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Trip 34 -- Vieques Walk

Monday, November 14, 2022

Having reached my 50th U.S. state this summer, it's only natural that I start exploring the country's other territories. The Puerto Rican island of Vieques was occupied by the U.S. Navy in 1941, developing it as a stronghold in the Caribbean during World War II. For 60 years, the Navy stored munitions near the island's western point and practiced live bombing and gunfire in the eastern half. In between were the two principal towns and other settlements, home to the island's 9,000 people.

Residents grew increasingly eager for the Navy to close a base that no longer seemed necessary, and when an explosion killed David Sanes, a civilian security guard, in 1999, the opposition to the occupation became more restive. The Navy finally departed in 2003. They left behind half an island's worth of unexploded ordnance and contamination, which the government has been working to clean up.

They still have a long way to go, and a full perimeter walk of the island is not yet possible. Enough can be trodden to warrant an abecedarian exploration, however, particularly at a time when the island struggles to recover from recent hurricanes and the pandemic. The Navy's training area has been turned into the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, much of which is open to the public. Kimberly from the park's office has assured me that where I plan to walk is safe, that I may visit an area in the west that the official map (last updated in 2008) still shows as off-limits, and -- words of relief after the Bonaire incident -- that I may enter and traipse about the park without a car.

Comparisons may be drawn between Vieques and Hiiumaa: Both islands contained inhabitants who were perfectly happy until the unwelcome militaries of their controlling countries took over around 1940. For more than half a century, both populations lived in anxiety. When the Red Army left Hiiumaa in 1993, the Peace Corps sent Douglas Wells to help set up Hiiumaa's tourist infrastructure and educate businesspeople, against their wishes, on how to cater to visitors. When the Navy left Vieques ten years later, the Viequenses were largely left to figure things out for themselves, with only the promise of a cleanup effort that will have taken more than 20 years to complete.

Luis Galanes Valldejuli is an anthropology professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey. The cover of his "Tourism and Language in Vieques" depicts a Viequense whose mouth has been taped shut and silenced with a red "X." In his analysis of the effects of long- and short-term visitors to Vieques, Prof. Galanes comes to the haunting conclusion that Viequenses cannot speak -- or if they do, they will not be listened to.

That is because everything in modern history has gone against the Viequenses' interests. The Vieques of the 1800s and early 1900s contained sugar plantations worked by those brought in by force and made to toil. The Navy's 62-year stint hardly took into account the islanders' voices.

Since then, newcomers from the continental United States have brazenly taken over much of the island's economy, fueled by greed and forming their own networks and tourism industry. When discussing arrivals from the mainland, Prof. Galanes distinguishes between "los de antes" and "los de ahora" -- those who came before the Navy's departure and those who came since, respectively. "Los de antes" would employ islanders and be their friends, whereas "los de ahora" become tourism intermediaries, taking away raw tourist dollars from the islanders; hire their own friends to build and maintain their homes; and send tourists to other businesses within their chain.

It didn't help, of course, that the Navy's presence stifled Viequenses' understanding of the tourism industry for half a century. While other Caribbean islands were building tourism infrastructure, Viequenses lacked the opportunity. On the other hand, Vieques remains serene and with lovely beaches that aren't yet crowded. The W hotel threatened to start a trend of high-end resorts, but Hurricane Maria shuttered it in 2017, and new development has been stalled by the pandemic. It's almost as if nature wants Vieques to remain calm and unspoiled by overdevelopment.

Before I take the ferry to Vieques, my partner, Wabi, and I are spending a few days on Puerto Rico's main island. Even here we found evidence of the naval presence. In a park in the San Juan neighborhood of Condado, in one of those Little Free Library boxes, someone had left a copy of the 20th edition of the Bluejackets' Manual, a 1978 guide for Navy enlistees.

I couldn't resist examining the book. I hoped that it might mention something about Vieques, but the historical timeline ended with "1 Jul 1973 -- The traditional sailor's white hat, broad collar, and bell-bottomed trousers were superseded by a more conventional 'suit' type uniform." I haven't read all 611 pages, but based on the table of contents I'm pretty confident that there's no mention of Puerto Rico at all, even though the Navy also had a base on the main island.

I guess I'll have to do my own investigation -- stepping carefully, of course.

Go on to day 1