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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 4)

La lucha continúa: Challenges for a Post-Navy Vieques (Part 4)

(By Deborah Santana, continued)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Part 4 • Development

In 1999 a large group of San Juan-based professionals responded to a call from Vieques activists for ongoing technical assistance. The Technical and Professional Support Group (known as GATP for its initials in Spanish) included planners, attorneys, health professionals, ecologists, economists and other individuals with the expertise needed to assist the viequenses in developing their own development and conservation plans. This group worked on a completely voluntary basis for over three years to flesh out the details of a community-directed, ecologically and socially sustainable land use and development plan; significantly, the work from the start included dozens of meetings and workshops in Vieques, in order to learn what the people themselves saw as their most pressing problems and possible solutions. Volume One of the Guidelines for a Sustainable Development of Vieques (known as “las Guías”) was completed during Summer 2000; it presented a detailed picture of present economic, social and environmental challenges, including analyses and suggestions given in dozens of community workshops. Volume Two, completed in 2002, detailed specific strategies for responsible and integrated land use planning and development in areas such as ecological and historical conservation, housing, community education, tourism, agriculture and fishing, manufacturing and services (GATP 2002). This document received quite a bit of publicity and was championed by the governor’s appointed Commissioner for Vieques and Culebra and the Mayor of Vieques, among others, as the basis for economic and land use planning.

On August 10, 2002, the Puerto Rican government enacted Law 153 to create a Special Economic Development Zone for the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra. Among other things the law created an Interagency Committee—composed of the heads of government departments and agencies such as the Departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture, the Planning Board and the Tourism Company, and chaired by the Commissioner for Vieques and Culebra and the Secretary of Economic Development—to oversee the creation and implementation of an integrated, sustainable, and community-oriented development plan (Puerto Rico Legislature 2002). In January 2004 the Interagency Committee awarded a contract to create the master plan for implementation to Estudios Técnicos, Inc., a San Juan-based firm that includes among its associates one of the coordinators of GATP. The firm was given just five months to complete the draft. During the month of March several public meetings were held in Vieques to hear the public’s concerns and suggestions regarding issues such as infrastructure, health care, job creation, transportation to and from Puerto Rico, housing, land use and protection from speculators and natural resources conservation. The draft was completed in July; all that remained was to hold a public hearing and approve the master plan for implementation.

Curiously, following its completion in July 2004 the draft master plan—about which the government had expressed such urgency—appeared to have dropped from sight. Concerned that years of work might be lost in the heat of election-year politics, the CRDV and key Puerto Rico advisors held a press conference in September to call for the plan to be approved and put into action. The very next day the state government responded that it was merely awaiting a “harmonization” of the section of draft master plan regarding coastal zonification with the municipal land use plan that had been approved in 2000, which the current mayor had vowed to revise. Law 153 had specified that the municipal plan should be revised so as to “harmonize” with the master plan. However, it was not immediately clear whether the holdup had more to do with a turf struggle between state and municipal governments, or to possible lobbying by powerful interests to loosen the draft master plan’s proposed restrictions on large-scale, privatizing coastal development. Public hearings on the draft master plan were finally held during November 2004, and it received final approval the following month. The plan could potentially provide a powerful tool for guiding Vieques development for years to come—provided that Vieques community organizations are able to participate in a meaningful way in its implementation. Unfortunately, its potential effectiveness in halting the “gentrification”—or the progressive displacement of a poor native community by more affluent outsiders through rising property values and economic marginalization—of the central “civilian zone” is uncertain, since that process is already well under way.

