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?

Connelly waggles his head and looks at Sunny and me with wonder and pity, as if he can’t quite believe we’ve gotten this far in life being as ignorant as we obviously are.

“No, no, no,” he says. “No. It’s not about any of that. Haven’t you been listening? All this is about—all this has ever been about—is our health.” And then he goes on, as only a 50-plus-year Vieques resident can, to argue that the Navy has trashed that health by contaminating the island.

It all began, Connelly says, in the 1940s. U.S. control of the Caribbean was deemed vital. American troops needed a place to train. And Vieques, as part of America’s Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, afforded the perfect solution, save that the island was then inhabited by an entrenched community of small-boat fishermen and sugar cane plantation workers. The answer? Expropriate the east and west ends. Pay off the largest landholders. Relocate any inconveniently settled families. And get on with the business of practicing war, which is pretty much how things went, Connelly insists, for the next half-century.

As time passed, a few gringos began to wash up and move in, many of them—Connelly slyly suggests—looking to drop out and start over, or to escape legal problems back in the States, or even to invite new problems by turning to the time-honored Caribbean practice of low-key smuggling. At the same time, over the ensuing decades, various groups of Viequenses would now and then gather to protest what is sometimes called the Navy’s “colonial occupation,” the 180 days each year when the bombs would rumble and dogs would bark and the 9,000 or so souls caught in the middle would feel their homes shake. But none of these protests ever gained much momentum or sparked much Stateside fuss until April 19, 1999, when two misaimed bombs, loosed by a jet fighter, killed the 35-year-old security guard, Sanes, at an observation post overlooking the bombing range.

Demonstrations followed. Celebrities and politicians—Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Al Sharpton among them—joined the cause. In February 2000, as many as 150,000 people marched in the streets of San Juan. Hundreds more, including Connelly’s 35-year-old son, Pablo, occupied a dozen human-shield shantytowns—one of them complete with a church and a school—out on the range, atop a landscape littered with bombed tanks, unexploded ordnance and what looked to be more craters per square mile than there are on the surface of the moon. It did not take long for scientists to conduct some studies, unearth some military papers and start to weigh in.

“And do you know what they found?” Connelly rasps, pushing over a stack of supporting documents. “Heavy metals and cancer, man. Heavy metals in the people. Heavy metals in the crabs and fish. Heavy metals all over the damn place.”

And yet, despite the studies and stats, and the chronicles of contamination, the Navy has continued to deny that it has been anything but an excellent environmental steward in Vieques. (See “Did the U.S. Navy Pollute Paradise?” below) “So really,” Connelly goes on, “the health issue is the issue now. Later, sure, we can worry about all these carpetbaggers and scallywags, these vultures and yuppie squares that want to bring in the new casinos and the polo and the golf. But that’s all secondary now, and until we can get the Navy to clean this place up, we’ll just have to keep an eye on Martineau Bay, see how it goes over there, because as far as future developments, that will set the stage.”

By the time the MartineauBay gatekeepers are ready to show Sunny and me around, we’ve been happily circumnavigating the island for days. We have gone searching, unsuccessfully, for calving manatees and nesting sea turtles on the coasts. We’ve been approached—on the beach after snorkeling and on the malecón, or promenade, after a fried snapper lunch—by young men on horseback who seem to think Vieques’ future lies in trying to hawk tourists a little cocaine. We’ve been jeered by other young men for taking too many pictures outside the Saturday afternoon cockfights at the center of Isabel Segunda. We’ve bought fine serrano ham and meaty green olives in Esperanza at the new gourmet food shop whose opening, nearly everyone agrees, says a lot about the island’s accelerating gentrification. We’ve gone to visit the shantytowns erected in protest (and abandoned when the lands were transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service May 1). And talked with Sandra Sanes Rodríguez, the still-grieving sister of David Sanes. We’ve driven around with Rosa Navedo, a Puerto Rican researcher working with the Mississippi law firm of John Arthur Eaves that, on behalf of several thousand sick Viequenses, has filed a claim against the Navy. We’ve noted the most prevalent island bumper stickers—Paz Para Vieques (Peace For Vieques) and Ni Una Bomba Más (Not One More Bomb)—and the most common road signs, the clear leaders here being those of the island’s suddenly swamped Realtors scrambling to keep up.

