Vieques on the Verge | Travel | Smithsonian
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Vieques on the Verge

The Navy is gone; the bombing has stopped. What happens to Puerto Rico's Vieques now?

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It had all looked so simple from the plane—the Puerto Rican island of Vieques stretching out below like some outsize plantain, all lush green on the west end where the U.S. Navy stored bombs until 2001, all crater-pocked and yellowed on the east end where, until February 2003, it practiced exploding them. And in between, the speckled clusters of two small beach towns—Isabel Segunda and Esperanza— linked by a few lonely roads, one of which, I am pretty sure, my fiancée, Sunny Neater, and I are now driving on.

But where’s that turnoff for the archaeological site where they found the 4,000-year-old man? Or that wayside boulder with the graffiti that, in Spanish, reads: “The abuse of the Empire has a limit and that is the patience of the people”? Already we’ve spiraled past enough swaths of coconut palm, mesquite and mangrove to know that on the whole of this 21-mile-long, 6-mile-wide island, we won’t find a single stoplight, fast-food franchise, or structure more than three stories tall to use as a landmark. Also, by now we’ve glimpsed enough sugar-sand beaches and aquamarine views to know that if we’re not careful, we may soon feel gripped by a certain sense of possibility that so many travelers here have felt, a sense that this might be the sort of place where we could at last settle in, buy some property and feel like our lives have turned lucky.

So it’s OK, in a way, to admit we’re lost, because it gives us a chance to pull over, check our map and reground ourselves in what we know. To the east lies a training base named CampGarcía, which includes the bombing range the Navy has now abandoned after more than 60 years of occupation. To the north lie the outbuildings of the island’s first big resort—the Wyndham Martineau Bay Resort and Spa—now open after four years of delays. And all around, in bodegas and cantinas, villas and casitas, hammocks and beach chairs and benches in the shade, we’ve heard people call Vieques a place on the verge. But on the verge of what? The only consensus we’ve found, after many days of driving around, is that each person’s views on Vieques’ future seem to depend on where that person sits.

From a couple of bar stools at Al’s Mar Azul, a favored north coast dive in Isabel Segunda, we watch people watch the ocean. Our plan tonight is to make like the locals, which is to say, make like these rum sours are blessed cure-alls and these much-loved jukebox tunes are hit-parade new.

Around 11 p.m., a handful of regulars tumble in. They are a tolerant and fun-loving bunch of seasonal service workers, expatriate cooks and guesthouse caretakers who get off their jobs and then rotate to a different bar or restaurant—for a different food, drink or music special—each night of the week. Asurfer chef from Boston wants to know the whereabouts of the dreadlocked fire-juggler who won’t be performing tonight because she spilled too much kerosene on herself while suiting up. Two off-duty waitresses, both in their 20s and both from the States, announce that they’ve arrived to promote an upcoming Mardi Gras theme night at a local café; they pass out beads and threaten to bare their breasts.

Which is about when Al Gordon, a sawed-off former hotel security manager from Rhode Island who bought this place seven years ago, mutters a much-loved line—“We’re all here because we’re not all there”—and hauls out a recent article from the San Juan Star. The article, titled “The Vieques Dichotomy,” touches on most of the hot issues that have haunted this would-be nirvana since two errant bombs killed a civilian security guard named David Sanes Rodríguez here in 1999. It tells of the massive protests that ensued and the barrage of anti-Navy publicity that came next. It labels Vieques “a poor municipality riddled by years of government deficits, widespread poverty, high unemployment and an increasing drug problem.” It also talks, of course, of the Navy’s departure and the big resort’s opening, and of the hope that together these events will spur new tourism and development without destroying the sleepy frontier life that so many people “came here looking for in the first place.” Mostly though, the article talks of all these things in the context of race and the “socio-economic” and “socio-cultural” segregation that, the writer says, divide the populace in “almost every aspect of daily life.”

This is where Gordon, 52, slaps down the paper. “Do you believe this?” he says. “Do you? Look around. What do you see? How many Puerto Ricans do you see in here?” From his bar stool he scans the room and raises a stubby finger to count. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Five Puerto Ricans,” he says. “Now how many gringos? Maybe eight? Ten? Whatever, does that look like segregation to you? Does it?” He goes on to attack the article’s accompanying photograph, which shows an elegant beach home next to a tiny shuttered shack. The picture’s point, it seems, is to highlight the disparity between the quarters of an expat gringo—a term that’s not always pejorative down here—and a native Viequense. But the beach home, Gordon contends, is actually owned by “some rich Puerto Rican lawyer from San Juan,” and the photograph has been edited so the shack appears adjacent to the beach house, though it actually sits three blocks inland. “These people,” he says. “It’s just amazing what they’ll stoop to to make us look bad.”

perhaps, allows Vieques Times publisher Charlie Connelly when I ask him about the picture two days later, the San Juan Star photo editor was playing it “a little fast and loose.” But then Connelly points out that most of the island’s dozen or so guesthouses, cafés, boutiques and bars are indeed owned by the gringo minority. “So isn’t that picture,” he says, “the small lie that shows the larger truth?”

We are lounging in Connelly’s open den, on the south coast of the island, in the tiny fishing village of Esperanza—the Spanish word for hope. The walls here are made of cinder blocks—good in hurricanes. Connelly, gaunt and gruff at 71, built the place 30 years ago. Inside, it is as if we’ve stepped into some long lost Humphrey Bogart film. Glamorous old black-and-white photographs of Connelly and his Puerto Rican wife, Myrna Pagan—she, pictured in an evening gown—hang on the walls. Pagan, 67, a former jazz club singer, serves margaritas and tells of her battles with uterine cancer. Connelly, a former marine from New England, sits at a table scattered with environmental studies and medical reports, chain-smokes American Spirits, and tells of a fatigue that has even made cracking ice for his Scotch whisky seem like a chore.

So what have these past four years of protests really been about? Puerto Rican self-rule? Economic independence? Anti-gringoism?

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