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 its share of problems and struggles; poverty, unemployment, high rates of cancer, decades of protests and sacrifices by its residents and supporters. The greatest underlying cause of 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 on May 1st, 2003 the Navy left.
Facing Changes & Challenges
The major consequences of the Navy’s bombing and practices are still evident and locals continue the fight for equality and justice. Studies show health problems among locals 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 still 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 its 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 cannot afford to buy the land that they fought so hard to attain. Investors are grabbing land and buying homes, it is scary and sad to think that the kids and grandkids 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, the rate of unemployment has since inflated. Viequenses rely much on fishing, many residents grown their own fruits and vegetables and the elderly have to rely on Social Security and government aid.
Martineau Bay Resort and Spa was the first and only resort on the island, which was turned into W Retreat & Spa; the first W in the Caribbean, and was the largest employer on the island until Hurricane Maria caused serious damage and closed. The new jobs that tourism brings have been a blessing to Viequenses, however, come 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, 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 resorts and are taking advantage of the new opportunities, some have opposed it. The greatest concern is how structures, such resorts, will impact the ecological health of the island, which already has withstood tremendous damage for 62 years from the Navy’s presence.