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Vieques, Puerto Rico: The Social, Environmental, and Public Health Consequences of the US Navy Occupation. Sara Billing Urban Studies 515, Spring 2004 Professor Raquel Pinderhughes Race, Poverty and the Urban Environment San Francisco State University

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Vieques, Puerto Rico: The Social, Environmental, and Public Health Consequences of the US Navy Occupation

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  1. Vieques, Puerto Rico:The Social, Environmental, and Public Health Consequences of the US Navy Occupation Sara Billing Urban Studies 515, Spring 2004 Professor Raquel Pinderhughes Race, Poverty and the Urban Environment San Francisco State University Public has permission to use the material herein, but only if the author, course, university, and professor are credited.

  2. This presentation focuses on the social, environmental, and public health consequences and repercussions of the US Navy operating in the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico between 1941 and 2003. • This presentation is designed to describe the impact of the Navy’s actions on the people of Vieques- Viequenses. I will analyze and describe the result of the Navy’s activities on the island of Vieques: paying particular attention to the social, environmental, and public health impacts. • I will start by giving an introduction and history to the island of Vieques. Then I will describe the social effects of the Navy’s presence, followed by a description of the environmental degradation that continues to take place, and subsequently the public health issues that have now plagued Vieques for decades.

  3. The Island of Vieques

  4. The History of Vieques Vieques, Puerto Rico is an island situated about 6 miles to the southeast of Puerto Rico itself. Vieques, along with the rest of Puerto Rico, was colonized by Spain for over 400 years. In 1898 Puerto Rico changed into US hands as a result of the Spanish-American war. Under Spain, Vieques became a plantation economy. Sugar cane and pineapples have been the two main crops grown for export. However, the people of Vieques, Viequenses, support themselves largely through fishing. • Indigenous language: Arawak • Indigenous peoples: Tainos Vieques is archeologically rich, as human remains from more than 4,000 years ago have been found there (some of the oldest remains in all of the Caribbean). The Island of Vieques got its name from the word bieques, a Taino word meaning “little island.” Vieques is also known as la isla nena meaning “the little sister island,” due to its size and proximity to Puerto Rico.

  5. The US in Vieques As early as the 1920’s the US Military began practicing field maneuvers in Vieques. In 1941 the US Congress passed two bills that called on the Navy to expropriate vast amounts of land in Vieques for it’s own purposes. Repeatedly, the Navy attempted to obtain the entire island, however, politically, it was not able to justify the complete removal of all the residents (over 10,000 people). Between 1941 and 1943 the US Navy ended up appropriating 21,000 of Vieques’s 33,000 acres on both the east and west ends of the island.

  6. Expropriation of Land As a result of this massive expropriation, the vast majority of Viequenses were forcibly relocated to the middle of the island, often to areas with little or no infrastructure. This was done with as little as 24 hours notice. Two of the largest land owners in Vieques were decently compensated for their hardships, however, small property owners, families, and those with use rights (but no title) were generally given less than 100 US dollars. By 1943 less than 40% of the island was available to the people of Vieques, with the western tip of the island functioning as a military munitions storage area, and the eastern portion being used for maneuvering practices, as well as target practice with live ammunition.

  7. Expropriation and Economic Impact While many communities around the world have experienced economic benefits from US military bases placed in their midst, this never happened in Vieques. The US Navy never became a primary employer in Vieques. The economic benefits of the US Navy in Puerto Rico were limited to the area surrounding Roosevelt Roads Naval Station on the island of Puerto Rico (where many military people stayed during training sessions focused on Vieques). The net result became the communities around Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico gaining employment and benefiting from indirect economic activities (such as bars, restaurants, and lodging), while those on the island of Vieques gained nothing from their island being routinely bombed.

  8. The First 10 Years In 1943 the first protest against the US Navy took place. This protest was inspired by the massive relocation of so many Viequenses, which resulted in the loss of jobs, lands, and livelihoods for thousands. In 1945 the US Navy began leasing some of the lands it had expropriated to the Puerto Rican government. While being forced to pay lease on land that had been their own just five years before, the Puerto Rican government used the land for a variety of agricultural projects. These projects became a great resource for the people of Vieques, employing 600 Viequenses. However, this arrangement did not last long. In 1947 the US Navy refused to continue leasing the land, taking it back, with an additional 4,000 acres. This incited organization and protest from many Viequenses, but to no avail. By the end of 1947, the US Navy had expropriated 26,000 of Vieques’s 33,000 acres. Less than 25% of Vieques remained for the people of Vieques.

