The Puerto Rican Island of Vieques: War games, hurricanes, and wild horses

by Denise Oliver Velez, January 21, 2018, Daily Kos.


A pile of artillery and mortar shells on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico (Attribution, Al Jazeera.)

It is hard to believe that an inhabited part of the United States of America was used as a site for military war games and as a bombing range for many decades. This was the fate of the residents of the islands of Vieques and Culebra, which are municipalities of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, whose inhabitants are U.S. citizens.

On Oct. 19, 1999, the then-governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Rosselló testified before a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing and concluded his powerful remarks with these words:

We, the people of Puerto Rico, are by no means the first group of American citizens who have passed through democracy’s school of hard knocks and learned that painful lesson. Mr. Chairman, we wish our Navy the best. We admire its expertise.We welcome it as our neighbor. We are immensely proud of the thousands upon thousands of Puerto Ricans who have answered its call to help protect the cause of liberty around the world. And I am sure that my sentiments are shared by a massively overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans everywhere, including Vieques. I am no less certain, however, that we, the people of Puerto Rico, have graduated from colonial passivity. Never again shall we tolerate abuse of the magnitude and scope the likes of which no community in any of the 50 states would ever be asked to tolerate.

Never again shall we tolerate such abuse. Not for 60 years, and not for 60 months, or 60 days, 60 hours, or 60 minutes. This might be a classic case of might versus right. And we the people of Puerto Rico have empowered ourselves to uphold a cause that is right.

In God we trust, and trusting in God, we shall see to it that our neighbors on Vieques are blessed at last with the American promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Protests ended the war games on Culebra in 1975, but military activities continued on Vieques until May 1, 2003.

Vieques, Culebra, and Puerto Rico are once again being abused. This time, they were not bombed by the U.S. military. Instead, they were bombarded by back-to-back hurricanes Irma and Maria, and the abuse has been the negligent response of the U.S. government headed by Donald Trump.

Given the spotty coverage of post-hurricane Puerto Rico by our major media, the failure of putting what coverage there is into historical context, and the general lack of education about Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican history here on the mainland, today we will delve into Vieques—its past, its present, and its future.

In the video above, Robert Rabin gives a brief history of Vieques.

Studies show that Vieques was first inhabited by Native Americans who came from South America about 1500 years before Christopher Columbus set foot in Puerto Rico in 1493. After a brief battle between local Indians and Spaniards, the Spaniards took control of the island, turning the locals into their slaves.  In 1811, Don Salvador Melendez, then governor of Puerto Rico, sent military commander Juan Rosello to begin what later became the take-over of Vieques by the people of Puerto Rico.  In 1816, Vieques was visited by Simón Bolívar.  Teofilo Jose Jaime Maria Gillou, who is recognized as the founder of Vieques as a town, arrived in 1823, marking a period of economic and social change for the island of Vieques

By the second part of the 19th century, Vieques received thousands of black immigrants who came to help with the sugar plantations. Some of them came as slaves, and some came on their own to earn extra money. Most of them came from the nearby islands of St. Thomas, Nevis, St. Kitts, St. Croix and many other Caribbean nations.

During the 1940s the United States military purchased 60% of the land area of Vieques including farms and sugar plantations from locals, who in turn were left with no employment options and many were forced to emigrate to mainland Puerto Rico and to St. Croix to look for homes and jobs. After that, the United States military used Vieques as testing grounds for bombs, missiles, and other weapons

Many of you have seen U.S. military war footage portraying bombing of “the enemy.” However, this clip shows the bombing of Vieques during “war games,” often using live ammo. “On Vieques, the Navy runs the North Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility, one of the largest live weapons training grounds in the world.”

60 Minutes (see linked video) did a special called “Bombing Vieques.”

Vieques is usually a quiet place. Just off Puerto Rico’s east coast, it is a small island with around 9,000 inhabitants, mostly American citizens.

But all is not peaceful: The Navy owns two-thirds of the island and for the past 50 years has regularly used part of that land as a practice range to train its troops to use live ordnance.

Much of the Navy’s land is a buffer zone between the residents and the bomb range on the eastern tip. That tip is the only place in the Atlantic where the Navy can practice an all-out assault combining marine landings, naval gunfire and air strikes.

But the islanders say that living in a quasi-war zone has seriously damaged their environment and health.