For at least twenty years Vieques has been home to two distinct and nearly separate communities: the first is the larger, Spanish-speaking community of “viequenses” who are ethnically and historically Puerto Rican, while the second is a growing community of North Americans and others (Rivera Torres and Torres 1996). The latter group (whose estimates range between 1000–2000) includes ex-Marines, aging hippies and entrepreneurs who dominate the island’s tourism and real estate economic sectors, as well as part-time resident vacation homeowners. While some have integrated themselves into the larger community, the majority of “expatriates” (as they call themselves) maintains a separate, English-speaking enclave that is reminiscent of similar communities in the Caribbean. Their advertised business goals of helping to smooth out the “path to paradise” for prospective residents from northern climes treats Vieques as another “Fantasy Island” in much the same way as does the settler community of Hawaii; at the same time their fictitious references to Vieques and Culebra as the “Spanish Virgin Islands” recall various proposals over the years by some U.S. government and private interests to politically detach the two island municipalities from Puerto Rico. (4)

One unintended consequence of the anti-military activism in Vieques during the past five years was that the increased international attention also attracted more outside interest in buying up the island and profiting from its resources. The Navy’s announcement of January 2003 that it would leave the island caused a business and real estate boom that was “like day and night,” according to some North American business owners (Dreyfuss 2004; Ruíz Marrero 2004). The English-speaking community, always economically powerful, began increasingly to flex its political muscles as well. For example, public hearings held in Vieques on January 22, 2004, to consider a proposal by the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources to build modest cabins in the Sun Bay State Beach, attracted opposition from an unusually large and vocal contingent of “los gringos” (as most viequenses call them). They cited concerns about negative environmental impacts as prompting their opposition, as well as fears that the cabins would draw tourists away from their own establishments.

It is thus notable that they have not expressed significant opposition to another proposal, from a New York-based consortium called the SunBay Company, that plans to take over 500 acres of land in and around Sun Bay—including the local Fishing Association’s pier and planned center—for a tourism complex that would include upscale hotels, vacation condominiums, a luxury marina and a golf resort. The firm has sought most of its funding for the project from Puerto Rico government loans and incentives—in other words, from the Puerto Rican taxpayers; within ten years of completion of the project the properties would be sold off at a handsome profit (SunBay Company 1999). One might expect that such a far-reaching, large-scale proposal—by outsiders and for outsiders, and clearly speculative—would be more likely to have a greater negative environmental and economic impact than the much smaller, internal tourist-directed Puerto Rican proposal, and thus be largely opposed by the English-speaking community. On the contrary, many prominent members of this community have publicly expressed support for the project; significantly, they also strongly backed—and helped finance—the 2004 electoral campaign of the only candidate for mayor of Vieques who openly supported the SunBay development. (5)

There is indeed strong opposition to the SunBay Company project in Vieques; however, it comes almost exclusively from the larger community of viequenses, who also express concern about what they refer to as the “Hawaiization” of their island. Viequenses are aggressively pursued both by real estate agents and visiting individuals, who offer previously unheard-of amounts of cash for their property—even when not titled—and some find such offers irresistible. Moreover, the brokers serve as promoters for exclusive new developments, such as a planned “gated community” along the north central coast asking half a million dollars per acre lot, that openly challenge Puerto Rico’s laws forbidding privatization of coastal lands. (6)

Meanwhile, within the larger community more than 600 working families cannot afford to buy or rent a home on their own island, and are forced to double up with relatives. Under such circumstances the sight of scores of locked, vacant vacation homes creates a tremendous amount of resentment, which could fuel an explosive social situation. Recognizing the seriousness of the problem, local officials and activists have been seeking effective mechanisms that might be employed to halt the “gentrification” of Vieques. For example, the municipal government decreed a moratorium on sales of untitled properties until their title status is resolved; however, real estate agents claim that their rights under a capitalist system allow them to continue to promote outside sales and price inflation—and sales of untitled land continues unabated.

Another idea, that of a Community Land Trust (CLT), may hold greater promise for slowing down the rate of land price inflation. Briefly: a CLT, whose members are permanent residents of a community, buys and holds land, while the buildings on the property can be bought and inherited by individuals. CLT’s have helped to slow down land appreciation in a number of low-income communities throughout the United States, while providing affordable local housing and offering some continuity for future generations. In Puerto Rico a model already exists: the Community Land Trust of Caño Martín Peña, located in a low-income area of San Juan. The Trust, enacted into law by the Puerto Rican legislature, offers a measure of protection from gentrifying pressures; ironically, it was inspired by the work of the Guidelines for Sustainable Development of Vieques, produced by GATP. This “coming full circle” of “la protesta con la propuesta” illustrates not only the importance of the Vieques experience for communities in the rest of Puerto Rico—as has been discussed by so many Vieques activists from the “big island” (Berman Santana 2002)—but also demonstrates how that experience can further develop elsewhere and eventually return to benefit Vieques.

