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First Ramey, Then Culebra. Now Vieques?

A year after the Navy’s exit, it’s a free-for-all in the would-be island paradise of Vieques, with rampant real-estate speculation and isolated hubs of anti-‘foreigner’ radical groups jeopardizing its economic development


April 15, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

A change of heart

After more than 60 years of bombardment by the U.S. Navy and neglect by the local government, who can blame ‘viequenses’ for being angry and distrustful? Still, they must realize that any plan for sustainable economic development will require that the majority seize the opportunity to transform Vieques into the ecotourism jewel of the Caribbean.

Almost a year after the U.S. Navy left Vieques, the island’s residents, or viequenses, are facing major obstacles to their economic development. The lack of property titles, land invasions, the cleanup of toxic sites, and pressure from radical groups to push foreign (nonlocal) residents off the island are only some of the problems standing in their way.

Vieques residents are also tackling crucial decisions about what kind of sustainable economy is best for the island. Most experts and viequenses agree the focus should be on developing an ecotourism industry that doesn’t harm the island’s natural resources.

But how far are the majority of viequenses willing to go to expand the island’s economy? Are they willing to cope with all the attention that could come when the world learns of the island’s beautiful natural resources? Will they be able to forget six decades of Navy war games and poor community relations and look to the future?

During a recent days-long visit to Vieques, CARIBBEAN BUSINESS saw that island residents seem hesitant about the island’s future, after over 60 years of neglect by the municipal, central, and federal governments.

Radames Tirado, deputy commissioner of the Special Commissioner’s Office for Vieques & Culebra and a former mayor of Vieques, blames the central government’s inattention for the island’s current state of affairs.

"We were abandoned [by the central government] for too long," he said. "[If the U.S. Navy hadn’t occupied our land], our economy would have risen by our own efforts and we would have it all. Still, we have to admit that we might have made the same mistakes as the Isla Grande [as viequenses call the main island of Puerto Rico]. Perhaps now we can plan our future without making the mistakes of turn the island into the Vieques we want."

A full-time resident of Vieques, Tirado was referring to the island’s embattled history, going back to the 1940s when the U.S. Navy unilaterally uprooted viequenses living in settlements in the eastern and western regions of the island and moved them to the central region. Entire communities were created that exist today, with names like Monte Santo, Pueblo Nuevo, and Santa Maria. Families like Tirado’s, which included 11 brothers and sisters, were evicted from the prosperous western region where sugar plantations operated, given $10 or $15, and abandoned without shelter.

Most displaced families settled wherever they could build a modest house. Today, most Vieques residents don’t own a title to the land where their homes were built. Without titles, private or public banks don’t approve mortgage or commercial loans to develop private businesses. Without titles, viequenses still live in fear that the government will come and take away their homes again.

Lack of property titles creates uncertainty

In the past year, the government tried to resolve some of the island’s most disturbing problems. Adding to the uncertainty created by the lack of property titles are the recent massive land invasions taking place in the western region, particularly in areas such as Bravos de Boston, Monte Carmelo, and Villa Borinquen.

Beginning in 1976 and continuing through the struggle to oust the U.S. Navy, Vieques residents slowly invaded thousands of acres of unoccupied land from the western region, land that belonged to the U.S. Navy. Today, thousands of families in squatter communities such as Villa Borinquen and Monte Carmelo are beneficiaries of a $4.2 million aqueduct project, an $800,000 electricity project, and a $125,000 telephone project.

"Once thousands of families move in, you have no choice but to provide them with basic infrastructure services such as electricity and water," said Tirado, who is overseeing the projects in Vieques. "The invaders are now demanding these services, going so far as to insist that electricity and water lines extend to where they have decided to build a home. They aren’t thinking about who is going to pay for these expensive infrastructure projects. They just want the services to be available by the time their home is ready.

"When I was mayor in 1977, I tried to stop the land invasions, but the judges were incredibly lenient with the communities," continued Tirado. "I fully appreciate the struggle for peace of most viequenses, and it was a just cause, but these land invasions aren’t legal. Perhaps if the invaders were disadvantaged...but we are talking about rich people taking over hundreds of acres and building homes worth more than $200,000 each."