  9. Bombs Drop on Vieques While anti-military activism resulted in the Navy leaving occupied lands on the island of Culebra, Puerto Rico during the 1970’s, the Navy’s use of Vieques increased dramatically. While land maneuvers with live ammunition were practiced over much of the western area of Vieques, the western most tip was used for target practice by planes flying over head, and ships off-shore. Bombs and artillery of many (some undisclosed) varieties were dropped. Many of these bombs created huge craters in the landscape, while others never exploded. Many bombs landed in the waters surrounding the western tip, some of which never detonated. US Navy bombing runs would be practiced as many as 180 days out of the year.

  10. Between 1993 and 1998 the Navy dropped more than 17,700 tons of bombs on Vieques

  11. Bombs Kill In Vieques April 19, 1999: Two off-target bombs kill David Sanes, a civilian guard, igniting massive local and international protest of the US Navy in Vieques.

  12. While protest against the US Navy had been going on in Vieques since 1943, the killing of David Sanes ignited the movement.

  13. Not Just Bombs… While protest were ignited by the death of David Sanes, the protest were about more than bombs themselves. Since the 1970’s statistics had been showing an increase in cancer rates among Viequenses. “From 1995 to 1998, viequenses under 50 years old had 56% greater risk of dying from cancer than Puerto Ricans of the same age living in the main island. The increased risk of viequenses of developing and dying from cancer since 1970 is significant.” - Health in Vieques: A Crisis and its Causes, By Cruz Maria Nazario, John Lindsay-Poland, and Déborah Santana

  14. All three of these children in Vieques have abnormally high levels of lead in their blood, a common problem for many Viequenses. Aside from high cancer rates, abnormally high levels of heavy metals and toxins such as aluminum, lead, mercury, and zinc have been found in the blood, hair, and fingernails of many people who live in Vieques. These same metals have been found in levels deemed unsafe by the EPA in the residential area soil, ground water, drinking water, house dust, plant life, as well as aquatic life (such as crabs).

  15. The Navy claims that these elements occur naturally in Vieques at abnormally high rates, and therefore refuses to take accountability, even though all of these metals are contained in the bombs that have been dropped for over 60 years on the island. "Stories of cancers and illness are just part of a campaign of misinformation by those opposed to our presence on the island.” -U.S. Navy Commander John Carrera.

  16. Grito De Vieques© 2000 Aya de León My name is ViequesI am a Puerto Rican girl.My stepfather is the United States. He comes into my room at night to do his business. My names is Vieques.I used to dream that Spain, my real father, would come back and rescue me.But he's gone for good.I have only the faint and echoing voices of Africana and Taina ancestors telling me that I can survive this. My name is Vieques.When my body started to change, my stepfather dressed me in a clingy, itchy dress. "Smile," he told me. "Smile at the nice foreign military man," and pushed me toward him.The military man was not nice.His skin was pasty. He breath smelled. I couldn't understand his language. He came into my room and did his business. My name is Vieques.Sometimes my stepfather sells me to whole groups. He calls them allied forces.I fought back the best I could with chains and live bodies and fishing boats.It happened anyway. My name is Vieques.I am still fighting back.I am bigger and stronger now.I have put a church, an encampment, a struggle up at my bedroom door. My stepfather can't get in. He has not been able to do his business for months now, longer than I ever dreamed. My name is Vieques.Without the shock of constant bombardment, the numbness is subsiding. I look at my body and see the devastation.Lagoons, like self-esteem, have dried up to nothingness.My womb is wilting with radiation from illegally used uranium ammunition. Where my skin was once lush and soft, I am scarred.Old tanks, like cigarette burns, dot my flesh.Unexploded bombs, like memories, may detonate in the futurewhen chosen lovers touch me in the wrong spot or without warning. My name is Vieques.The numbness is subsiding.Tender shoots of grass push up toward the sky.A lizard sneaks back to sun itself on a chunk of shrapnel.A butterfly alights on a rusted out jet.Fish slowly make their way back toward my shores, no longer reverberating with shockwaves of violation. My name is Vieques.This is my body.It may be worth eighty million dollars a year to you, Yanqui, but it is priceless to me. My door is barred.I have burned the clingy, itchy dress.The encampment grows stronger.The lizards, the grass, the fish, the butterflies stand with me.I'll never be the same,but I'll never be yours again to do you dirty business. My name is Viequesand I will be free.