One breezy night we trundled along the island’s southeastern side to MosquitoBay, site of some of the world’s brightest bioluminescent displays. In a glass-bottomed boat, with the dark lines of distant mangroves ringing the shore, we watched the illuminated whorls and streaks of heavy tarpon and lazy stingrays, every wriggle of their fins sending millions of single-celled algae called dinoflagellates (think tiny aquatic fireflies) into luminescent fits. The biologist leading our tour, Sharon Grasso, explained the relevant chemistry—oxygen combines with a substance in the cell called luciferin to produce a pure, cold light; it looks like mute, underwater fireworks. Later, when we swam, the glowing churned around us, and a stray jellyfish stung our legs, and so, back onboard, Grasso doused us with soothing vinegar. We went quiet and drifted. The fish stopped darting. Grasso stomped the boat’s bottom, and the mute fireworks recommenced.

Another night: maybe there’s something in the air or maybe our traveler’s antenna has simply tuned in more of the gossip, but out on the bar circuit, we heard more than a few locals draw more than a few parallels between the new resort and the Navy. Both, it seems, found reason to secure their perimeters with high fencing. Both posted guards at their gates to regulate public access. And both enlisted media minders to handle the queries of folks like us.

martineau bay’s landscaped grounds, all well-placed palms and bright marigolds, are plenty lovely. The buildings, an assortment of nouveau colonial villas and vaulted meeting rooms, snuggle low and yellow along the coast. Developer Roberto Cacho, a young-looking 40-something Puerto Rican in beachwear, appears relaxed as he settles us and a few other visitors on a breezy patio for a celebratory white wine toast. “This,” he tells us, beaming, “has been my biggest dream. To give this to this island. After all of our troubles, the planets have finally aligned, and with the Navy pulling out, it just looks like we’ve gotten lucky with our timing.” Cacho says the 156-room resort has added 220 jobs to Vieques, including ten managerial jobs—all filled by Viequenses.

He does not mention, however, any of the surprisingly shrill local critics who like to suggest, as one publico (taxi) driver did, that the opening of such a big resort on such a small island will likely signal “the beginning of the end of the Vieques we know.” Several days later, though, that vision of Vieques—a Vieques that includes ten rare and endangered plants and animals on the largest expanse of semiprotected habitat in the entire Caribbean—seems a lot less likely than the vision of an upwardly mobile Vieques embodied by a newly hired bartender at the resort’s swim-up bar. Like a lot of other native Viequenses, he knows the troubles of finding work. In between pulling drinks, he studies a tome called the Complete World Bartender Guide and says, “I hope this will be a fine job. And my family hopes this too. The pay, you know, it is very good.”

It’s a fuzzy gray day, the horizon line blurring with approaching weather, and back on the island’s pinched roads, the turnoff for the 4,000-year-old man finally reveals itself. Roberto Rabin, an archaeologist and the director of the local FortCountMirasolMuseum, leads the way up a rutted track to a scruffy clearing that features a few giant boulders and a smattering of trees. “You’ve heard of Stonehenge, right?” Rabin jokes. He points to a shady spot where the bones of the 4,000-year-old man once lay under the topsoil, until their excavation in 1990 by two scientists from the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Puerto Rico.

The man, who died at age 35 or 40 from a blow to the jaw, was a hunter-gatherer, says Yvonne Narganes, one of the archaeologists who uncovered the skeleton. His bones, she says, are the oldest human remains found in more than 25 years of field study on Vieques and the first significant evidence of a preagricultural society on the island. They reveal that people arrived here from South America 1,000 years earlier than previously thought. (Narganes and others have also found on Vieques the remains of a 2,000-year-old culture that made delicate semiprecious stone amulets of frogs and bats, unlike anything seen before in the Caribbean.) “And look,” says Rabin, “the site is completely unprotected, not even a plaque. If the island grows overdeveloped now, it’s spots like this that will be at risk.”

