane Maria hit the island in September 2017 as a powerful Category 4 storm, killing nearly 3,000 people in its aftermath.

En route, the motorcade passed people holding their phones up as it went by. Some onlookers leaned out of their cars to take photos as they waited for the motorcade to pass, while others stood outside businesses and homes as the motorcade continued. One girl held a sign imploring help to fix their home.

“I see we are making a difference. There is still more work to do,” Harris said as she stood on the lawn of the new home draped with a large Puerto Rican flag. “We are ambitious. Yes, we are impatient.”

It was Harris’ first visit to Puerto Rico as vice president. She visited as a U.S. senator in 2017 after devastating hurricanes Irma and Maria pummeled the island.

Harris said one of the ongoing challenges Puerto Rico faces is intermittent energy sources, with outages still occurring daily since Maria razed the power grid. She noted that the federal government has provided some $3 billion in reliable energy sources, including rooftop solar panels. It also shipped mega generators last year to minimize outages.

“(This) is about an upgrade on quality of life and just the well being and dignity of each family to be able to satisfy their basic needs,” she said, adding that hurricane resistance technology is being used. “Puerto Rico taught us some lessons.”

Meanwhile, Todman said that more than 6,000 homes have been repaired and more than 3,500 new units built since the devastating storm.

“It’s undeniable that more work remains to be done,” she said.

Reconstruction in the years following Maria was slow, in part given the spending restrictions that the Trump administration implemented at the time.

During Harris’ visit on Friday, Pierluisi thanked her and Biden for their help: “They’re with us in connection with this reconstruction.”

Hours before Harris’ arrival, a couple dozen protesters gathered in Puerto Rico’s capital to decry the island’s territorial status and demand a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war.

“We find her presence disrespectful,” said Joselyn Velázquez, protest spokeswoman, as a group around her waved Palestinian flags.

Nearby, one demonstrator stood on a U.S. flag while others gathered additional U.S. flags and set them on fire.

“She is not welcome here,” said one protester.

After visiting the home in Canovanas, Harris stopped by a community center in San Juan where a handful of protesters gathered, yelling, “Yankee, go home!” as supporters chanted, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” One protester held a sign that said “Kamala Harris war criminal.”

Harris later spoke at a campaign reception before flying back to the U.S. mainland Friday evening.

She addressed about a couple dozen attendees gathered at an upscale apartment complex owned by developer Nicholas Prouty, who hosted the event. Harris thanked him and Pierluisi, noting that the governor “does not pass up the opportunity” to have a list of what Puerto Rico needs. “Mad respect,” she said.

Turning to the general election, Harris said, “We are going to win,” adding that “everything is at stake.”

“What we are looking at is fundamentally an election that’s going to require us each to answer a question,” Harris said. “What kind of country and world do we want to live in?”

Harris then talked about the “full-on attacks on fundamental rights” and said “but the thing about being a role model is people watch what you do to see if it matches what you say.”

She described Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, as someone who has expressed admiration of dictators and “someone who has, speaking of Puerto Rico, used words like dirty and poor and corrupt.”

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Associated Press videographer Alejandro Granadillos contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of Latin America and the Caribbean at https://apnews.com/hub/latin-america

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