  17. Social Impacts The US Navy’s expropriation, occupation, and exploitation of Vieques has had, and continues to have, many social consequences. The expropriation of land caused much hardship, uprooting people from there homes and local communities into one small strip of land. The lack of infrastructure complicated the situation, and led to an increase in poverty, with few educational, health care, or employment opportunities. Additionally, the most direct route to Puerto Rico from Vieques was occupied by the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, forcing civilians to take a route that was nearly three times longer. This complicated, and added to the expense of trips to Puerto Rico, where many Viequenses sought medical services not available on Vieques.

  18. Environmental Impacts The bombing of Vieques for over 60 years has caused a significant amount of environmental degradation. High levels of unexploded ordnance litter both land and sea. While the Navy at first denied any wrong doing, it finally admitted to illegally dropping 263 bombs that contained depleted uranium. The Navy claims that depleted uranium contains no health threats or risk. However, after much uproar regarding the incident, the Navy searched for the bombs, of which only 57 were ever recovered.

  19. “The eastern tip of the island constitutes a region with more craters per kilometer than the moon." - Professor Jose Seguinot Barbosa

  20. Unxploded Ordnance

  21. Unexploded missiles litter the fields, beaches, and hills of Vieques.

  22. The Ocean Environment Over 60 years of bombing has left the ocean along the eastern shores of Vieques with a wide assortment of missiles and bombs. This litter remains to be exploded, and would pose a great threat in the event of an attempted clean-up. However, this is not of immediate concern, as the Navy has not yet developed methods for safely removing and detonating unexploded ordnance under water. In addition to this, the Navy sunk two boat loads (several hundred barrels) of unknown toxic materials into the ocean off the eastern area of Vieques. As time has gone on, these barrels have began to erode, causing the barrels to leak.

  23. As the missiles, bombs, and barrels disintegrate they will continue to emit various toxic chemicals and heavy metals, both known and unknown. This material will continue to go into the water, to be spread by ocean currents.


  25. Public Health Impacts • Numerous studies have shown unsafe levels of heavy metals in a high percentage of Viequenses. Many of the metals, such as mercury, are neurotoxins, with high levels resulting in permanent damage to the nervous system. • Many Viequenses have higher rates of asthma than Puerto Ricans on other islands, this is especially true for school-age children. • Cancer rates and deaths in Vieques are higher than in other areas of Puerto Rico. • Health problems in Vieques are magnified by the fact that the island of Vieques has limited health services, forcing residents to either move, or travel to receive treatment.

  26. “Epidemiologist Carmen Ortiz-Roque at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Puerto Rico examined hair samples from 203 Vieques residents to determine whether they had been exposed to mercury, aluminum, cadmium, lead and arsenical ingredients in high explosives. Ortiz-Roque discovered levels of mercury higher than is considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) among 33 percent of those tested. Levels of aluminum, a carcinogen, exceeded safe limits in 56 percent. In addition, Ortiz-Roque reported Vieques' cancer mortality rate to be 30 percent higher than in the rest of Puerto Rico.” -Smithsonian Magazine, January 5, 2004

  27. Public Health Disputes The Navy disputes that it has anything to do with the elevated rates of illness in Vieques. It claims that many of the health problems local residents blame on the US Navy could not be a result of any of the said contaminants (which it also doesn’t take responsibility for). The problem with such claims is that studies have only been done on the effects of individual heavy metals and chemicals by themselves. Studies on the effects of multiple heavy metal and chemical accumulations in the body simultaneously have not been done: this is exactly what is happening to many Viequenses, especially children.


  29. The Future of Vieques Despite the Navy leaving Vieques in 2003, Viequenses still have many battles ahead them. Historically, the Navy has not done much in attempt to compensate the people, or repair the environmental damage it has done to other islands. The Navy has set the goal of having a ‘completed clean-up’ of Vieques by the year 2014. However, this requirements of this ‘clean-up’ are not agreed on by the Navy and the people of Vieques. With the Navy thus far refusing to accept responsibility for the heavy metals and toxic chemicals present in the land, water, and people of Vieques, it will be very difficult to have any sort of comprehensive clean-up program in place.