“I think that if this were happening in Manhattan, or if it were happening in Martha’s Vineyard, certainly the delegations from those states would make certain that this would not continue,” said Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Rossello.

But without Vieques, the Navy will not be able to train its troops properly, says Rear Admiral William Fallon, commander of the Atlantic Fleet. “It’s about combat risk,” he said.

“The reason we do the live-fire training is because we need to prepare our people for this potential, this eventuality,” he continued.

“If we don’t do it, we put them at a very, very direct risk,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to the Navy and the nation.”

Puerto Rico commissioned a study of the damage and hired explosives experts Rick Stauber and James Barton to survey the island. The two men said  that there is a “wide array” of unexploded live ordnance scattered around the island and on the sea floor around it.

This documentary details the evolution of the protest movement. It’s titled Vieques: Worth Every Bit of Struggle, from Mary Patierno on Vimeo.

In the 1940’s the U.S. Navy expropriated much of the small island of Vieques, Puerto Rico and constructed a weapons testing and training site.  For over sixty years the citizens were left wedged on only 23% of the island, sandwiched between a weapons depot and a bombing range.

For years, a small group of activists protested the Navy’s regular bombing tests and their experiments with new weapons systems on Vieques. But the struggle against the Navy didn’t attract widespread attention until April 19, 1999 when David Sanes Rodríguez, security guard on the base, was killed when two misfired 500-pound bombs exploded on his post. The death of Sanes galvanized a movement against the military and ignited the passions of Puerto Ricans from all walks of life.

Vieques: Worth Every Bit of Struggle documents the David and Goliath-like story of the residents of Vieques and the peaceful transformation of a community against enormous odds

Photo of David Sanes Rodríguez
David Sanes Rodríguez

The Christian Science Monitor had this story detailing how the “Pentagon Has Used the Island of Vieques for Training for Decades, but an Accidental Bombing Death Has Led to Outrage”:

The US Navy could lose a premier training ground after failing to appease the government and residents of Puerto Rico. The island- municipality of Vieques, which the US bought in the 1940s for $1.5 million, is considered an ideal setting for simulated ground and air attacks with live bombs. But following the accidental death this year of an island resident, Puerto Rican officials are likely to block the Navy and Marines from staging more exercises. The dispute raises accusations that the Pentagon has bullied Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of US citizens who have neither the right to vote nor representation in Washington.

“Nowhere in the 50 states would you have military exercises like the ones at Vieques,” says Charles Kamasaki of the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights group in Washington.

Critics accuse the Navy of using live ordnance too close to civilian populations and of breaking a 1983 agreement to limit exercises on the firing range. The Pentagon has admitted using radioactive uranium-depleted bullets, napalm, and cluster bombs. At least one study reported that residents of Vieques have had significantly higher cancer rates than other Puerto Ricans – a charge the Navy denies.

Key in the article is this:

The Vieques movement was not galvanized until April 19, when a Navy pilot dropped two 500-pound bombs off course, killing a civilian security guard at the base and injuring four others. The accident was blamed on pilot and communications errors.

Since then, demonstrators have camped out on the range and the Navy has had to suspend operations. Each Saturday, some 300 protesters hold a vigil outside one military site. “When the Navy makes its next move, we’ll make our next move,” says Oscar Ortiz, a union worker. “If they want to arrest us, we’re prepared. They’re going to have to arrest all the people of Puerto Rico.”

For more, I suggest you read Military Power and Popular Protest: The U.S. Navy in Vieques, Puerto Rico, by Katherine T. McCaffrey.

Bookcover: Military Power and Popular Protest: The U.S. Navy in Vieques, Puerto Rico

Residents of  Vieques, a small island just off the east coast of Puerto Rico, live  wedged between an ammunition depot and live bombing range for the U.S.  Navy. Since the 1940s when the navy expropriated over two-thirds of the  island, residents have struggled to make a life amid the thundering of  bombs and rumbling of weaponry fire. Like the armys base in Okinawa,  Japan, the facility has drawn vociferous protests from residents who  challenged U.S. security interests overseas. In 1999, when a local  civilian employee of the base was killed by a stray bomb, Vieques again  erupted in protests that have mobilized tens of thousands individuals  and transformed this tiny Caribbean Island into the setting for an  international cause célèbre.