An example is Monte Carmelo, where civil disobedience leader Carmelo Mata "owns" more than 300 acres. Allegedly, Mata and other land invaders sell plots with an alleged legal document outlining the details of the sale. Other sellers advertise Vieques properties without titles and still find buyers.

And these land invaders are selling their property at a premium. Real-estate prices can go from $70,000 per acre for noncoastal lots to $1 million per acre for beachfront property. According to Vieques Mayor Damaso Serrano, a five-acre property was recently sold for what could be a record $20 million. Serrano is extremely concerned about sales by homeowners without property titles.

"The fact is that properties without land titles are being sold two and three times in a two-month period, reaching higher prices each time, and there is nothing we can do about it," said Serrano. "Part of the new economic development plan by the government and the municipality encourages viequenses not to sell their property. We already have 600 fewer houses than we should have for the island’s population, and we are working on social interest housing projects and other programs to reduce this shortage.

"To prevent further sales of invaded properties, the municipality recently approved a resolution to impose a fine of up to $10,000 and jail time on any person buying or selling titleless property. It is a punitive measure intended to dissuade invaders from selling their land for speculation, but it is the only thing we can do," said Serrano.

There are several proposals for dealing with the problems of homeowners without property titles and land invasion. One is to create a law that makes selling property without titles illegal. For land invaders who own more than one property, a mortgage would be placed on the first home and its owner would have to pay municipal property taxes. Land invaders would probably get legal property titles from the municipality, but they wouldn’t be allowed to sell the property without first making an offer to the municipality. If the municipality doesn’t buy the property but allows the sale, a percentage of the proceeds would go to the municipal government.

In 2003, the central government gave Vieques $1 million to provide property titles for 860 residents of Santa Maria, Bravos de Boston, and Pueblo Nuevo, three communities dating to the first resettlements in Vieques. The process is lengthy and involves measuring the property, creating an as-built map, appraising the property, and legalizing the process. Serrano hopes to deliver titles to these residents in July and to duplicate the process in Villa Borinquen and Monte Santo next year.

Where is capital investment coming from?

For decades, viequenses (and Culebra residents) have lived in isolation from mainland Puerto Rico, and they want to keep some of that distance. Economic development of the island is foremost on most residents’ minds, as long as it brings them new business opportunities and a market for their products and services.

To a small group of viequenses, however, foreign investment is undesirable. They see foreign investment as any capital that comes from nonresidents, including U.S. mainland and foreign-born businesspeople who have lived on the island for decades.

"Some people are saying that those who aren’t viequenses or don’t hire viequenses must leave; this situation has already affected some of our more long-term residents such as Bio-Bay Conservation Group’s Sharon Grasso," said Mayor Serrano. "We can’t deny that Vieques’ history affects our people’s reaction, but it certainly can’t be justified. One can’t solve violence with violence.

"The important thing is that we have economic development that benefits our residents. We have to provide the tools for Vieques residents to be able to create new businesses and aspire to new jobs. We have to combine local investment in Vieques with investment from mainland Puerto Rico, the U.S. mainland, and foreign countries," added Serrano. "It isn’t bad for an investor from the U.S., Finland, or France to want to invest in Vieques. One can’t be afraid of foreign investment as long as you establish the rules of the business. However, any investment in Vieques has to translate into dollars and cents for Vieques."

Some groups, however, resent the fact that viequenses have had so little say in the island’s economic development. "Vieques is for viequenses! Vieques in the hands of viequenses!" chanted members of the Committee for the Rescue & Development of Vieques during an interview with CARIBBEAN BUSINESS.

The organization, headed by Robert Rabin, a civil disobedience leader born and raised on the U.S. mainland, often used the slogan during its fight to oust the military from Vieques. "Making the U.S. Navy cry," as they were forced out of Vieques was how Rabin put it during the interview, the culmination of many years of protest. Rabin and those who stand by him have now set their sights on Vieques’ economic development.

The group’s main interest is that the tourism model selected for Vieques exclude large hotels like the 150-room Martineau Bay Resort & Spa. Rabin said these kinds of hotel properties offer jobs but don’t generate sustainable businesses among viequenses.

"The $40 million the government spent on Martineau Bay Resort & Spa would have been better spent by distributing it among viequenses wanting to operate small guesthouses and providing them with orientation to develop general business and infrastructure skills," he said.

