Navy Blues – Vieques, Puerto Rico

Navy Blues
Vieques, Puerto Rico

I am sitting here on Navio Beach, in the shade of a palm tree, just like I have done for almost every day in the past week, gazing out into the Caribbean. Today is different, though. The weather is threatening; large gray cumulous clouds approach, but never quite reach, the island. A cool breeze sweeps along the sand and chills my skin. There are intermittent rumblings far off to the east; thunderous BOOMS that crawl across the sky. But the clouds are to the west. The discrepancy does not escape me. I know at this point that these are not the sounds of a distant storm and if I had been left in any doubt, the Navy destroyer on the horizon was making matters poignantly clear.

Navy Destroyer

Navy destroyer

The US Navy came to Vieques, Puerto Rico in 1941, appropriating two-thirds of the island, and presenting an ultimatum to the residents: move or we will force you to move. The land taken by the military was previously used for agriculture, the mainstay of the island’s economy at the time. When employment opportunities provided by the Navy ran out, Viequenes were left jobless and with no prospects. Today roughly half the inhabitants are unemployed and the only major employer on the island, General Electric, plans to leave this summer.

The Navy has used the land for target practice, munitions dumping, and training of soldiers through Camp Garcia. Research has shown that the toxins and particulates from the Navy’s bombing have had a detrimental effect on the island’s environment. The cancer rate is about 26 percent higher than that of the average of neighboring Puerto Rico. Many locals won’t eat fish caught off the island because of these high levels of toxins. And the fishing industry has been decimated by the battleships which patrol in the shallow waters.

Considering this, Vieques may seem like a strange choice for a winter vacation destination, but here I am and the beaches truly are “some of the prettiest beaches in the Caribbean”. Besides, I am not planning on wearing a target on my chest and standing out on Punte Este waving at battleships; there is not going to be any reason to have to duck and cover during my time here. I also knew that there were not going to be any live fire exercises on the island, I did my research…or so I thought.

Protest Painted on a Rock

Protest painted on a rock

It doesn’t take too long to do all the island-tourist stuff in tiny Vieques: piña coladas on the beach, hiking out to the far points of the island, snorkeling along the reefs, Cuba Libres on the beach, a trip to the bioluminescent bay, watching the sun set, medallas on the beach, and socializing with the bartenders, to name a few. Even though a visitor to Vieques may never see a Navy serviceman here, wherever you are on the island, you cannot escape the presence of the Navy, nor the impact it has on life here. “Paz Por Vieques” and “Bieke O Muerte” (Bieke or Bieque is the native tongue for Vieques) are stenciled and painted everywhere. I imagine that if you leave your car parked for too long you may run the risk of having one of these maxims applied to your paintjob. On the corner of where I turn to go into town there is a boulder painted in red and white and in Spanish it says, “The atrocities of the empire have one limit…the patience of the people.” In every taxi and every late night at the bar the topic of conversation is about the Navy. Drunken Viequenes speculate on Navy conspiracies; “They’ve put a camera in that speaker, I’m sure of it. They watch everything that goes on in Vieques.”

Protestors Camping in front of the Gates

Protestors camping in front of the gates

The west end of the island, now in the hands of the US Department of the Interior in the form of a wildlife preserve, is strewn with remnants of the naval occupation. The old western fence is overgrown with vines. Razor wire, rusted water towers and abandoned magazine depots dot the landscape and sections of land remain fenced off with signs that read “Peligro, Explosives”. Highway 997, the island’s main north-south road, runs past Camp Garcia and it is here that the conflict between the island and the Navy is at its most visible, and potentially most volatile. Police guard the gates night and day, while protestors camp nearby, maintaining a constant vigil. The posters, flags, peace slogans, and little white crosses are at their most concentrated right in front of the Camp Garcia gate.

The municipalities of Vieques are perpetually starting new building projects, funded by grants from the Navy, though rarely finishing them. Half erected structures litter the island, quickly being consumed by tropical plant life. Passing the forsaken sports mega-complex, a publico driver explains the situation to me like this; Vieques is like the adult child of the United States who continues to be financially supported long after it is time for her to move on and become independent. Vieques is the thirty year old living in her parents’ basement with no plans on moving out and no pressure to do so.

Two days ago I went on a day trip to El Yunque in the Caribbean National Rainforest. On the walk to the ferry, which would take me to Fajardo in Puerto Rico, I notice that there is much more activity than what I was accustomed to for this tiny, slow moving island. There are more police and people milling about so early in the morning. But alas, I hadn’t had my coffee yet, so not much was being processed. I can handle only one goal at a time; get on the 7 AM ferry and sleep during the ride.

Over an hour later in Fajardo, while I drank my coffee, I bargained with a taxi driver to take me to El Yunque. He took me as far as the base of the mountain. The next 20 kilometers and 1500 vertical feet I had to walk, because every way I figured it would cost me about $60 (US) to get a ride to the top. The hike was worth it. The road to the top wound through dense forests of bamboo and palm trees, giant ferns and creeping vines. Snails the size of tea cups slowly crawl up trees that are home to the jungle sounds of the Puerto Rican Parrot and the Coqui tree frog. When I reached the top I could look down the valley and out across the ocean to Vieques. After a day of hiking and swimming in mountain waterfalls I trekked back down the mountain. This time I got a ride from a Puerto Rican man and his beautiful Spanish girlfriend. I was grateful; my legs were beginning to feel like tostones (the local dish of twice fried plantains).

The return ferry was crowded, and I ended up in a spot at the back, in the open air, where the diesel fumes poured out from the engines and filled the air with acrid fumes. I was content, though. I had completed a journey, seen what I set off to see, got some good exercise, and was ready to sleep. My fellow passengers had other plans, however. They were protestors heading to Vieques to protest against the Navy’s live target practice exercises which were due to begin, to my surprise, the very next morning.