A myriad of other challenges, from providing reliable transportation to and from Puerto Rico and establishing post-secondary education and training, to improving health services and increasing employment options, face the Vieques activists. The island also suffers from serious social problems that frequently afflict poor communities but are also historic legacies of military occupation, such as teen pregnancy, domestic violence and drug abuse. The cessation of bombing may have also ended—or at least temporarily deactivated—the network of active supporters for the Vieques struggle, which could threaten those who continue to work daily on Vieques issues with “activist burnout.”

Yet each day that goes by without the roar of warplanes overhead drowning out conversations, or children crying because their classroom’s ceiling cracked from a 500-pound bomb’s impact a few miles away, reminds us that years of struggle and solidarity produced a miracle in Vieques: closing down an active U.S. military base in the midst of a worldwide wartime expansion. This successful campaign achieved a broad-based consensus and participation that is rare, not only for Puerto Rico but for any society. The current phase of the Vieques struggle represents the efforts of millions of communities throughout the world for a chance to participate actively in decisions that will affect their ability to live well in their own home territory, and pass on their knowledge of and love for that home to future generations. In Vieques, “la lucha continúa”—and its future holds great significance for us all.


The author thanks Mills College for its financial support through the Faculty Research Development Grants and the Quigley Summer Awards, and is deeply grateful for the cooperation and support of individuals and organizations in Vieques, particularly the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques and the Vieques Historical Archives. In addition, the comments and suggestions by the anonymous reviewers of the draft manuscript are greatly appreciated.


1. Sources of information for this article include published and unpublished documents (cited below), interviews and personal observation in Vieques over a span of more than twenty years, but particularly between 2000–2005.

2. This Navy website—removed after receiving wide publicity shortly after the death of David Sanes, depicts the ROTHR radar site in western Vieques as forming part of the Navy’s Electronic Warfare Simulation Range. The cancelled page may be viewed at

3. A landmark report (Lewis et al. 1992) charged that the ATSDR and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) “routinely funded and conducted studies of effects of toxic pollution on public health which are inconclusive by design. These intentionally inconclusive studies have been used by polluters and government officials to mislead local citizens into believing that further measures to prevent toxic exposures are unnecessary”(Lewis et al. 1992: 3). This is particularly reinforced when a federal government department—such as the Navy—is the polluter.

4. See for numerous references to Vieques as “Paradise” and a “Spanish Virgin Island.” The most recent proposal to detach Vieques from Puerto Rico circulated on Capitol Hill in 2001 during the most intense phase of the struggle against the bombing. According to the Vieques Times (March/April 2001), a U.S. Senator suggested to one Navy employee from Vieques that over 200 million dollars could be allocated for this new entity, in exchange for the employee’s leading a campaign to support continued military use of the island.

5. See, for example, a September 2004 letter soliciting campaign funds, found at

6. Information taken from the Summer 2004 handout of the real estate company Connections, as well as from its website listing as of November 10, 2004:


Acevedo Marín, Leslie Ann. 2004. Trace Metals in Tissues of Edible Fish from Vieques, Puerto Rico. Master’s Thesis, Medical Sciences Campus, University of Puerto Rico.

Ayala, César, 2001. Del latifundio azucarero al latifundio militar: las expropiaciones de la marina en la década del current. Revista de Ciencias Sociales 10 (January): 1–33. Barreto, Amilcar A. 2002. Vieques, the Navy and Puerto Rican Politics. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.

Bearden, David M., and Linda G. Luther. 2004. Memorandum to Hon. José Serrano (D-NY) regarding environmental cleanup at Vieques Island and Culebra Island. August 19. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.

Berman Santana, Déborah. 2002. Resisting toxic militarism: Vieques vs. the U.S. Navy. Social Justice 29(1–2): 37–47.

