Saturday, January 28, 2017

U.S. Military Presence in Vieques, Puerto Rico

      Every territory has its historical highlights. My hometown is no exception. I grew up in a small island called Vieques. Its historical highlight: the presence of the United States Navy. For most of the viequenses this represents not only a period of sadness and oppression, but also of perseverance, strength and triumph.

At $180 million so far, the cleanup effort is already the most expensive in military history. A protester in the Bronx demonstrates against U.S. Navy bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques in April 2001.  [Tina Feinberg/AP] 

Vieques is an island-municipality that lies about 8 miles off the southeastern coast from Puerto Rico. It is approximately 21 miles from east to west and 4 miles from north to south. The name "Vieques" is the spaniarized form of "Bieké" (meaning "small island") which was the name originally given by the Taínos (natives) to the territory. The term viequenses is used to refer to anyone born or residing in the island. Like its sister islands, Vieques is part of the United States Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, but its culture is characterized by strong Spanish, African and Taíno influences.
The Taínos inhabited the island until, shortly after, the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1493. The caciques (indigenous word for chiefs), Yaureibo and Cacimar, lead separate revolts against the Spaniards. The two were soon defeated and killed. The remaining indigenous population was reduced to slavery and shipped to the mainland of Puerto Rico. The British, the French and the Danish attempted to colonize the island, but were confronted by the Spaniards. Between the attempted colonizations, the island was used by pirates to re-supply their ships. Finally, in 1843, the Spaniards decided to colonize Vieques. The first town, Isabel Segunda, was established and the construction of the fort was started. Thereafter, black slaves were brought from the British Isles to work in the crops and in the sugar mills.
Fortín Conde de Mirasol (Courtesy of Repeating Islands)

Courtesy of Fine Art America
In 1898, after the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico (including the islands of Vieques and Culebra) became territories of the United States under the "Treaty of Peace Between the United States and Spain" (Treaty of Paris). In 1900, under the presidency of William McKinley, Foraker Act was approved. Under this act, Puerto Rico is ruled by a governor, a secretary and five members of the Cabinet and a  35-member Legislative Assembly representing the people. In 1917,  President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act which granted U.S. citizenship to anyone born in Puerto Rico and its islands.
        The year of 1941, marked the arrival of the military forces to Vieques Island. The Navy expropriated two-thirds of the land (approximately 26,000 to 36,000 acres), including most of the land used for agriculture. Ethic and sympathy for the civilians were not even worthy of discussion. Thousands of families were forced or bribed to leave the lands they had lived for generations and were relocated in areas assigned by the military. The Navy’s primary objectives were the construction of a naval base and the designation of the areas that would later be used for military training.
Courtesy of
Navy Bunkers (Courtesy of
Between 1941 and 1947, a legislation issued by the US Congress, with the support of the colonial government in San Juan, legalized the Navy takeover of the eastern and western sections of Vieques, leaving the civilian population with a small zone in the center of the island. On the 25th of August, 1941, the Congress approved Public Law 247, stipulating that in Vieques the Navy would enter into immediate possession of the lands to be expropriated for the construction of the naval base. A few months later, on 26 April, the Puerto Rican legislature approved law #54, ceding to the Navy all marshes, mangrove areas, dry lands and bodies of water adjacent to and belonging to Puerto Rico, situated on the east and southeast coasts of Puerto Rico. Thousands of people were forced off land their families had occupied for generations. Large landowners were paid a price fixed by the Navy. Over 800 worker-families with no legal title to the land, were given $20.00 or $30.00 for their houses and 24 to 48 hours to abandon the area. The expropriated families were assigned plots in a bulldozed cane field and had to sign a statement recognizing the Navy's right to take back the lot in 48 hours if necessary. [Rabin, Robert, “Vieques: Five Centuries of Struggle and Resistance”, p.5]
Expropriations also forced the closure of the Central Playa Grande (the only remaining sugar mill in operation and major employer in the island) causing a severe economic crisis that resulted in the emigration of thousands of viequenses to the mainland of Puerto Rico, to the United States and even to St. Croix, in search of work.  

