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Vieques' Anger At Navy Dates To 1940s
by Ivan Roman
July 16, 2001
"When we walked back, I saw the bulldozers tear down
Severina Guadalupe, Vieques resident
[PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS]
VIEQUES, Puerto Rico -- Severina Guadalupe's bitterness toward the U.S. Navy goes back 60 years -- when the world was at war and human rights often took a back seat to military strategy.
Guadalupe, 13 at the time, remembers the two men who paid an unannounced visit to the family home on Vieques and gave everyone 24 hours to get out.
German submarines were heading into the Caribbean, and the U.S. Navy was in a hurry to build a base on the island off Puerto Rico's southeast coast. But first, it had to destroy the homes, businesses, sugar-cane fields and plantations that were in the way.
Stunned, Guadalupe's parents and 14 brothers and sisters fought through tears as they rushed to pack a few belongings from their home, perched on 5 acres of lush greenery.
Her aunt, who lived on the adjoining 5 acres, cried all night.
"I'm not leaving here," she said.
The next morning, she was found dead, likely from a heart attack.
"That afternoon, we took her out on the horse and carriage and walked miles to bury her in town," said Guadalupe, standing in front of a huge rock where she and her brothers and sisters used to sit and eat ice cream.
"When we walked back, I saw the bulldozers tear down our wooden house."
Guadalupe, her eyes misty, was struggling with the memory.
"We lost all the trees, chickens, goats -- everything.
"It was just a cruel, cruel thing."
Guadalupe's story -- and that of thousands of former and present Vieques citizens like her -- is one that few Americans know about.
To most people in the United States, the history of the Vieques dispute started only a couple of years ago when an errant Navy bomb killed civilian security guard David Sanes during military exercises.
The accident spurred growing protests that led to President Bush's decision last month to give up the Navy base in two years.
For Vieques residents, though, Sanes' death was symbolic of a long history of injustice.
To many of them, the Navy has been little more than a colonial interloper that has abused its powers and shown little compassion toward the local population since taking over three-quarters of the 52-square-mile island in the 1940s.
Today, the Guadalupe family's land is part of 4,000 acres that the Navy gave back to the municipality of Vieques on May 1 as a show of goodwill amid increasing pressures to leave.
But for those who venture back, the sight of underground bunkers hidden by artificial rolling hills where guava trees and homes once stood does little to soften the bitterness hardened over time.
They are reminded of the thousands who were uprooted without notice and squeezed into two flea-infested areas the Navy assigned to them. Those who didn't fit onto the resettlement areas ended up leaving for the main island of Puerto Rico, St. Croix or New York.
They remember the numbing fear during the Navy's frequent bombing runs, and the rowdy sailors trying to force their way into homes looking for women.
And they resent the Navy for taking so much land that it never used -- killing agriculture and driving businesses and farmers into bankruptcy.
Many complain, as well, that the Navy hampered economic development over the years by consistently blocking tourism projects.
"It's almost as if there were a master plan to strangle our economy and throw us into the sea," former Vieques Mayor Antonio Rivera told San Juan Review magazine in 1964, which activists today say still stands true.
Even the Navy looks back with some regret, acknowledging that it could have been a better neighbor. But that sentiment is too little, too late for many Puerto Ricans.
Trust in America
Back in 1941, when Congress set aside $35 million to build the base in Vieques, many of the poverty-stricken people living off the land had been brought up to believe that everything American was good.
Puerto Rican political leaders, meanwhile, went along with the notion that their people would have to sacrifice for national security. That's not surprising, though, since this was a time when U.S. presidents still appointed military brass to be governor of Puerto Rico.
Radames Tirado, who grew up to be Vieques' mayor, remembers reciting the Pledge of Allegiance as a child without knowing what it meant. He was 10 when the Playa Grande sugar plantation told his father and all employees who lived there for free that the Navy was forcing them out.
The Navy bought more than 70 percent of its land from the plantation owners, Eastern Sugar Associates and Juan Angel Tio, who naval officials say received fair-market value.
Small landowners, too, were compensated if they chose to make a claim, but there were few of them. Families such as Tirado's, living on two large haciendas, had to move once the land was sold.
His family members lived outdoors for a few days -- along with hundreds of others in the hilly Santa Maria area -- until they were able to salvage the wood from their old home to build a new one.
Ironically, that marked the beginning of the so-called "golden years" when workers even came from other islands to build the Vieques garrison.
Once the base was built, however, the money dried up. Faced with skyrocketing unemployment, hundreds left the island.
The population dropped 30 percent in 20 years -- from 10,362 in 1940 to 7,210 in 1960.
Some of the larger homes and businesses had generators, but Vieques wouldn't get potable water or broad-based electricity until the late 1970s, when Tirado took over City Hall.
The Navy leased back some land to farmers, but only for grazing livestock. Farmers couldn't build or plant anything on the land.
People accustomed to growing their own crops now had to buy imported fruits and vegetables -- including Puerto Rico's staple, the plantain -- at a greater cost.