Like other government and private-sector representatives, Rabin’s organization supports an ecotourism model for Vieques and the conservation of the island’s natural resources.

"The government speaks about sustainability, but it still uses models that have nothing to do with it. The millions of dollars that are manipulated aren’t managed by the special commissioner to Vieques or by me. It is Sila [Calderon] or [Pedro] Rossello or the president of the Puerto Rico Government Development Bank, and they are all family-related, and dine at the same restaurants in San Juan, with the owners of these megaprojects," said Rabin.

"So, we are going to persist—just as we persisted and won a ceasefire by the U.S. Navy in Vieques—to gain control of the economic future of Vieques, which right now is in the hands of powerful and wealthy people. We want to control our future from here, from the community, with joint participation by the municipal government and community organizations," said Rabin.

Toxic cleanup still up in the air

The cleanup of Vieques’ western region, where the U.S. Navy stored and dumped toxic waste, and the eastern region, where the Navy conducted bombing exercises, is another sensitive subject among the population. In October 2003, Vieques and Culebra were included on the National Priorities List of the nation’s most contaminated sites, qualifying them for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund Cleanup funds.

This March, Army Deputy Secretary H.T. Johnson estimated the cost to clean up nearly 600 acres in Vieques at $76 million. The job involves 12 sites in the eastern region plus the cleanup of ammunition and explosives at the shooting ranges. Another 490 acres in the western region, which was mostly used for storage, were also singled out for decontamination.

What worries Vieques residents most is the fallout that might have flowed through the air and into their bodies during 60 years of bombing raids over the island. In 2001, the death rates in Vieques from cardiac illness, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, strokes, hypertension, liver disease, and cancer were reported to be substantially higher than on the main island of Puerto Rico, according to the Puerto Rico Department of Health and the Technical & Professional Support Group to Develop a Sustainable Economy Guide for Vieques.

The U.S. Navy has acknowledged using contaminants in Vieques such as bombs’ chemical residues, solvents, and pesticides, which have the potential to cause cancer, genetic defects, and other illnesses. Investigations in 1999 and 2000 also found high levels of toxic elements in hair and feces samples from Vieques patients, revealing the presence of lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury.

While approaching Kiani Lagoon in Vieques’ eastern region, Deputy Commissioner Tirado pointed to areas with cyclone fences and criticized the Navy’s dumping of toxic substances there.

"Where you see the cyclone fences are areas that were enclosed by the U.S. Navy before it left because they had been identified as toxic waste sites," he said. "The Navy knew no toxic substances were supposed to be dumped in these mangroves, but it still dumped toxic liquids such as lubricants and gasoline. This was a planned process of destruction, not a casual oversight. The Navy planned to destroy Vieques; it is as simple as that."

In the Llave sector of eastern Vieques, the Navy left behind more than 100 underground bunkers. These impressive concrete-and-steel structures, measuring about 100 feet deep, 40 feet wide, and 40 feet high, could become museums about Vieques and an area to develop artists’ colonies. While the majority of the bunkers were turned over to the municipality, the U.S. Navy sealed some before leaving the island. These bungalows probably contained highly toxic materials, according to Tirado.

Several studies are being conducted in Vieques to determine the potential harmful effects on residents of the Navy’s bombing practices. After hearing recent reports about reduced uranium in bullets making soldiers ill during the Persian Gulf wars, viequenses are even more concerned about their health. In 2002, the Puerto Rico Department of Health announced it would conduct an epidemiological study in Vieques to determine disease patterns, but it hasn’t begun.

Infrastructure improvements have begun

Unlike Culebra, Vieques’ economy thrived during the U.S. Navy’s occupation in part because of the presence of the military’s need to purchase goods and services outside the base. The 51-square-mile island also gained international recognition for its beaches and guesthouses, frequented by visitors from the U.S. mainland and foreign countries. Mainland Puerto Rico visitors also frequented the offshore island; they mostly rented the small apartments and guesthouses or camped near the beaches during summer.