Clinton, William J. 2000. Resolution regarding use of range facilities on Vieques, Puerto Rico (Referendum). Directive to the Secretary of Defense and Directory, Office of Management and Budget. January 31. Washington D.C.: The White House, Office of the Press Secretary.

Dreyfuss, Claudia. 2004. Vieques: an island’s ship comes in. The New York Times (March 21). F932A15750C0A9629C8B63.

Giusti, Juan. 1999. Informe histórico preliminar: Asociación Pro-Títulos de Monte Santo et al. vs. Estado Libre Asociado et al. Civil Núm. KPE 96–0729 (907) Tribunal de Primera Instancia, Sección Superior de San Juan.

Lewis, Sanford, Brian Keating, and Dick Russell. 1992. Inconclusive by Design: Waste, Fraud and Abuse in Federal Environmental Health Research. Chesapeake, VA: Environmental Health Network.

Massol Deyá Arturo, and Elba Díaz. 2003. Trace element composition in forage samples from a military target range, three agricultural areas, and one natural area in Puerto Rico. Caribbean Journal of Science 39(2): 215–20.

McCaffrey, Katherine T. 2002. Military Power and Popular Protest: the U.S. Navy in Vieques, Puerto Rico. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Nazario, Cruz María, Erick L. Suárez, and Cynthia Pérez. 1998. Análisis Crtico del Informe Incidencia de Cáncer en Vieques del Departamento de Salud de Puerto Rico. Río Piedras: Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Ciencias Médicas.

Ortiz Roque, Carmen, and Iris López Rivera. 2004. Mercury contamination in reproductive age women in a Caribbean island: Vieques. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 58: 756–7.

Puerto Rico. Environmental Quality Board (EQB). 1997. Written Depositions (Burson-Marsteller and EQB), Public Hearings for ROTHR System for Juana Díaz and Vieques, Puerto Rico. Held in Juana Díaz, March 17, 1997. Vieques: Vieques Historical Archives.

Puerto Rico. Legislature. 2002. Ley Número 153 para crear la Zona Especial de Desarrollo Económico de las Islas Municipios de Vieques y Culebra.

Rabin, Robert. 1999. Historia de Vieques: Cinco Siglos de Lucha de un Pueblo Puertorriqueño. Vieques: Vieques Historical Archives. navy/rabin.htm.

Rivera Torres, Leticia, and Antonio J. Torres. 1996. Vieques, economic conversion and sustainable development. Unpublished manuscript. Vieques: Vieques Historical Archives.

Ruíz Marrero, Carmelo. 2004. Post-Navy Vieques. Viva New York (Daily News Supplement) (September 15).

SunBay Company. 1999. Project description, Sunbay Resort Development. Unpublished document (January). Vieques: Vieques Historical Archives.

United States. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2003. Public Health Assessment: Air Pathway Evaluation, Isla de Vieques Bombing Range, Vieques, Puerto Rico. Atlanta: Federal Facilities Assessment Branch, Division of Health Assessment and Consultation, Center for Disease Control (August 26).

United States. Congress. 1964. An Act to establish a National Wilderness Preservation System for the permanent good of the whole people, and for other purposes. Public Law 88–577, 88th Congress, S. 4.

United States. Department of the Navy. 1997. Final Environmental Impact Statement, Relocatable Over the Horizon Radar (ROTHR) System, Puerto Rico. Norfolk, VA: Atlantic Division, Naval Facilities Engineering Command.

United States. Department of the Navy. 2003. Memorandum of Agreement between the United States Department of the Navy and the United States Department of the Interior concerning the transfer of Department of Defense properties on the eastern end of Vieques Island to the Department of the Interior (April 30). United States. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 1999. Discharge monitoring report for the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility. New York, NY: EPA Region II, Caribbean Field Office.

United States. General Services Administration (GSA). 2004. Announcement of government property disposal. GSA Control Number 1-N-PR-526. y.ASP?PropertyID=991.

Urban Technical Assistance Project (UTAP) and the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (CRDV). 1996. Vieques, Puerto Rico—Looking Forward: A Development Strategy for the Naval Ammunition Facility. New York: Columbia University, Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning, Graduate Program in Urban Planning.

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