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“Nosotros No Tenemos Armas Para Echar A Pique Sus Fuerzas Navales,
Pero Tenemos el Arma de Echar a Pique Su Prestigio en El Mundo.” Albizu 1930

HomeAbout NBHRNViequesLa lucha continúa: Challenges for a Post-Navy Vieques (Part 1)

La lucha continúa: Challenges for a Post-Navy Vieques (Part 1)

By Déborah Berman Santana
From Centro Journal, Volume 18 Number 1, Spring 2006

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Part 1

In recent years the decades-long struggle to stop the U.S. Navy from bombing the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, and to end military occupation of three-quarters of the island, has made international headlines. This “David versus Goliath” story—replete with accounts of powerful, creative, and nonviolent resistance to the environmental and social degradation perpetrated by militarism—attracted attention from environmental, peace and social justice activists and gathered support from religious, political and civic leaders in Puerto Rico, the United States and worldwide. The Vieques story has also provided material for hundreds of academic studies, many of which have recently been published.

Perhaps not surprisingly, questions regarding what might happen to the lands once the bombings ceased and the bases closed down have aroused less publicity than the more news worthy struggle against the military presence. For years, local efforts to revive the island’s economy not only were opposed by the Navy and ignored by government and private interests, but also failed to rouse media interest or significant community support. Nonetheless, over the past decade persistent local activism that envisioned a post-Navy Vieques began to bear fruit.

In the early 1990s a number of Vieques activists formed the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (CRDV) and continued protesting Navy activities in Vieques. In addition, they committed themselves to la protesta con la propuesta (the protest with the proposal) for the island’s biggest ecological, economic and social challenges, by advocating “the four D’s: Demilitarization, Decontamination, Devolution (return of lands) and (community-based, sustainable) Development.” In the Puerto Rican government sponsored referendum of July 2001 on the Navy’s presence, over two -thirds of Vieques’ voters chose the option calling specifically for an immediate end to military practices, cleanup and return of all of the lands and community-controlled sustainable development. Finally, the Guidelines for the Sustainable Development of Vieques—compiled by Puerto Rican planners, scientists and economists at the request of the CRDV, and with the help of viequenses through dozens of community workshops over several years—played a significant role in creating the 2004 Master Plan for Sustainable Development of Vieques and Culebra, commissioned by the Puerto Rican government. Thus, the “four D’s ” have come to represent the will of the people of Vieques, and have received some measure of governmental support; they also provide an appropriate framework for discussing the current situation.

May 1, 2003, represented a milestone in the struggle for demilitarization, when the U. S. Navy officially closed its base in the eastern half of Vieques ending more than 60 years of military bombing, maneuvers and experiments. However, most close observers will agree that this “first D” has not been fully accomplished, let alone the other three. Recent publications on Vieques have offered historical, political and socioeconomic analyses of the anti-Navy campaigns (see, for example, Ayala 2000; Barrett 2002; Berman Santana 2003; Mc Caffrey 2002). This article focuses on considering some of the challenges activists must confront in this new phase—less colorful, perhaps, yet absolutely critical—of the struggle to achieve una verdadera paz para Vieques (real peace for Vieques), in other words an economically, socially and ecologically healthy island and society. (1)


The Naval Ammunition Supply Detachment (NASD), comprising 8,000 acres in western Vieques, officially closed on May 1, 2001, and Camp García (comprising over 14,000 acres in the eastern half of the island, including the bombing range) closed on May 1, 2003. However, the military continues to own and operate two facilities in Vieques: the ROTHR radar transmitter and the radio and communications complex atop Monte Pirata. Both facilities have historically been the focus of protests and concerns about health and environmental risks.

During the mid-1990’s activists in Vieques and Puerto Rico failed to stop the Navy from destroying a 25-acre mahogany forest in the southern part of the western lands, in order to make way for Raytheon Corporation’s Relocatable Over the Horizon Radar (ROTHR) transmitter. By bouncing radio frequency waves against the ionosphere, operators may detect objects beyond the horizon. While the Navy’s original proposal, environmental impact statement and subsequent press releases have insisted that the radar’s primary function is to detect vessels transporting illegal drugs throughout the Caribbean (U.S. Navy 1997), the military has also referred to its use for electronic warfare exercises. (2) The fact that the Vieques ROTHR transmitter is aimed at northern South America—with Puerto Rico as its “blind spot”—poses an obvious limitation on its effectiveness in detecting drug traffic into Puerto Rico. While allegations that the ROTHR’s chief function is connected with Plan Colombia cannot be confirmed, it is well known that electromagnetic manipulation of the ionosphere can alter global meteorological patterns—which is also a goal of similar military projects such as the High Frequency Active Aureal Research Project (HAARP) (EQB 1997). The western lands transfer agreement of May 1, 2001, maintained the property occupied by the radar firmly in military hands; in addition, some 200 acres surrounding the area that was conveyed to the Municipality of Vieques were placed under a restrictive easement—in effect keeping the land under military occupation. This may possibly be due to the dangers represented by ROTHR; among other things, its operation regularly disrupts AM radio frequencies and electronic equipment in Vieques. Even more troubling, charred plastics and even animal remains have been found nearby after its use. During 2003 residents of the nearby community of La Hueca circulated a petition requesting a study of the health risks potentially posed by operation of the ROTHR radar; unfortunately, to date there has been no response.

The Navy also formally retained Monte Pirata, the island’s highest point, also located in the western part of Vieques. A guarded fence and signs warning of a “radio frequency radiation hazard” block access to the radio and communications towers-crowded peak; additionally, in 2004 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service blocked the access road at the base of the mountain. A number of federal agencies besides the Navy have used the facility, and at one point it was listed for sale (GSA 2004). In any event, demilitarization of the island is incomplete as long as the military still operates facilities there—its presence may also pose continuing health and environmental hazards.

Continued sightings of Navy war vessels close to Vieques’ coasts—such as two submarines that appeared during one August 2004 weekend—help contribute to a generalized suspicion among many viequenses that “la Marina no se ha ido”; in other words, they fear that Navy has not permanently left Vieques, and under certain circumstances could return to use the lands. It is important to note that while the “Clinton Directive” of January 31, 2000 (discussed below), specified that Vieques would never again be used for military purposes, the section of the Fiscal Year 2001 National Defense Authorization Act regarding Vieques omitted that promise. While there is currently no reason to expect that the Navy would resume use of the island’s lands, such a return would not be unprecedented—particularly if the lands are not cleaned and returned to civilian use.

It could also be argued that demilitarization will not be complete until all of the lands and waters contaminated by military use of Vieques are cleaned and rehabilitated for civilian use. This should include not only the lands of eastern and western Vieques, which were officially under military control; effective demilitarization should also include cleanup of the surrounding waters and the central “civilian area,” because they were also negatively impacted by military-induced pollution and pose health and environmental hazards.

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