Katherine T. McCaffrey gives a complete analysis of the troubled  relationship between the U.S. Navy and island residents. She explores  such topics as the history of U.S. naval involvement in Vieques; a  grassroots mobilizationled by fishermenthat began in the 1970s; how the  navy promised to improve the lives of the island residentsand failed;  and the present-day emergence of a revitalized political activism that  has effectively challenged naval hegemony.

The case of Vieques brings to the fore a major concern within U.S.  foreign policy that extends well beyond Puerto Rico: military bases  overseas act as lightning rods for anti-American sentiment, thus  threatening this countrys image and interests abroad. By analyzing this  particular, conflicted relationship, the book also explores important  lessons about colonialism and postcolonialism and the relationship of  the United States to the countries in which it maintains military bases.

Fast forward to the results of the years of military occupation. In 2013 Al Jazeera posted this article, asking “Are cancer, birth defects, and diseases the lasting legacy of US weapons use on the Puerto Rican island?”

Islanders suffer significantly higher rates of cancer and other illnesses than the rest of Puerto Rico, something they attribute to the decades of weapons use. But a report released in March by the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the federal agency in charge of investigating toxic substances, said it found no such link.

“The people of Vieques are very sick, not because they were born sick, but because their community was sickened as a result of many factors, and one of the most important is the contamination they was subjected to for more than 60 years. These people have a higher rate of cancer, of hypertension, of kidney failure,” Carmen Ortiz-Roque, an epidemiologist and obstetrician, told Al Jazeera.”The women of child bearing age in Vieques are drastically more contaminated than the rest of the women in Puerto Rico …. 27 percent of the women in Vieques we studied had sufficient mercury to cause neurological damage in their unborn baby,” she added.

Vieques has a 30 percent higher rate of cancer than the rest of Puerto Rico, and nearly four times the rate of hypertension.

“Here there is every type of cancer – bone cancer, tumors. Skin cancer. Everything. We have had friends who are diagnosed and two or three months later, they die. These are very aggressive cancers,” said Carmen Valencia, of the Vieques Women’s Alliance. Vieques has only a basic health care with a birthing clinic and an emergency room. There are no chemotherapy facilities, and the sick must travel hours by ferry or plane for treatment.

Seafood, which is an important part of the diet – making up roughly 40 percent of the food eaten on the island, is also at risk.

“We have bomb remnants and contaminants in the coral, and it’s clear that that type of contamination passes onto the crustaceans, to the fish, to the bigger fish that we ultimately eat. Those heavy metals in high concentrations can cause damage and cancer in people,” Elda Guadalupe, an environmental scientist, explained.

In 2016 The Atlantic had this coverage of “Puerto Rico’s Invisible Health Crisis”:

With a population around 9,000, Vieques is home to some of the highest sickness rates in the Caribbean. According to Cruz María Nazario, an epidemiologist at the University of Puerto Rico’s Graduate School of Public Health, people who live in Vieques are eight times more likely to die of cardiovascular disease and seven times more likely to die of diabetes than others in Puerto Rico, where the prevalence of those diseases rivals U.S. rates. Cancer rates on the island are higher than those in any other Puerto Rican municipality.

No matter the number of reports or studies, as long as the U.S. government maintains a stance of cover-up and denial, environmental justice will not take place.

Vieques has other inhabitants, most notably the wild horse population.

Officials in the Puerto Rican island of Vieques are waging an unusual fight to control a tourist attraction that’s become something close to a plague on the island, best known as the site of a former US military bombing range. The tiny island is immensely popular among tourists, as visitors flock to its famed for bright turquoise waters, lush mangrove forests and picturesque free-roaming horses. In an empty lot near the 500 US dollar-a-night W Retreat & Spa, a man with a gun is stalking some of the wild mares the island is famous for. He slowly walks toward a group of brown and white horses, raises a pistol and fires. A brown mare kicks her hind legs and sprints away.

Richard LaDez, director of security for The Humane Society of the United States, picks up a contraceptive dart that fell from the horse’s rump and gives a thumbs up to this team. First imported by Spanish colonists, horses are used by many of Vieques’ 9,000-odd residents for running errands, taking children to school, transporting fishermen to their boats, competing in informal races between teenage boys and delivering late-night drinkers back home.They’re adored by tourists, who love taking pictures of them eating mangos and frolicking on the beaches. Many locals keep their horses in open fields near the sea, where they graze until they’re needed next.Feeding and sheltering a confined horse on an island with a median income of less than 20,000 US dollars a year is out of reach for many.Some horses are branded, many are not and a few just run wild. Officials say that as a result, it’s nearly impossible to control the horse population and hold owners accountable when trouble occurs.

The population has grown to an estimated 2,000 animals that break water pipes to quench their thirst, knock over garbage cans in search of food and die in car crashes that have increased as tourists flock to Vieques, which grew in popularity after the US Navy shuttered military operations in the early 2000s. Desperate, Vieques mayor Victor Emeric called the Humane Society, which agreed to launch a five-year programme of dispatching teams to the island armed with compressed-air rifles, pistols and hundreds of darts loaded with the animal contraceptive PZP. The programme began in November and picked up speed with a two-day push by about a dozen volunteers and Humane Society employees over the Martin Luther King Day weekend. More than 160 mares have been darted and Humane Society officials say they expect to inject virtually all the island’s mares with contraceptives by the end of the year. The programme will cost up to 200,000 US dollars a year to run and is funded entirely through donations.

Many people who have visited Vieques were concerned about the fate of the horses post-hurricane, as detailed in this article titled “Helping the hurricane horses: Puerto Rico’s special Vieques horses are survivors.”

Several of the horses at the focus of a contraception management program on the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico have lost their lives following the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

Some 280 mares from the island’s 2000 horses had been injected with PZP late last year in an effort to stem growing numbers of the horses on the small island. The island is known for one of the world’s most remarkable bioluminescent bays, and for its beautiful, free-roaming paso fino horses. But water is scarce on the island and in recent years drought has claimed several lives.

The HSUS team bringing aid to the island had confirmed that some horses lost their lives, killed by storm surges or injury from debris, and a fair number of animals required medical attention. But they also said that the vast majority of the horses appear to have survived the storm.

“We are providing them with supplemental food because the trees have been stripped bare and forage and fresh water are scarce, and we’ll provide as much medical care as possible,” said HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle.

He said Dr Dickie Vest, an equine veterinarian from the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, was helping to lead the response, with wildlife handling and response experts Dave Pauli and John Peaveler. “With the help of local citizens, our team is also caring for dozens of dogs, cats, and other animals at a mobile clinic they established to provide ongoing medical assistance for owned animals that people are desperate to get care for,” Pacelle said.

Here is a link to the HSUS Animal Rescue Team to support their efforts

As mentioned above, Vieques is also the site of one of the natural wonders of the world, a bio-luminescent bay covered in this NPR story.

We’re here tonight to look down into the water for luminous sea life called dinoflagellates. These single-celled plankton light up when they are disturbed. When plankton are numerous and conditions are optimal, running your hand through the water leaves a trail of flickering light.

The species here glows blue-green. It’s called Pyrodinium bahamense, or “the whirling fire of the Bahamas.” Hernandez and another guide say that when the bay is glowing at full force, you can actually tell what kind of fish are moving underwater based on the shape of the glow. Fish jumping above the surface leave a trail of luminous splashes. When it rains, they say the whole surface of the water is alight. Edith Widder, a bioluminescence specialist and the co-founder of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association, says glowing is a defense mechanism for these creatures, which share characteristics with both plants and animals. The flashes may alert larger predators to the presence of whatever is disrupting the plankton.

“So, it’s remarkably complicated behavior for a single-celled creature, and boy can it be spectacular,” she says.

But hurricanes ruin the light show. Rain disrupts the bay’s chemistry with lots of fresh water. Hurricane Maria damaged the mangroves surrounding the bay, which provide an essential vitamin to the dinoflagellates, Widder says. And high winds can actually push the glowing creatures out into the open ocean. “Winds could have pushed the water out of the bay, out of the mouth of the bay,” Hernandez adds. After other hurricanes, it reportedly took months before the bay started glowing again, she says

There will be a Daily Kos meet-up in Puerto Rico on Jan. 29 with Chef Bobby Neary, aka newpioneer. “Daily Kos is sending Kelly Macias from our Editorial Staff and Chris Reeves from our Community Building Staff to do some original reporting about Puerto Rico coinciding with the SOTU address.”

I understand they will be going to Vieques, and look forward to reading their reports.

Pa’lante!

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