These people were full of energy. They had flags and wore T-shirts with the familiar “Paz Por Vieques”, “Bieke O Muerte” and “Vieques, No Se Vende” slogans. An old man in camouflage fatigues, a seasoned protest veteran, sat beside me. Young girls and boys in multicolored knit hats ran around laughing and playing like young girls and boys (with or without multicolored knit hats) do all over the world. An accordion began to play from somewhere in the crowd, followed by a guitar and then a gourd rattle. A man with a megaphone started to sing. It was sweet beautiful music, songs of struggle and freedom, Latin rhythms and protest chants. “Marina!” he calls out, “Va!” the crowd responds. This continued throughout the ferry ride. I was mesmerized and was clapping along to the music, everyone was clapping. I stomped my feet and tried to sing along to lyrics I didn’t know in a language I don’t speak. But this was the universal music of struggle, and the meaning was plain to anyone, Spanish speaker or not. Their passion and excitement swept me away and before I could pull myself back into the role of objective observer, we were back in Vieques. The ferry arrived in Isabel Segundo, with much fanfare from the passengers. They were greeted by friends and family and driven off to their beds for a full night’s rest. That looked like a good idea. It had been a long day and there were many long days ahead. I walked back to my room, glowing from the inside out.

The Navy argues that the Vieques testing range is necessary for training the Marines and the Navy because of its proximity to the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico and because the topography of the island is suited for amphibious landing situations, sea to land firing ranges, and air combat maneuvers. The island residents who support the Navy also claim that its presence has benefited the economy and when the Navy leaves, Vieques and Puerto Rico will go the way of the Dominican Republic or Haiti. The Navy also denies any detrimental effect of their exercises on the people or environment of the Vieques.

Of course, the protestors disagree with the Navy’s claims. On April 19th, 1999, a civilian security guard was killed in a live fire exercise that missed its target. David Sanes Rodríguez’s subsequent martyrdom sparked many protests and acts of civil disobedience, but his death was not the first tragic clash between military and civilian. On April 4th, 1953, two Marines beat an old man, Mapepe Christian, to death, and six years later, US soldiers severely injured 19 people at a local party. In 1992, Navy jets dropped 40,000 pounds of live explosives on Vieques, including napalm. In 1996, several bombs were dropped near a group of fishermen off the southern coast. One of the fishermen, René Hernández, was hospitalized with serious injures. The Navy also reported that exactly two months before David Sanes Rodríguez’s death, 263 bullets containing depleted uranium were fired by accident on the eastern part of the island. On May 4, 2000 federal authorities removed and arrested protestors camped out on the Viequen firing range, ending a one year cessation of bombings.

In the most recent round of Navy exercises, only inert bombs are being used. Protests in these first few days are relatively peaceful. Navy advocates sit under their tents surrounded by American flags listening to Elvis and Souza marches and fanning themselves in the shade of palm trees. A few paces away, Navy protestors sit in front of their make-shift shanties surrounded by slogans for peace and freedom and the removal of the Navy, listening to Latin music and also fanning themselves in the shade of palm trees. Across Highway 997, which is only two lanes wide and hardly a highway, in front of the Camp Garcia gate, police in riot gear stand shoulder to shoulder. A mile in both directions police stand in pairs every fifty feet, prepared for the worst. Cars driving on 997 seem to slow down because of the tension. To date, several people have been arrested for trespassing and there was an incident on January 14th where protestors threw rocks at servicemen. Police responded with tear-gas and the crowd dispersed (no injuries reported).

For over sixty years the US Navy has used its territory in Vieques as a training facility and dumping ground, never placating their relationship with the locals. In 2004, the Navy will leave Vieques, and leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. The cleanup of ex-Navy land will take years, if not decades. Then, to promote a sustainable economy, Vieques will most likely push for more tourism. The unspoiled, secluded beaches of Vieques will be overrun with tourists and mega-resorts; it is already beginning to happen. But, can one-third of an island really be sacrificed to preserve the natural beauty and culture of the other two-thirds? It is argued that the presence of the Navy is the only thing keeping the major real estate developers at bay. Maybe one day Puerto Rico will gain its independence and turn Vieques into a protected island. Or, maybe both Puerto Rico and Vieques will lose political stability and fall into the kind of internal violence and economic hardship that so damaged Haiti and the DR; there may already be signs of this happening in Puerto Rico’s poorest neighborhoods. The protests will continue until the day the Navy is gone, that is all I know.

I am the only person at Navio today, a beach that is usually full of young men and women playing in the surf. Maybe it is the looming weather that is keeping the people away. But I suspect that it is the distant roar of jet engines, the cruisers patrolling the coastline, and a fear of ending up like Mr. David Sanes Rodríguez. I collect my things and make my way home; I am leaving the next day. The island is quiet, expectant; waiting for someone to tell her what is to become of Vieques, of La Isla Nena, when the ‘rents decide they don’t want her in the basement anymore.

Addendum: The Navy Battle group in Vieques as of January 13th, 2004 was the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Battle Group with aircraft carrier, Carrier Air Wing, Destroyer Squadron; guided-missile cruisers; guided-missile destroyers; destroyer; guided-missile frigate; fast combat support ship; and two attack submarines, in total comprising of about 8,000 personnel (roughly the population of Vieques). This battle group will be deployed in the spring, if not earlier, to relieve the George Washington Carrier Group in the Mediterranean. The exercises on Vieques determine the battle readiness of the sailors and ships and coordinate complex combat maneuvers. Only when certified for battle can the carrier group deploy for combat.

For more photos, visit CW Lawrence’s photography gallery.

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