Economic Stagnation

Vieques has a population of approximately 9,400 inhabitants. It has an unemployment rate of almost fifty percent (50%) by most conservative estimates. General Electric, which is one of the few large companies in Vieques, will end its operations this summer. Fishing is the only industry in the island of Vieques with any truly viable economic significance. This is obviously due to the Navy’s expropriation of the most fertile lands in the island that formerly sustained a respectable agricultural activity. Carlos Zenón, the former President of the Fishermen Association, said that when the US Navy ships enter the one-hundred-foot deep waters where the fishermen have their traps, “the ships’ propellers destroy the buoys that indicate where the traps are.” When that happens it is hard for them to find the nets. As a result, the nets stay at the bottom of the sea for eight or twelve months, attracting many fish that ultimately die in the traps. The US Department of Agriculture conducted a study of these traps and found that a single net collects from 4,500 to 5,000 pounds of fish in ten months, which poses a severe environmental threat to the fragile marine ecosystem in that region. In 1977, for example, the US Navy destroyed 131 traps.

Ecological Damage

The immediate effects of the bombings in Vieques are the destruction of delicate ecosystems in the island, which supports hundreds of species of plants and animals that are killed instantly upon the direct impact of the projectiles during military target practices. Furthermore, these bombings and military maneuvers lead to serious contamination of the environment due to toxic residues. In an article published in 1988, engineer and environmental consultant Rafael Cruz-Pérez identified three ways in which the military’s bombings pollutes the environment in Vieques: (1) Chemicals in the Missiles’ explosive payloads, (2) Dust and rock particles released into the air as a result of the impact and/or explosion of missiles, and (3) Metallic residues left by missiles after they detonate, and the junk and scrap heap they use for target practice. “According to information provided by the Navy, this material is never removed…Under the effects of additional explosions and sea breezes, metals are oxidized or decomposed, turning in accelerated fashion into leachates that pollute the environment”, said Cruz-Pérez in his article. He also referred to a scientific study by the Navy, which says that the sources of drinking water in Vieques’ Isabel Segunda village and Barrio Esperanza are polluted with toxic chemicals, like TNT, tetryl and RDX. Cruz-Pérez commented that “the study doesn’t explain how these substances got to the water sources, located more than fourteen kilometers away from the shooting area”. In the 70′s, the US Environmental Protection Agency sampled Vieques’ air and soil. After studying the samples, the EPA determined that the air has unhealthy levels of particulate matter and the ground has iron levels above normal.

Puerto Rico: From Spanish Colony to American Military Bastion

After 400 years of Spanish colonial rule, Puerto Rico became a possession of the United States as a direct result of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Right after the invasion the US established a military government, which lasted up to 1900; thereafter, the Foraker Act of 1900 authorized the President of the United States to appoint a civilian governor. In 1917 the Jones Act granted US citizenship to all island residents. In 1948 Puerto Ricans were allowed to elect their own home-grown governor for the very first time. Today, after 101 years of direct economic, political and military rule, Puerto Rico continues to be a US colony. Given its geographical position, Puerto Rico has always played a key strategic military role for the United States.
Expropriation of Land for Regional Military Purposes

In 1938 the US Navy began using the island-municipality of Vieques, right off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, for military practices. In 1941, during the height of WW II, the Navy initiated a campaign of forced expropriation of territory, which ultimately ended in their possession of over two thirds of the island’s most arable land, thereby displacing thousands of families and seriously jeopardizing their basic means of subsistence. The Navy arbitrarily set the price for the expropriated land giving the island residents very little say, if any, in the matter. Resistance became an exercise in futility, for the Navy issued the following ultimatum: Either you accept the price set by the Navy or prepare to be evicted, by force, if necessary, within 24 hours. The net effect of these policies was the clustering of the entire civilian population of Vieques into a small strip of land right in the middle of the island. Thus the US Navy took control of over 75% of this tiny island.

The US Navy bombing tests and military practice on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, has ended. On May 1, citizens in Vieques celebrated the first day in over 60 years without a US Navy bombing run.

Puerto Ricans of Vieques objected to the US Navy’s presence across many other ideologically divisive issues regarding the US. Until recently, the US Navy owned over two-thirds of Vieques. When the US bought this land in the 1940s, many families and farmers were forced out of their homes and off their lands to make way for military exercises, which began in 1947.

Bush announced that the Navy would leave Vieques in June 2001, and it is widely accepted that it was the success of the protest movement that led to the this decision and to the US Navy’s withdrawl.

While resistance to the Navy’s military exercises was ongoing, it was not until 1999, when a civilian security guard was killed by a bombing accident, that popular resistance began to have a lasting effect on US policy.

Many problems remain in Vieques, however. Environmental destruction and unexploded ordinances ravage the land. The land has not been returned to the people of Puerto Rico, rather, it has been transferred to the US Department of Fishing and Wildlife, so that an environmental assessment can be obtained. Early Puerto Rican estimates have produced a figure of $400 million necessary to clean up the land used by the US Navy, but only $23 million has been allocated so far.