Last spring, I came across an article in Caribbean Edge magazine on Vieques, a small island seven miles off the coast of Puerto Rico. According to the article, Vieques' "lush green rainforest, pristine beaches, and crystal clear waters" are "the perfect place to relax and experience the quiet charms of a truly unspoiled Caribbean island."
They must have mistaken a different island for Vieques, I thought. "Pristine" and "unspoiled" could not possibly describe the Vieques I knew of, a U.S. aerial weapons testing ground for over 50 years whose residents had a 30% higher cancer rate than Puerto Ricans do, a 381% higher rate of hypertension, and a 95% higher rate of cirrhosis of the liver. And phrases like "perfect place to relax" and "quiet charms" hardly seem apt to describe a place that has been the site of demonstrations and arrests, and whose future continues to be contested terrain.
Of course I could have been wrong—and there was only one way to be sure. In June, I packed my bags and headed to Vieques.
SIXTY YEARS OF BOMBING
The U.S. Navy's occupation of Vieques began on December 10, 1941, three days after Japanese bombs struck Pearl Harbor, when Congress authorized $30 million to build military installations in Puerto Rico, including a dual-use target range/amphibious exercise base in Vieques. Between 1941 and 1947, the Navy expropriated two-thirds of the island and displaced 10,000 Viequenses. It compensated possessors of legally titled land—a small number of mostly white, mostly wealthy plantation owners. Almost overnight Vieques was rebuilt to serve as one side in a defensive triangle, made up of Puerto Rico, Florida, and Panama, that would protect the Panama Canal and hold European fascism at bay.
"Don't give your land to foreigners even if they pay you well. He who sells his land sells his country."
But by the time construction was completed, the base was already obsolete. The Panama Canal was calm and the Caribbean Sea, initially expected to be a theater of war, had hosted only one minor battle. At the end of World War II the largest base on the Puerto Rican mainland was placed on maintenance status. Some tracts of land were leased back to the Puerto Rican government, but in Vieques the Navy remained planted. It kept Viequenses in the center of the island and poured more capital into munitions storage facilities in the west and weapons testing grounds in the east, all the while insisting that its maneuvers on Vieques were vital to national security. The service members who trained there fought the wars on fascism, on communism, on drugs, and later on terror. During the Navy's 60-year residency, 18,000 tons of bombs fell on the island; napalm and Agent Orange rained from the sky.
Nonetheless, in an official "Vieques White Paper," the Navy asserted that it "has been a good steward of the land and water entrusted to its care at Vieques. It has protected and nurtured the wildlife, forests, plants, and resources. … Its use of a very small part of the island for a live impact area has not harmed the health of its neighbors on Vieques or the environment in which they live. … To date, the Navy has seen no credible evidence that its activities pose a risk to human health."
That was in 1999, six months after two 500-pound bombs were accidentally dropped on a civilian Viequense named David Sanes. Four years later, a solidarity movement worldwide in reach was conducting large-scale demonstrations and civil disobedience actions to force the Navy off of the island. Over 1,500 people were imprisoned, including some of Puerto Rico's most esteemed religious and political leaders. The mayor of Vieques himself served four months in a federal penitentiary. Finally, in 2003, the Navy deactivated the base. The press stopped reporting on "the struggle in Vieques." In the New York Times, Vieques slid seamlessly from social justice talking point to hot tourist destination.
THIS IS NOT WILDERNESS
When the Navy closed its base, it transferred land administration to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which applied the term "wilderness area" to 900 acres of the eastern portion of the island. The 1964 Wilderness Act defines "wilderness" as "[a place] where the earth and its community are untrammeled by man … retaining its primeval character and influence … and that generally appears to have been affected primarily by forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable."
It seemed to me that the imprint of man's work would be rather pronounced on an ex-Navy bombing range; that a site with more craters than parts of the moon could only loosely be termed "wilderness." This is more than just semantics. Engaging in an Orwellian name game allows the Navy to evade its decontamination responsibilities. Suppose the land was classified as residential or commercial rather than as "wilderness." Or better yet, imagine that it must one day accommodate an elementary school. Environmental standards and corresponding clean-up processes enjoy a reciprocal relationship with future land use plans. So whether the land must be made suitable for sea turtles or school children makes a big difference. By designating much of the land as wildlife refuge and wilderness area, the U.S. government has reduced the Navy's financial and environmental responsibility to the lowest possible level.
For evidence of the Navy's financial evasion, consider Kaho’olawe, Hawaii. Like Vieques, Kaho‘olawe was used for conventional and non-conventional military operations for over 50 years. Unlike Vieques, however, Kaho‘olawe was uninhabited. Yet Kaho'olawe received $400 million for decontamination, while Vieques, with a population above 7,000, received less than half that.
THIS IS NOT CLEAN-UP
The environmental repercussions of such parsimony are everywhere. The Navy and its contractors say they are "removing" unexploded ordnance and munitions scrap debris. But safe, complete removal requires the use of controlled detonation chambers to explode live ordinance. "Operational limitations" preclude such methods, says the Navy. As a result, 20 tons of explosives have been blown up in place recently, including 1,046 munitions of up to one-ton size, 495 of which were classified as "high explosives."
While I was in Vieques I attended a meeting of the Restoration Advisory Board, which lasted more than four hours and brought together members of the Viequense community with representatives from the Navy, EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Vieques municipal government. But most Viequenses do not trust the federal government; they feel angry and alienated and betrayed. "This is still a matter of life or death," shouted Bob Rabin, a long time resident of Vieques. "Bombs are being detonated."