Part of Central Playa Grande Ruins (Courtesy of
The first military practices started in 1948. These included bombing on the east side of the island (to both land and waters). The possible effects that the residues of the bombs could cause to the territory and even its population were ignored. The result: an environmental crisis consisting of the destruction of large areas of coconut palms, lagoons and mangroves, as well as severe damage to the marine life; and a negative impact on the fishermen’s way of living.
Between the 1950s and 1960s, the increased numbers of U.S. military soldiers in Vieques, brought high levels of alcoholism, prostitution and street violence. There were several riots and street battles, of soldiers against civilians, where several of the latter were killed.
Intoxicated sailors provoked fights and occasional riots. Several municipal resolutions were passed in the 1950s and 1960s condemning sailors’ conduct and chastising the bar owners who profited from such behavior. Despite the sexual conflicts, street fights, and riots however, resentment for the navy did not crystalize around the abuse of local women or sustain nationalist resentment. In a case frequently recalled by antinavy activists, Julián Felipe Francias, the elderly owner of a local bar, was brutally beaten to death by eight drunken sailors when he came to the assistanceof a woman they were harassing. A newspaper article described Felipe’s body as beaten to a pulp, his skull so shattered that “a finger could be easily sunk in his encephalic mass.” Another elderly man was severely beaten in the fracas as well. [McCaffre, Katherine T., “Military Power and Popular Protest: The U.S. Navy in Vieques, Puerto Rico”, p.55]

Despite the frequent collisions, these crimes and abuses were only imposed a fine of $150 and, in many cases, the Navy removed its soldiers even before court proceedings, mocking and insulting the justice and the offended.
During the 1960s, a bill called Project Fernós Murray was introduced. This project sought substantial congressional reforms to the colonial status of the Puerto Rican islands. After being informed that there were plans to develop Vieques for touristic purposes, the Navy opposed. Ironically, the Navy’s "Final Environmental Impact Statement" says: “the island offers great potential for tourism”, but this was impossible because the Navy, not only opposed to the plans, but remained in control of most of the land.
During mid 1970s, the fishermen and their families blocked the military practices by hindering the warships with small fishing boats. They protested against the damage that was caused to the marine life as a result of the bombings and the military restrictions on fishing activities. The Crusade for the Rescue of Vieques organized and directed the protests, in coordination with the Association of Fishermen. This symbolize the beggining of the struggle against the military presence in Vieques.

Within this year period, 21 people were arrested during an ecumenical activity in Playa Caracas. Viequenses and even people from the mainland of Puerto Rico and St. Croix had planned the deforestation of this area, that was once a large coconut grove that serve as an exportation port to the islands of St. Thomas and St. John. Meanwhile, the Navy had planned to land on this beach. The main purpose of the ecumenical act was raise awareness of the increased numbers of supporters who opposed to the presence of the Navy. 21 people were arrested. Christopher Rodriguez, one of 21 who was arrested and imprisoned in Tallahassee, Florida, was brutally murdered in his prison cell by some of the sailors.
Courtesy of
In the 1980s. the U.S. Congress conducted an investigation regarding the activities of the Navy in Vieques and its consequences for the viequenses. After several public hearings in Washington and in Vieques, the Congressional Committee’s final report stated that the United States Navy had to withdraw from Vieques and find another territory for their training.
By the end of the decade, the U.S. Navy tried to evict the family of Carmelo Félix Matta from their home. The Navy claimed that the field was behind an imaginary line that served as the boundary of his property in their sector. The family, supported by friends and neighbors, resisted eviction despite the presence of a squadron of federal marshals armed with machine guns. In addition, hundreds of residents rescovered part of the land that was expropiated by the Navy, in the forties, despite their claims of ownership of these lands. Finally, the Constituent Assembly of the Grand Council of Vieques is held for the purpose of organizing the struggle to rescue the rest of the territory that was still controlled by the Navy, to achieve the expulsion of the U.S. military and fight for the socio-economic development of my people.
In 1990s, the Navy launched twenty tons of explosives living in the eastern part of Vieques, including the use of live napalm, during a two weeks operation. (1992) Several brigades and comitees were organized, including Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (CPRDV, according to its initials in Spanish) to continue the struggle for the recovery of the land held by military and for the socio-economic development of the island. The Vieques Municipal Assembly approved a resolution submitted by the CPRDV, requesting the closure of bases and the return of land to the people of Vieques. The House of Representatives and the Senate of Puerto Rico approved the resolutions supporting the initiative of Vieques. The CPRDV  helped collect over four thousand signatures from viequenses on a postcard requesting the closure of the bases and the return of land controlled by the United States Navy to President Bill Clinton.
On April 19, 1999, a U.S. Navy pilot missed his target, killing civilian guard David Sanes Rodríguez. His death was the “drop that overflowed the cup.” People from the mainland of Puerto Rico, and even North Americans living on the islands, united to show their resistance and one message: “¡Ni una bomba más! ¡Fuera la Marina de Vieques Ya! ¡Paz para Vieques!” (Not another bomb! Navy, out! Peace for Vieques!) Four intense years of militant and (nonviolent) civil disobedience that include thousands of arrests, forced the Navy to close its base and finally leave the island on May 1, 2003.
Wikimedia Commons

