— Editor’s note: Michael Mastroianni visited the island of Vieques last spring. This is… — Editor’s note: Michael Mastroianni visited the island of Vieques last spring. This is the first of a two-part series.
Aristeo Muraz was allowed to swim in the Ensenada Honda for the first time on May 1, 2003. His mother, Esparanza, stayed on the Caribbean Sea shore, keeping a watchful eye on her son.
She was worried he would swim too close to explosives.
Vieques, a small isle between the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, is administrated by the territorial government of nearby Puerto Rico. In 2003, the United States Navy’s ownership of nearly three-quarters of the island ended after 57 years, and with it ended an era of constant struggle against foreign interests and occupation that has lasted for 500 years.
“The victory is a miracle,” Esperanza Muraz said when Camp Garcia, the naval base on the eastern end of Vieques, was opened. “We wondered whether this day would come or not.”
Muraz, now 36, remembered the most dramatic battles the people of Vieques fought against the marina, which set explosives and performed maneuvers on and around the eastern third of the island. She was 10 years old when Carlo Zenon led 40 fishers and their boats in a blockade of a NATO naval exercise that used live ammunition. Her first child, Aristeo, celebrated his 10th birthday the week before David Senes Rodriguez, a viequenses security guard, was killed when a naval missile went astray near Camp Garcia’s lands. Aristeo was 14 in May 2003, and he is now allowed to swim off of Blue Beach, a strip of land formerly reserved for naval ground landing practices.
“I tell him always to remember this day,” Muraz said, as she watched her children play in the water off Blue Beach. “It is like the end of the Vietnam [conflict], or the freedom of India. It is the end of a long fight — one we are all tired of.”
Unfortunately, the “viequenses” — the natives of the island — are now learning that this is only the beginning.
Most of Vieques remains a testimonial to the fight to get the navy off the island. Many phrases are painted onto sides of houses, telephone poles, roads, and even animals. Among the more popular are “Vieques Libre” — Free Vieques, “Fuera la Marina!” — Get the Navy Out! and simply “Paz” — Peace. OP 1, an old control tower on Vieques’ northern coast, is decorated with graffiti celebrating the victory.
In the last four years of occupation, protests became more organized and forceful. Viequenses penetrated Camp Garcia, preventing bombs from being tested. Thousands of viequenses and Puerto Ricans lined the fences of the camp, protesting nonstop through all sorts of weather and police actions. Local and Puerto Rican government officials endorsed the campaign against occupation, and issued resolutions calling for the navy to withdraw. In New York City, a protest at the Statue of Liberty resulted in dozens of arrests and minor injuries to protesters. Many, nevertheless, say they find the result well worth the effort and the sacrifice.
Although journalists have left the island, there are some who do not consider the conflict resolved. Many of the issues left on Vieques by the navy have not been answered. Estimates of the cost to clean up the island range from the local claim of $160 million to the U.S. government’s allocation of $26 million, as of July 2003. The eastern tip of Vieques, a small, triangular patch of land beyond OP 1, is still littered with explosives. Chemicals from detonated and undetonated explosives have seeped into the ground water. The cancer rate of Vieques is 27 percent higher than that of Puerto Rico, and estimated at 31 percent higher than that of the United States. Although American researchers initially challenged this allegation made by viequenses, a study by the University of Puerto Rico has led to federal officials confirming this medical crisis. During the occupation, even highly placed naval personnel objected to the use of Vieques as a test range for depleted uranium shells, some of which remain uncollected because of the danger unexploded ordnance poses.
Many historians believe that the navy’s use of land on Vieques has resulted in a great loss of archeological study. In the past, the beaches and hills yielded great gains in knowledge of pre-Colombian cultures that traversed and inhabited Vieques. The University of Puerto Rico’s Center for Archeological Investigation has been able to formulate new theories about migration and habits of native settlers as far back as 2,000 years ago. Some findings feature animals and symbols known only to native cultures in present-day Peru and Bolivia, suggesting patterns of movement and communication never before postulated. Unfortunately, it is impossible to calculate the losses to the scientific community that naval occupation has created.
Several native species of pelicans and other waterfowl have been displaced by the destruction of their natural habitats. Although most environmental researchers agree that their populations will return to their lands and thrive, many question their ability to live in what remains a contaminated area.
Several viequenses warn of a virus in the fish taken from the waters around the island. This has nearly halted all of the area’s fishing, which had previously been a mainstay of cottage industry.
The only industrial production that Vieques enjoyed before the Naval base closed was a factory in the central area of the island, where General Electric employed a few hundred of the nine thousand viequenses. That factory closed shortly after the navy evacuated, and the unemployment rate of the island jumped to nearly 45 percent, several times the rate of Puerto Rico and nearly 10 times that of the United States.
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