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THE WORLD | VIEQUES ISLAND

After the Celebrities Leave

July 29, 2001|LAURA RANDALL | Laura Randall, a former city reporter for the San Juan Star, is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

Vieques, a tiny Caribbean island with more tree frogs than traffic lights, has attracted an extraordinary share of the world spotlight in the last several months. Environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Jacqueline Jackson, wife of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, have gone to jail for protesting the Navy's decades of bombing exercises on the island. The Rev. Al Sharpton has gone to jail and gone hungry over it. And a slew of celebrities who have never set foot on the island, from Ricky Martin to Jose Feliciano, have publicly and indignantly declared that the Navy should get out of Vieques.

Now, two years after a Vieques civilian security guard named David Sanes Rodriguez died in the explosions of two misguided bombs, it looks like Vieques will finally be rid of the U.S. military--by 2003, or sooner, depending on the outcome of a referendum today.

What the island's publicity-savvy supporters don't seem to realize is that the Navy's departure will not singlehandedly solve Vieques' problems. If they are really taking Vieques and its issues as seriously as they say they are, they should be reading Puerto Rican history books in their jail cells instead of plotting campaign strategies and delivering sound bites to an accommodating media.

Vieques is one of the poorest municipalities in Puerto Rico. Per-capita income is $3,000 a year, and unemployment is estimated to be as high as 50% because there is no industry, save for small-scale tourism. A General Electric Co. manufacturing plant, for years the island's top employer, now employs fewer than 100 workers. The island is also a key conduit for Greater Antilles drug dealers, who funnel cocaine and heroin by ferry or prop plane over to San Juan and then on to the U.S. mainland.

From the many editorials in U.S. newspapers calling for the Navy's exit from Vieques, one would conclude the island's principal town of Isabel Segunda is the equivalent of a war-torn Beirut, with locals ducking for shelter from ear-splitting noises and donning gas masks at a moment's notice. In truth, Vieques is as close as it gets to a pre-Club Med Caribbean, with endless rolling hills that recall Central California's cattle country, two-dollar taxi rides and inns where guests may have to step around giant toads and grazing horses to check in. From Esperanza, the laidback tourist strip on the south-central part of the island, the bombing exercises sound like echoes of thunder.

This is not to say that the Navy hasn't wholly disrupted life for Vieques' residents. For 60 years, it has commandeered the best two-thirds of the island, with the 9,300-plus residents sandwiched between a bombing range and a munitions dump with little more than beach-use privileges to placate them. Despite regular public-relations blitzes, Navy officials have consistently managed to offend Puerto Ricans with their insensitivity to the island's complex history and politics. That is one reason why the issue has been able to transcend the usually immovable boundaries of the island's three political factions: U.S. statehood, the commonwealth status quo and independence.

The U.S. Navy arrived on Vieques in 1941 as part of its occupation of the Caribbean during World War II. It stayed, turning the waters around the island into a permanent testing ground for air and sea bombing and amphibian maneuvers. It had been using the neighboring Puerto Rican island of Culebra for target practice since 1902, until Culebra residents started physically intervening in the bombing runs. Amid circumstances that parallel the events of Vieques today, the Navy left Culebra in 1975 after President Richard M. Nixon bowed to political pressure and ordered the exit.

Culebra is a prime example of why the Navy's exit from Vieques won't immediately pave the way for glorious economic development or, as tourism executives are hoping, a nature preserve that rivals that of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. First, the island will have to undergo a rigorous cleanup of all the unexploded ammunition that is buried among its underbrush and coral reefs.

They're still cleaning up on Culebra. Among the items left behind on the island were practice bombs, mortars and unexploded projectiles, according to a report released several years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in San Juan. These were found within the former naval facility and on Flamenco Beach, the island's most popular stretch of sand.

Only the first phase of the cleanup on Culebra by the Army Corps of Engineers has been completed. Several more phases will likely be needed. On that kind of schedule, once the cleanup funding for Vieques is approved, the grandchildren of today's Viequenses might be able to see the whisper of a renaissance on their island before they die.

"There is no celebration in Vieques," Matilda Rosa, a local schoolteacher told National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" last month. "There is more confusion in our people because we really don't know who to believe. We don't know what to expect, and everybody's using us. I mean, we really feel more like crying than celebrating."

As Sharpton, New York U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and New York Gov. George Pataki and others loudly invoke solidarity with the people of Vieques with one eye on their own constituencies, Viequenses will be taking their decades of frustration to their own polls today for a "criollo" referendum limited to island residents. They will be asked to choose whether they want the Navy to stay, leave immediately or clear out by 2003.

Then they will hope that, whatever the outcome, their faraway cheerleaders will remember that their struggle isn't even close to being over.

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