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A Year in the Life of Vieques

by Lance Oliver

April 21, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

A year has passed since the last bomb dropped in Vieques. It was the 500-pound bomb that fell on an observation post far from the intended target area, killing David Sanes.

The evening the last bomb fell, I happened to be sitting on my patio in the evening coolness idly flipping through the radio dial and I came across the first sketchy reports of a death in Vieques. At the time, I had no idea that this accident would set off a chain of events that would succeed in changing life on the island in a way that years of demands and pleading, anger and persuasion, had been unable to do.

Within days, however, it became clear that this accident had tipped the balance. Those who had dedicated their efforts for years to trying to remove the Navy from Vieques suddenly had a lever. In short time, they moved the mass of Puerto Rican public from mostly ignoring the Vieques situation to demanding immediate resolution. Politicians who had avoided the subject or portrayed the Navy’s presence as a necessary price to pay for the U.S. national defense, now united against the bombing and training.

The camps sprung up as volunteers poured onto the restricted Navy land, placing themselves as human shields to ensure the bombing did not resume.

Expectations were raised far beyond ending the bombing of Vieques. Intellectuals talked about the beginning of the end of the grip of political parties on public opinion. If a vast majority of Puerto Ricans could come together and agree on this issue, then why would they have to take their cues from political parties? Maybe the influence of political leaders could be broken and, at the same time, the deep divides in society could be overcome as ordinary people came together despite old political labels and differences.

Now, a year has passed. Some things have changed and some haven’t. What is different now? I suggest these things:

-- Vieques is different. No bombs have fallen in a year. It’s a more peaceful place.

But that peace could be replaced by violence, or at least hard feelings, depending on when and how the protesters leave Navy land. If the directives issued by President Clinton are implemented, bombing will resume, but with non-explosive ordnance and for fewer days per year. Then it will eventually end after the Navy holds its futile referendum of Vieques residents.

Either way, today’s peace is not likely to last. But in the end, barring the worst-case scenario of a new president reneging on Clinton’s agreement, Vieques will someday be a more peaceful place.

-- The erosion of the importance of political parties actually began before the last bomb fell on Vieques, but it was not ended by the "consensus" that so many proclaimed and tried so hard to maintain, even when it was clear it could not go on. But that erosion is a very slow process and not guaranteed of success.

It will be a long time before Puerto Ricans overcome their political divisions. The Vieques cause created an appearance that this was happening, but it was just a new coat of paint. The foundation has the same cracks.

-- Disillusionment of the public is likely, largely because everyone from Gov. Pedro Rosselló to the guy down the street who stuck a bumper sticker on his car was swearing by the phrase "Ni una más," not one more bomb. When a lesser agreement was reached, division along political party lines returned and many were disillusioned. Now, with religious leaders still holding out hope that "Ni una más" is a possibility, there is room for even more disappointment.

Expectations were far higher than any likely outcome.

-- Finally, looking beyond the current situation, Vieques may pass from being a test of U.S. attitudes toward Puerto Rico, and vice versa, to a test of Puerto Rico’s ability to make the right decisions. If the Navy hands over Vieques, what will become of it?

Will it become a pleasant place to live, with new job opportunities replacing the Navy? Or will cronies of the government in power scoop up land and turn the Isla Nena into a resort island?

Will Puerto Rico preserve the land and create the means for a more vibrant and healthy community? Or will the only opportunities for Vieques residents consist of cleaning toilets or waiting tables in mega-resorts that suck up the limited resources and leave ordinary people high and dry, outside the walls, with different kinds of pollution to show for it?

Will the government handle the opportunity of Vieques with the same disastrous results it has obtained with the Condado Trio, now an eyesore sapping the life out of a key area of San Juan?

After a year in the new life of Vieques, many stories remain to be told.

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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