Naval contractor CH2M Hill has begun testing for background levels of inorganics (metals) in soil samples from areas on Vieques identified as "not impacted by past Navy activities." These data will be compared with soil tests from sites where Navy activity is a concern. During discussions about background sampling, a resident named Mike Diaz expressed concern that areas "not impacted by past Navy activities" may simply not exist on his small island. "If you can envision a volcano distributing material over the islands," he asked, "why can't you envision the same distribution by bombs?"
Rabin's assertion that lives are at stake is not overstated. Study after study shows that toxic substances from Navy activity have entered the food chain, contaminating surface vegetation like squash, peppers, and pigeon peas, as well as fish. A research group from the University of Puerto Rico School of Public Health examined the dust in residents' homes and found it laced with cadmium, arsenic and lead. Yet until the Navy's own team of contracted experts executes its contamination study, the Navy denies any responsibility.
THIS IS NOT CONTROL
The struggle in Vieques was many things, but it was never solely an expression of anti-militarism. It was more about control, or more specifically, about putting control of their land and economy back into the hands of Viequenses.
Consequently, the Navy's 2003 departure was bittersweet because since then, land administration has gone from the U.S. Department of Defense's Naval Facilities Atlantic Command to the U.S. Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service, and ongoing clean-up efforts, though aided by private contractors, are overseen and regulated by the EPA. In each case, the governing body—the body determining the fate of the island—belongs to the U.S. government, not to the people of Vieques.
The economic sub-plot is similar. During the Navy's occupation of the island, Viequenses lost access to their ports, both marine and air, which effectively halted foreign investment and stalled domestic production in industries like sugar, fishing and agriculture. While unemployment soared among Viequenses, the U.S. government took in close to $100 million annually by renting the eastern Live Impact Area to allied militaries. Now that the bombing has stopped, Vieques has a chance to restore its faltering economy. But in the absence of regulatory controls and a sustainable land use plan, Viequenses risk losing control yet again.
Already gentrification has displaced a large segment of the Viequense population. As one local realtor explained, "When the Navy left, land on Vieques was cheap and plentiful, at least from the perspective of foreign investors." Those investors had business experience and capital to front; in just a few years they cultivated a tourism industry that put the island in demand.
As more people come to Vieques, the cost of living rises and the real estate market becomes inflated. "Nobody forces Viequenses to leave," insisted the realtor. "They get offered a hundred thousand dollars for their concrete house and soon they're gone."
Nilda Medina, a Viequense woman, has watched foreign capital displace her friends. "It's like a ghost community has taken over," she said. Absentee owners with bank accounts in Boston are coming into possession of beach-front properties, hotels, and shops. Only they can swallow the sort of land speculation that makes previously untitled properties rapidly triple and quadruple in value. And all of these purchases by foreign investors, renters, and second-home buyers are happening while 600 homeless or underhoused Puerto Rican families bide their time on a waiting list for Section 8 housing assistance.
"After decades of resistance," Nilda told me, "American capital might accomplish what American bombs never could—the erosion and eventual eviction of Viequense population and culture."
Vieques needs a land use plan that will moderate the power of both the real estate and tourism industries and the federal government, a plan that can restore agency to the Viequense people. It needs a plan that will mandate the quick and complete decontamination of the island and pave the way for future economic growth—growth that is not just sustainable, but also endogenous. Given its history, this is a tough task for Vieques. The task is complicated further by the fact that Vieques has not just one, but three official land use plans: one applies to the municipality, one applies to all of Puerto Rico, and one was specially designed for Vieques by a group of Puerto Rican academics. Testing the legal fortitude of each plan has already proven challenging. It may be some time before a stable land use plan is adopted.
THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES
For over half a decade, the struggle in Vieques was described in mythic terms, as a battle between David and Goliath, the Viequenses and the Navy. Now that the Navy is gone, the challenges facing Vieques are less clear-cut; instead of bombs and mortars, residents confront poorly regulated markets where absentee ownership and staggering foreign investment threaten wholesale displacement of the native people and culture.
Bob Rabin is one of the founding members of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (CRDV), formed in 1995 to articulate a vision of a Navy-free Vieques. He and his colleagues advocate the four Ds: demilitarization, decontamination, devolution, and (community-based, sustainable) development. "Demilitarization" refers specifically to the closure of remaining radar facilities and telecommunications centers that still occupy 200 acres on the island. "Decontamination" broadly demands that the Navy leave Vieques as clean as it was found in 1940, including the complete cleanup of heavy metals, napalm, Agent Orange, depleted uranium, and other land, marine, and aerial contaminants. "Devolution" speaks to the return of all land to Vieques, as opposed to the Fish and Wildlife Service. "Development" urges sustainable economic development by the Viequenses for the Viequenses, which respects the cultural and natural resources of the island.
"You might laugh at this," said Rabin, "but in some ways it used to be easier. The themes and issues were more straightforward. And there was consensus—we all believed there was something fundamentally correct about what we were doing." Today the issues are complicated; each proposal, each plan, and each initiative is controversial.
The same can be said for the solidarity movement that once rallied around the island. The Navy's presence was a unifying force; now the support network is frayed. Many people assume that with the base deactivated, the struggle is over. And those still attuned find it hard to stay informed and difficult to get involved. However, at the core of the struggle are familiar themes—respect for Vieques' land and waters, dignity for its people—and strategies—civil disobedience, town meetings, and referendums.
In the United States, I hope that our solidarity can shift with the circumstances to fight the U.S. military's "war on the earth" and support Vieques' efforts to achieve self-determination. In Vieques, "la lucha continua."
Liv Gold is a member of the Dollars & Sense collective.
HOW YOU CAN HELP: