Letter from Vieques
On the ferry to Vieques, people with crying babies and loud radios mix with the growing number of backpacking protesters from the U.S. in search of a new cause.

by Patricia Guadalupe


Demonstrators take part in a "Peace for Vieques" March in San Juan, Puerto Rico in February, 2000. AP Photo/ Ricardo Figueroa


Last Christmas, in addition to making the customary trip to visit family in Puerto Rico, I took a side trip to Vieques, the tiny island off the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico that has been in the news lately. I admit that when I was growing up in Puerto Rico, I didn’t pay too much attention to Vieques, much in the same manner that native New Yorkers visit the Statue of Liberty only when somebody’s in town for a visit. I had learned in school that Vieques was a sparsely populated (currently about 10,000 residents) island, very pristine and very quiet, with great beaches where rare maritime species lived — eight of the eleven bioluminescent bays on Earth are on Vieques — and men fished for a living.

I also grew up knowing that Vieques, affectionately called Isla Nena by the locals (with Puerto Rico as Isla Grande), was home since the 1940s to enormous U.S. Navy operations. But I didn’t realize until many years later that, because I went to a Department of Defense school, I most likely got the sanitized version of what was really going on.

Fast forward to last year, when I found myself covering Washington reaction to April’s bombing accident that killed a civilian, and the lobbying that ensued to renew or stop the bombings. I heard about the hundreds of people who were illegally camped out on the firing range in Vieques, vowing not to leave until the Navy did so first. Very quickly it became a “good story” that would be made more interesting by going there. I had joined the throngs of people on and off Puerto Rico who suddenly felt a need to go to Isla Nena. And, like the people who lately flood Cuba, now was the time, before “something happened.”

Vieques is accessible by air with a quick hop from Isla Grande, but the most common mode is a two-dollar ferry ride from Fajardo, a coastal village near the U.S. Navy’s largest base in the Western Hemisphere. Nowadays, because Vieques is in the news, the ferries are more crowded than ever. Like a page ripped out of a day in the life of Latin America, talkative people haul crates of food and drink, crying babies and loud radios on board. They mix with the growing number of backpacking professional protesters from the U.S. in search of a new cause, and the smattering of people who just want to savor the island’s specialty, the arepa, a hot pastry fried to a fluffy crisp. The hour-long ride through crystal Caribbean blue water is refreshing and beautiful.

Upon the ferry’s arrival, the dock becomes a bustle of activity. In rapid-fire Spanish, bus drivers and cabbies vie for business, some head to the famously isolated beaches, others to other points around the island. Fishermen also try for clients — since the area where the protesters are camped out is accessible only by boat — for a few dollars and friendly conversation. Seventy-five percent of the island, however, is off-limits, fenced off by the Navy. The military owns both ends of the island and crams the population in the middle.

One of the first things anyone who goes to Vieques notices are the white flags flying on all rooftops. On fancy restaurants, on modest homes, on wooden shacks. The flags, the residents say, represent the desire for Paz para Vieques, Peace for Vieques. While the protesters continue their civil disobedience, and lobbying continues in Puerto Rico and the United States, life goes on in Vieques. The island’s largest town, Isabel Segunda, belies the storm it lives in. Women with strollers lull in the plaza and bicycles are more common than cars. Restaurants dot the area and music blares from windows. The pink-colored public housing is on a hill with a magnificent view of the ocean, surrounded by swings. Everyone seems relaxed.

But one quickly picks up an undercurrent of worry. Viequenses say they constantly fear for their livelihood, especially now. They say they are scared that the bad publicity since the bombing accident is hurting the already fragile island economy, which depends on ecotourism and suffers from the inability to expand into the restricted areas. Island officials say they can’t even begin to estimate how much they have lost in potential business, but it runs into the millions, easily. “This whole situation has hurt all of us on the island, because no one wants to come here,” Luis Matorrel, a local taxi driver, told me. “No one wants to go on vacation to a place where there’s some kind of problem and people think there is some kind of civil war going on here, which there isn’t.”

Matorrel and others add that even with the increased traffic to Vieques, “most are the curious who want to go to where the protests are,” spend little money in town and rarely go to the beaches. Some viequenses are scared to talk to anyone, saying they did not want to get involved in “the situation.” At one place, an older man spoke in a loud voice about how wonderful the Navy was and how it had helped the island. Without them, all this, he said sweeping his arms in a grand gesture, would have been a big piece of nothing. A big piece of nothing, he practically yelled, maybe imagining the worst of the yanquis and hidden microphones.

Vieques is strangely situated on the map, within easy listening distance to Spanish salsa from Puerto Rico and English reggae from the Virgin Islands. Which pretty much represents what Vieques is all about right now: an island being pulled by both sides, the English and the Spanish, in political fisticuffs. Who will win?

© 2000 El Andar Magazine