The Navy, the Island and the Deal

Roger Trilling

I. Heaven and Hell
II. Cancer and Other Worries
III. Ni una bomba más
IV. The Pentagon’s Report
V. Negotiations with Clinton: The Pullout
VI. Behind Closed Doors
VII. "Endless Liability"
VIII. As Long As it Takes

I. Heaven and Hell

Vieques is a little island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, the “Isla Nena” to the main island’s “Isla Grande.” By all accounts it is ravishingly beautiful. There are palm trees, white sand beaches, stunning coral reefs, and three of the world’s seven “bioluminescent” bays, lit up at night by tiny phosphorescent organisms.

And though it’s only six miles from the Isla Grande, it has never been developed. No hotel chains, no fast food, no strip malls. In fact, most of it isn’t even populated.

Why? Because for the past sixty years, Vieques has been a training-ground for the Atlantic Fleet. It’s the Navy’s only “combined-assault” live-fire target range, involving subs, boats, Marines and planes, in whole or parts. When the Navy’s not using it, they rent it out to foreign navies.

The Vieques ranges are part of Roosevelt Roads, one of the largest Navy bases in the world, which is just across the bay on mainland Puerto Rico. And Vieques is its dumping ground, where it “cooks off” unwanted — and highly toxic — ammunition in open pits, exposed to land, sea, air, and the local residents.

Talk about heaven and hell in the same place...

The civilian population, about 9,400 people, is confined to a narrow band of land set between a firing range on the eastern end of the island and a series of Navy ammo and industrial dumps to the west. By all accounts — including the military’s — the citizenry has been treated like shit. They can’t farm or raise much livestock, the shelling is hard on the fish, and the island’s considerable tourist potential has withered. Life for the viequenses is rough: unemployment hovers around fifty percent, rates of alcoholism and depression are high, of poverty even higher.

It doesn’t need to be this way. In communities from San Diego to Norfolk, Virginia, the Navy makes an effort to be a “good neighbor,” providing training, jobs and community services. Military installations can be lucrative, attracting people and government largesse to the favored site.

But in Vieques the opposite has occurred. There were no jobs offered, no infrastructure investments, no 4H clubs or scout troops for the kids. In fact, many viequenses have bitter stories to tell of local initiatives that were squashed by the Navy.

It’s almost as if the policy was to make people so miserable, they’d leave. In 1961, the Navy drew up a plan for “the abolition of the Municipality of Vieques” (locals call it the Dracula Plan), and they would have acted on it, had President Kennedy not intervened.

The continued presence of the viequenses — to say nothing of the sea turtles, brown pelicans, and other endangered species — must be deeply frustrating to the Navy. But the live-fire exercises continue, because they are as integral to combat training as Vieques is “irreplaceable” as a combat-training ground.

This is the situation: difficult for everyone.

Vieques Main

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© 2001 Roger Trilling, El Andar Magazine