"Back on our land, we used to pick mangos and catch shrimp in the river in jars," said Gloria Diaz, 70, a retired tax collector whose father lost a market and restaurant business when her parents and six siblings were forced to move. "Everyone had their mango and guava trees. We raised chickens, lots of things in abundance.
"All of a sudden, in Santa Maria we had none of that."
Diaz and her husband, Francisco Cintron, who used to manage the Vieques airport, remember locking their doors to keep drunken sailors from forcing their way in.
The sailors often urinated outside the business Diaz's father had opened in town. During a softball game between sailors and Vieques residents, a fight broke out and sailors returned with rifles, sending those in the crowd fleeing to their homes in the hills.
But two, much more dramatic incidents stand out in the minds of many Puerto Ricans as having seriously eroded trust in the Navy:
Both incidents sparked public outcries.
"When you get older, you realize they [the Navy] aren't so good. And when I became mayor, I confirmed it," said Tirado, who is now helping to coordinate efforts to immediately stop the Navy exercises and improve quality of life for Vieques' residents.
"Wanting to help has never been in the U.S. Navy's mind-set," he said. "What they've tried to do is block things -- strangle us. They always thought that if they squeezed us enough, we would leave and they would keep the island."
Tirado remembers having a hard time just getting empty drums from the Navy to use as garbage cans in homes.
While he was mayor, Tirado persuaded Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo to sue the Navy for the bombing exercises and the resulting environmental damage on Vieques.
He dropped the lawsuit in 1983 in exchange for the Navy's pledge to promote economic-development projects, which later fell flat.
Given the history, that wasn't surprising to many on Vieques.
In the 1960s, the Navy refused to return a small portion of land near the main town in Vieques, Isabel II, so local authorities could build a sewage-treatment plant.
To quell an uproar in 1964, the Navy ditched plans to expropriate an additional 1,400 acres on the south shore. If the Navy had pursued those plans, it would have eliminated the town of Esperanza and cut off all civilian access to the southern shore and to the civilians' remaining source of fresh water.
The Navy changed its plans only after Puerto Rico's leaders agreed to make no attempts to foster tourism growth.
Three years before, the Navy had blocked a proposed $8 million hotel and housing complex by refusing to allow the expansion of the runway at Vieques airport to accommodate larger commercial planes.
Capt. Howard Hunt, assistant chief of staff operations for the 10th Naval District, explained the Navy's reasoning:
More tourism in Vieques, he said, would hamper the training exercises for which the federal government had spent more than $100 million in Vieques and at Naval Station Roosevelt Roads in Ceiba, in eastern Puerto Rico.
"We're not going to throw away such an investment so that Vieques should be converted to a mecca for tourism," he said at the time.
A new day
Faced with a more-informed population and stronger opposition, the Navy has since changed its message.
Amid the uproar about Sanes' death -- and the arrests of more than 700 protesters on Vieques since then -- Navy officials have promised to do better.
At the same time, they have stressed they're not nearly as bad as they have been made out to be.
Aided by a $40 million appropriation from Congress last year, the Navy has handed out toys to children during Christmas, hired 117 people for new jobs, donated musical instruments to the local high school and medical supplies to the clinic, and paid fishermen for lost income during exercises.
Critics, however, say that most of the goodwill and money came only after the Navy realized the strength of the opposition.
In a congressional hearing last month, Navy Secretary Gordon England called the Vieques controversy "an inherited situation" while acknowledging it must work much harder to earn the trust of the 9,400 residents there.
"I would have to conclude over a long period of time, perhaps we didn't work hard enough on Vieques," England said.
The Navy is ready to do even more with the $40 million, such as building a new port and more roads. But Vieques Mayor Damaso Serrano, one of the protesters facing trespassing charges this week, has refused to accept any more help.
What the Navy needs to do as it prepares to leave, Serrano said, is to gather the hundreds of unexploded bombs it left on the island. Local officials also are pushing the Navy to clean up more than a dozen contaminated sites in the western part of Vieques.
Experts expect the contamination on the eastern side of the island, where the target range is located, to be even worse. Harm to coral reefs in that area already has been well-documented.
In addition, Vieques residents and Puerto Rican officials say there is a link between the Navy's training and higher levels of cancer, other illnesses and heart abnormalities found in area fishermen.
The Navy denies there is any scientific evidence to prove those claims but is endorsing several studies.
To get its message directly to Vieques residents, the Navy sent out "fact sheets" countering those claims and promising to look into any other allegations.
"Yes, we've probably done things wrong in the past, and we're trying to fix them now," Lt. Cmdr. Katherine Goode said. "I think there's always time to let people know that we can still be good neighbors."
But most people on Vieques are not listening.
"If they had been good neighbors as they say they want to be now, maybe things would have been different," said Basilisa Feliciano, 73, whose family was displaced by the Navy in the 1940s.
"But we would just get the bombs and no benefit from it. And the people today are not the people of 1943. They won't put up with this anymore."