Still, there was limited space to develop new businesses in the central region where viequenses were allowed to live. On top of that, residents had to depend on unreliable ferry transportation to receive supplies from mainland Puerto Rico. Today, the municipal government of Vieques’ borrowing capacity is weak, with one of the lowest loan margins in Puerto Rico.

Vieques’ population suffered during the occupation by the Navy. In the 1940s, there were close to 16,000 residents. That number fell to as low as 7,000. Since 2000, the island’s population has grown an average of only 0.5% to approximately 9,200. The unemployment rate in 2003 was 16%.

Mayor Serrano is running for a second term on the Popular Democratic Party ticket. He said that if re-elected, he would complete several projects to improve the quality of life of viequenses.

"During my first term, my priorities were to fight for the ousting of the U.S. Navy; to improve the healthcare facilities with the opening of a new medical facility for pregnant mothers and a soon-to-open hemodialysis unit; and to implement a short route between Vieques and Ceiba," said Serrano. "All of these projects are on their way, including the construction of a $16 million pier in the western region’s Mosquito sector, where the ferry service would be transferred. This would make it possible to reduce the one-and-a-half hour ferry trip from Vieques to Fajardo to a 25-minute voyage from Vieques to Ceiba, now that the military facilities in that town have gone."

For his second term, Serrano intends to redevelop Vieques’ three major sectors: Isabel II, Esperanza, and Mosquito. By moving the ferry from Isabel II to Mosquito, he will decongest the traffic-laden area and concentrate on local commerce. Esperanza is the more laid-back area for tourists, with a small seafront, guesthouses, and shops. There are plans to develop a fishing village away from the tourist area while retaining a spot for the fishermen to sell their catch.

One of Serrano’s most ambitious projects is the $16 million reconstruction of a pier built in Mosquito in 1941 to protect U.S. and British naval forces from Germany. Called Mosquito Pier, the pier will accommodate ferries and cruise ships and will include a boardwalk with shops and restaurants. The area is also a place where manatees and whales can be observed. "In terms of planning, we are already working on the three sectors," said Serrano. "But Vieques needs to be replanned to avoid losing our patrimony; we need beautiful beaches unmarred by concrete buildings; the use of nature-friendly materials to build new structures; and the protection of our streams to avoid turning them into garbage areas."

Other future infrastructure projects include the development of a coarse-rock (tosca) quarry, which will provide high-quality sand for construction. Another rock quarry will open soon on the island to provide material for local construction. Because of the limited access to construction materials, building homes and other structures is extremely expensive in Vieques. For example, a ton of cement costs $65 in Ceiba, whereas in Vieques it fluctuates between $125 and $130.

There is also a need to improve the roads. As one enters Vieques’ eastern region, where 14,000 acres were transferred to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on May 1, 2003, one can see—and feel—all the potholes. The municipality is also planning to rescue the former U.S. Navy airport in this region. What could be a runway for large airplanes is already showing signs of neglect, with weeds pushing through the asphalt.

Small-scale agricultural projects are growing

So far, the government has begun several agricultural projects in Vieques. In the Lujan Sector, tomatoes, lettuce, recao, and green and red peppers are part of a hydroponics project, where crops are grown without soil in containers fed mainly with water and vitamins. Initially, enough crops will be grown to sell to local supermarkets and hotels.

Another project is the development of a plant that uses the wood of thousands of bayahonda trees to produce vegetable carbon. This particular carbon involves a cleaner manufacturing process than regular carbon; the raw material is readily available on the island, and the tree has a quick turnaround growth cycle; the carbon lasts a long time; and viequenses swear by the sweet flavor that bayahonda carbon adds to foods. The tree’s fruit, a sort of acorn, can also be used to make jam.

One of the most ambitious projects is the two acres allotted to growing pineapples, using a special seed from the Dominican Republic. Plots will be leased to local farmers so they can grow different crops.

CARIBBEAN BUSINESS found Pepe Grau, a consultant to the Puerto Rico Land Authority, evaluating a pineapple farm being developed in the area, in the same spot where there had been a pineapple plantation until the 1950s.

"This is a beautiful pineapple farm," said Grau, who was supervising the work by a crew of viequenses. "We have had to depend on pineapple seeds from the Dominican Republic because Puerto Rico’s seed production in the past few years has been terrible. We expect to harvest the first crop, about 40,000 to 50,000 pineapples, by the end of May or the beginning of June. We haven’t defined our market, but we know that what we are producing can be sold locally, in the eastern region of mainland Puerto Rico, and on surrounding Caribbean islands."

