Isla de Vieques was a secret destination, a true getaway from it all, Vieques offers picture perfect beaches, lush tropical flora, and the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world, a truly beautiful island, but it was not always “paradise”. This tiny Puerto Rican island had it’s share of problems and struggles; poverty, unemployment, high rates of cancer, decades of protests and sacrifices by it’s residents and supporters. The greatest underlying cause to all these problems was the presence of the USA Navy.
The Navy Years
The residents of Isla de Vieques have a special love for this island, even through the stressful years of the Navy’s presence, the low employment rates, the inconveniences of having to go the main island for many services among many other challenges they choose to stay in Vieques.
Viequenses and many supporters fought a long battle to get the Navy out. For 62 years only about the middle quarter of the island was open for use by Viequenses. The eastern and western three quarters of the island were U.S. Navy Property, which they used for bombing practices.
In 1999, a civilian was killed by a stray bomb from a fighter jet that missed its target. Viequenses relentlessly protested in order to stop the Navy’s military practices on the island in order to protect the island’s natural resources and the health of the locals, finally in May 1st, 2003 the Navy left.
Facing the Changes & Challenges
Major consequences of the Navy’s bombing and practices are still evident. Studies show health problems which are related to toxic materials used by the Navy. The people of Vieques are demanding that the United States government clean up the toxic materials that still remain on some parts of the island which are off limits to visitors and residents. The data shows high infant mortality, radiation contamination and the 27% higher cancer rate than the main island of Puerto Rico. The US Navy continues to deny that their military practices are at fault for all the health issues the natives have faced and still deal with.
Currently the island is dealing with the allocation of hundreds of beautiful valuable land that is now under the care of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services in Vieques. At the same time real estate prices have gone up dramatically, making it very sad, painful and frustrating for the locals since many of them now cannot afford to buy the land that they fought so hard to attain. Investors are grabbing land and buying homes and it is scary to think that the kids and grand kids of the people that fought for the Navy to cease bombing practices will not be able to own land in their beloved Isla Nena.
The Navy was the main source of employment on the island, so the rate of unemployment has since inflated. Viequenses rely much on fishing, many residents grown their own fruits and vegetables and the elderly has to rely on Social Security and government aid.
Martineau Bay Resort and Spa was the first and only resort on the island, now turned into W Retreat & Spa; the first W in the Caribbean, and currently the largest employer on the island. The new jobs have been a blessing to Viequenses, however a filled with challenges. The world has come to expect a certain level of services that Viequenses were simply not trained to offer. Viequenses are very welcoming and hospitable people, however please keep in mind when you visit that luxury tourism is a new field for the island and the Viequenses are training for the tourism changes.
While some residents have welcomed the resort and are taking advantage of these new opportunities, some have really shown some opposition. The greatest concern is how structures, such as this resort, will impact the ecological health of the island, which already has withstood tremendous damage for 62 years from the Navy.