Nonetheless, the base closure signaled merely the end of one phase of the Vieques struggle, where “true peace” has been locally defined as “the Four D’s”: Demilitarization, Decontamination, Devolution (return of lands), and (sustainable) Development by and for Viequenses. Six years after the base closed –– ten years since David Sanes’s death—where is Vieques?Demilitarization: While bombings and other military maneuvers were halted, the military still operates powerful ROTHR radar and radio towers on Mount Pirata, officially for the “war on drugs”; however, evidence points to use for electronic warfare, including weather modification.Decontamination: The Navy is responsible for environmental cleanup. Since the land is designated as a “wildlife refuge” required cleanup levels are insufficient, particularly for a population suffering from the health effects of contamination from all kinds of military weapons. Activists are currently fighting the Navy’s plan to simply burn the vegetation in the bombing range, using a variety of strategies – including risking arrest by entering the bombing range and once again serving as human shields to defend Vieques.Devolution: The former base lands are still under U.S. Government control, which not only restricts Viequenses’ use of their island, but also carries the risk of re-militarization. Activists recently met to plan a strategy that would eventually return the lands to the people of Vieques.Development: Worldwide attention to Vieques also attracted land speculators and other well-heeled outsiders who have caused property values to skyrocket, thus endangering the Viequenses’ ability to afford to stay on their own island. Creation of a Vieques Community Land Trust – one of the few mechanisms in a capitalist market – would help put brakes on land prices and also provide an entity that could receive and administer the returned lands. If Viequenses can manage to recover their beloved island, care for and develop it, and stabilize their community, David Sanes’ death will have not been in vain. [Berman Santana, Deborah, “Vieques, La Lucha Continúa: Reflections on 10 Years Since the Death of David Sanes”, p.1]
Toxic waste left by the US Navy (Photo courtesy of

Courtesy of NY Daily News

Photo credit: Alan Baribeau
The population of Vieques has not changed much through the years. Unemployment is rampant. Young people leave to seek better education at postsecundary institutions, but rarely return. At the moment, there is some development of the tourism industry. There are more small hotels in Vieques than ever before (including a W Hotel) and many residents live from the income of rental properties. Vieques is most popularly known by tourists for its pristine beaches and Puerto Mosquito (also known as BioBay), which was ranked the brighest bioluminiscent in the world by The Guiness World Book of Records in 2008.

According to the American Cancer Society, Vieques’ cancer rate is about 30% higher than any territory in the Caribbean due to the contaminants in the bombs and other toxic wastes (such as uranium, chromium and DDT pesticide). On this note, it is important to highlight Milivi Adams Calderón. Milivi, who was diagnosed at the age of 3, suffered from cancer until her frail little body could not stand anymore treatments and chemotherapies. At age 5, 8 months after return to her little island, Milivi passed away. For the viequenses, she is a symbol of struggle against cancer and the military’s agression.
Vieques’ struggles seemed to be neverending, but at least this little caribbean jewel, mi Isla Nena, is in peace.
                         Horses roam freely all over the island 

If you're interested in learning more, feel free to watch the following documentary ( English subtitles included).

Thanks for reading.

Berman Santana, Deborah. (2009) “Vieques, La Lucha Continúa: Reflections on 10 Years Since the Death of David Sanes”.
McCaffre, Katherine T. (2006) “Military Power and Popular Protest: The U.S. Navy in Vieques, Puerto Rico”. New Jersery: Rutgers University Press.

Rabin, Robert. (2008) “Vieques: Five Centuries of Struggle and Resistance”.


  1. Excellent article. Keep up the good work.

  2. Factual, unbiased and well-composed. Great job.