Fishermen’s issues boiling hot

On the last day of CARIBBEAN BUSINESS’ visit to Vieques, representatives of the Puerto Rico Department of Natural & Environmental Resources (DNER) met with Vieques fishermen to provide orientation on new agency regulations, such as the fact that license fees now depend on the kind of fishing to be done.

"We have several fishermen’s associations, and they naturally have their differences," said Mayor Serrano. "The municipality has been working on the rehabilitation of the Northern Fishing Association’s village, which is led by Antonio Medina. We also proposed building a fishing village in the southern region of Vieques for the fishermen in that area, but we couldn’t agree on where to put it, so we chose Villa Esperanza. To avoid any problems among the fishermen, the municipality will be administrating it to make sure everyone is able to make use of it."

When one asks in Vieques how many fishermen there are, the usual response is, "Before the U.S. Navy offered financial aid to fishermen, or after?" There are about 80 well-known fishermen who make their living from the sea. However, the five associations representing all fishermen have at least 300 members.

"I would recommend that the DNER create an official register of fishermen, asking them for details about their work. This would weed out those who aren’t really part of the profession and who may be in it for political reasons," said Deputy Commissioner Tirado.

Another issue that worries Vieques fishermen is traveling to DNER offices in mainland Puerto Rico to obtain licenses. The trip to and from the main island of Puerto Rico can cost $70 in marine and land transportation, loss of work, and food expenses. The municipality has already arranged for some central-government services to be provided locally, including driver’s licenses.

Adopting an economic development guide

During the Rossello administration, Executive Order No. 1999-21 of May 11, 1999 created the Office of the Special Commissioner for Vieques & Culebra to study the impact of the U.S. Navy’s presence in Vieques. In 2001, Gov. Sila Calderon appointed Juan Fernandez as special commissioner for Vieques & Culebra to oversee the implementation of Law 153 of Aug. 10, 2002.

There is also an interagency group headed by Economic Development & Commerce Secretary Milton Segarra, with representatives from most government agencies, the mayors of Culebra and Vieques, and community representatives appointed by the government. The group meets approximately once a month to discuss advances made and how the government agencies can help.

"By April, we should have a draft of Estudios Tecnicos Inc.’s economic development report for Vieques and Culebra," said Fernandez. "Additional public hearings will take place in June and July to discuss the findings and incorporate any comments. What we expect will be the major areas of concern in Vieques are combating the high unemployment rate; creating a sustainable ecotourism industry with the necessary services, such as transportation, restaurants, gift shops, and tours; and developing sectors of the agricultural industry for mostly local consumption."

According to Fernandez, more than $100 million have been committed to the development of Vieques since 2000. Of the 14,000 acres returned to the municipality, about 520 acres will be used to build much-needed housing. Suggestions from several groups are being compiled into a guide on the economic development opportunities in Vieques and Culebra, as mandated by Law 153. The guide will delineate what kind of sustainable development is best for Vieques and Culebra and which internal and external resources will be needed to reach each goal (CB published a front-page story on Culebra, "Paradise Lost," on March 4).

When the project is finished, guidelines at the central and municipal government levels will be established to monitor the islands’ development. On March 8, Estudios Tecnicos, a local firm hired to design the master plan, submitted its first findings.

The report was based on public hearings in Vieques and Culebra in March and April at which residents expressed their thoughts about their respective islands’ futures. The report includes suggestions from the Vieques Territorial Organizational Plan, Puerto Rico Tourism Co., Renacer Viequense (Serrano’s 2000 political platform to revitalize Vieques’ economy), and Technical & Professional Support Group to Develop a Sustainable Economy Guide for Vieques (submitted by the Committee for the Rescue & Development of Vieques), and Vieques Transition Committee.

The proposals were divided into nine topics, including transportation, infrastructure, health, education, economy, social, environmental, land use & urban design, and other miscellaneous topics regarding small plots of land, historical / cultural guidelines, intra-island services, construction regulations, and the problem of property titles.