I recall the words of a dark-haired local waitress who’d told us that the island was still defended by “strong spirits,” particularly at this site—now known as the Hombre De Puerto Ferro site, named for a nearby barrio. She said the souls of the 4,000-year-old hombre and his compadres would forever rebuff the encroachments of vulgar commerce. She said that if I didn’t bring an offering—“a cookie or a handful of sand or something”—the spirits would run me off, as they’d run her off before, with wild horses or swarming bees. But I am not that sort of spiritual man. And so I’ve come empty handed. And so, of course, it’s not long before a bee stings me dead on the nose and the swelling blurs my vision until I’m forced to head back in search of ice—more uncertain than ever about the island’s imminent future—to my posh hotel.


Getting There

Vieques is a paradox. The Navy.s 60-year occupation has left the island largely undeveloped and free of the commercialism common to other parts of the Caribbean. But the pollution the military left behind may imperil paradise. Even so, apart from the likelihood of a nasty sunburn, a short-term tourist faces little health risk, say experts. And the lack of development means the visitor has naught to do but bike, hike, kayak, ride horses, and honor the island.s painful past by enjoying its hard-won peace and charm. The average temperature is 79 degrees, and Americans do not need a passport to visit. Most major U.S. cities offer flights to San Juan, Puerto Rico; from there, Vieques is a ten-minute hop via Air Culebra (four flights daily). INSIDE TIP: VisitGreenBeach, on the island.s western tip, for views of the rain forest, good snorkeling and glimpses of herds of wild horses.

INFORMATION: Visit www.enchanted-isle.com and www.vieques-island.com for services and accommodations.


Did the U.S. Navy Pollute Paradise?

Several recent studies have reported high levels of toxins in the Vieques environment and health problems among the local population. Epidemiologist Carmen Ortiz-Roque at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Puerto Rico examined hair samples from 203 Vieques residents to determine whether they had been exposed to mercury, aluminum, cadmium, lead and arsenic—all ingredients in high explosives. All of the chemicals except arsenic were found to be elevated in a significant number of the men, women and children tested. Ortiz-Roque discovered, for example, that levels of mercury (known to cause birth defects and nerve damage) were higher than is considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) among 33 percent of those tested and that aluminum (a carcinogen) exceeded safe levels in 56 percent. Ortiz-Roque also reported Vieques’ Cancer mortality rate to be 30 percent higher than in the rest of Puerto Rico; factors such as lack of medical care may account in part for the higher rate. (In a survey comparing the health of Viequenses and other Puerto Ricans, researchers at the University of Puerto Rico ruled out alcohol and tobacco as reasons for the increase.)

Research by the Navy’s Explosives Chemistry Branch detailed the presence—though at low levels’of an explosives residue called RDX, a known carcinogen, in water and soil samples taken from both inside and outside the bombing range. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) found cadmium and lead levels considered dangerous to crustaceans and their predators in crabs captured near Navy solid waste disposal sites on the island .s west end. Biologist Arturo Massol-DeyÆ of the University of Puerto Rico recorded levels of lead in the island.s pasture grass, used for grazing cattle, that exceeded safety guidelines set by the Food and Drug Administration. Over the years, the EPA has cited the Navy for 102 violations of water quality standards on Vieques, identifying excessive concentrations of such chemicals as cyanide and cadmium in the coastal waters near the bombing range.

The Navy disputes any link between its presence and health problems on the island: “. . . no study advances evidence that Navy activities pose a risk to human health on Vieques,” said then Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig in an October 1999 statement. A summary of the Navy’s environmental and economic efforts on the island, which was issued at the same time, reported that explosives-related pollutants cannot make their way to civilian areas eight miles west of the bombing range; that the toxins found on the island were naturally occurring; and that there is no cause and effect between the island’s high rate of cancer deaths and the Navy’s activities.

It will no doubt take years and many experts to tease out all the facts. But a 1999 Defense Department report cited the Navy’s “insensitivity,” along with its “less than satisfactory” performance in “environmental and health domains” on Vieques. And although the Navy turned 15,500 acres of bombing range lands over to the USFWS as a wildlife refuge on May 1, 2003, many areas will be closed to the public until unexploded ordnance and other waste can be cleaned up. The 900-acre Live Impact Area at the island’s eastern tip (in which clean up has yet to begin) has been designated a wilderness area and is closed to the public.

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