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Vieques on the Verge

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

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.

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