Based on this information and the public’s response, final guidelines will be drawn up on how to achieve a sustainable economy. The response so far points to the development of a strong ecotourism industry backed by minor agricultural industries such as the farming of fruit, vegetables, and ornamental flowers. The question is, will residents of Vieques be ready to take over their future and follow the equivalent of their yellow-brick road?

Vieques’ history marked by multiple invasions

Indigenous settlers dominated by Taino, Spanish, French, Dutch, and English

Historians have determined that Vieques had indigenous settlements long before its colonization by Spain in the 19th century. The first indigenous settlers were the Arcaico Indians, circa the late 1600s to early 1500s B.C. One of the most popular archeological finds in Vieques is the Man from Puerto Ferro, the most complete remains of an Arcaico Indian, dated circa the 1900s B.C.

Other Indian cultures were the Saladoides, Huecoides, Ostionoides, and Tainos. When the natives from mainland Puerto Rico attacked Casimar, the chief of the Bieke tribe in Vieques, the offshore island’s indigenous inhabitants all but disappeared. After the Spaniards descended upon Puerto Rico in 1493, they allowed the English, Dutch, and French to settle in Vieques.

In 1811, the Spanish government in Puerto Rico sent Juan Rosello to colonize the island, but he wasn’t successful. Vieques didn’t get its first governor until Frenchman Teofilo J.J.M. Le Guillou, who colonized the island and was governor until his death in 1843.

Under Gov. Le Guillou, the first sugar plantations thrived, operating successfully for more than 100 years. Among the most profitable were Campaña, Santa Elena, Santa Maria, Esperanza, Resolucion, Puerto Real, Arcadia, Mosquito, and Playa Grande. In 1943, the latter became the last plantation to close.

In 1874 and 1915, there were two revolts in Vieques, the first by slaves, and the other by workers of sugar plantations. The Great Depression in the U.S. also affected the island’s economy, causing many residents to emigrate to St. Croix in search of jobs.

With the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Puerto Rico, Vieques, and Culebra fell under the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Insular Land & Possessions division. U.S. military construction in Vieques didn’t begin, however, until World War II (1939-1945). The U.S. Navy decided then to displace more than 800 families from the eastern and western regions of Vieques to a central strip of the island. Ousted from their communities and with their commerce disrupted, viequenses had to establish new homes, businesses, infrastructure, and even transportation routes off the island, all this amid the military operations at both ends of the island.

For over six decades, viequenses have fought in many ways to recover their land, demanding what they call the four Ds: demilitarization, decontamination, devolution, and development of the land. By the end of the 1970s, fishermen and their sympathizers were stopping military bombing raids in protest of the environmental damage and the restrictions imposed on the fishing industry.

In 1980, the U.S. Congress began discussing the U.S. Navy’s exit from Vieques. Still, military stalwarts insisted on expropriating the entire island to conduct their exercises. They claimed there was no other place to conduct their military exercises.

What led to the U.S. Navy’s departure from Vieques—apart from the obvious bad-neighbor relations over the years—were its mistakes during bombing raids, such as when two bombs were dropped near Observation Tower 1 and bullets from an M-16 rifle destroyed a vehicle in an area off the waste dump. The death of David Sanes after an errant bomb fell near the observation point he was commanding stirred viequenses’ indignation.

Beginning in 1999, concerted efforts by various groups in Puerto Rico, the U.S. mainland, and foreign countries resulted in hundreds of official requests to the U.S. government for the military to leave Vieques.

In 2001, a referendum was held in Vieques, which revealed that 68% of Vieques residents wanted the immediate and permanent cessation of U.S. Navy practices and the cleanup and return of the expropriated land in all occupied or previously occupied Navy sites in Vieques. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Defense and the government of Puerto Rico agreed to stop all military activity on May 1, 2003.

Some 80% of the U.S. Navy’s 14,000 acres in the western region were transferred to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. An unknown amount of land is believed to be contaminated. Another 800 acres were transferred to the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust, and the U.S. government retained 100 acres to continue operating the Relocatable Over-the-Horizon Radar.

Information for this story came from the first report submitted by Estudios Tecnicos Inc. to the Interagency Group of Vieques & Culebra’s Master Plan for the Sustainable Development of Vieques.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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