  30. Many people (mostly non-Viequenses) claim that a positive effect of the Navy being on Vieques is that now much of the land remains undeveloped. Naturally, this makes it ripe for development. Already several large hotel/resorts have landed on Vieques, privatizing the beaches they rest on. Many fear that this sort of development will lead to a greater privatization of the beaches and land that make Vieques special. At the same time, Vieques suffers from high levels of unemployment. Many see potential for the economic development that tourism may bring. "Health is the issue now. Later we can worry about those that want to bring in the new casinos and the polo and the golf." -Charlie Connelly, publisher of the Vieques Times

  31. Vieques Time Line (1898-1943) 1898: Spanish colonial rule ends. The United States takes possession of Puerto Rico as a result of the Spanish-American war. 1920’s: US Navy began practicing field maneuvers in Vieques. March 1941: US Congress approves “bill allowing military expropriation of vast expanses of land.” August 1941: US Congress approves bill that allows “the Navy to take immediate possession of targeted lands in Vieques.” 1941-1943: Navy seizes over 21,000 of Vieques’s 33,000 acres.

  32. Vieques Time Line (1943-1947) 1943: The first anti-Navy protest take place, due to a lack of land and jobs for Viequenses, many of whom had been relocated at the hand of the Navy. 1945: The US Navy leases lands it has expropriated in 1941 to the Puerto Rican government, which uses the land for a variety of agricultural projects, creating over 600 jobs. 1947: The US Navy announces that it will once again take control over the leased area, as well as expropriate more than 4,000 additional acres. Despite local opposition from a group named “Sons of Vieques”, the Navy ends up with 26,000 of Vieques 33,000 acres (approximately three quarters of the entire island).

  33. Vieques Time Line (1948-1970’s) 1948: First large scale war games take place using over 60 ships, 350 planes, and 50,000 troops from all US military branches. 1970’s: • Intense anti-military activism results in the Navy leaving occupied lands in Culebra, Puerto Rico, but not in Vieques. • The number of Navy planes dropping bombs for target practice over Vieques increases. General bombing and use of Vieques by the Navy increases.

  34. Vieques Time Line (1978-1988) 1978: The Navy conducts its first Water Quality Survey and detects high levels of both lead and zinc in surface water in the eastern portion of the island. A toxic component known as RDX is found in civilian land and drinking water. 1983-1998: The Navy drops more than 17,700 tons of bombs on Vieques. 1988: The military began having to take the effect of its activities on endangered species into account for the first time. Before 1988, the military was not required to do this.

  35. Vieques Time Line (1985-1999) 1985-1999: The Navy measures and reports heavy metal discharges that are released into the eastern waters of Vieques to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). The following are found to repeatedly violate both Puerto Rican Water Quality Standards and the Clean Water Act: arsenic, barium, boron, cadmium, chromium, cyanide, hexavalent, and lead. Early 1990’s: The Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (CRDV) is created by activist. February 19, 1999: Marine jet fires 263 rounds of depleted uranium at Vieques, in violation of both environmental law and military regulation. The military denies any wrong-doing until May 28th, when it admits there was “an error”. Eventually, only 57 shells are recovered.

  36. Vieques Time Line (1999) April 19, 1999: Two off-target bombs kill David Sanes, a civilian guard, igniting massive local and international protest of the US Navy in Vieques. May 1999: The United Methodist Council of Bishops approve a resolution restating an earlier demand stating that the Navy “cease its military activities, repair whatever damages it has caused, and transfer all the land that is currently occupied to the government of Puerto Rico.” 1999: Congress protects the military by not requiring it to pay fines for breaking environmental laws.

  37. Vieques Time Line (1999-2000) 1999-2000: • Civil disobedience camps are established within the eastern bombing zone of Vieques, disturbing Navy bombings and target practices. • High levels of cadmium, lead, and mercury are found in the finger nail and hair samples from Viequenses participating in a study. • Independent soil analysis show high levels of arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, cyanide, lead, nickel, tin, vanadium, and zinc.

  38. Vieques Time Line (2000) 2000: • The EPA states that the disposal of live ordnance by open burning or open detonation (a common practice by the Navy in Vieques) contaminates the surrounding environment with toxic substances such as bezene and tolune. • A study done by biologist and radio-chemist at the University of Puerto Rico shows high levels of cadmium, cobalt, nickle, and magnesium in plant samples (from violin crabs). Vegetation from bombing ranges shows extremely high levels of toxic metals. • The University of Puerto Rico, School of Public Health, finds arsenic, cadmium, and lead in a study conducted on accumulated dust from homes in Vieques.

  39. Vieques Time Line (2000-2001) June 2000: 21 Puerto Rican physicians, in observance of their Hippocratic Oath, engage in civil disobedience by peacefully entering the firing range of Vieques, which they are subsequently arrested for. January 2001: A study done by the University of Puerto Rico finds edible crops in the civilian area of Vieques to be extremely contaminated with cadmium, copper, and lead. July 29, 2001: 70% of Viequenses vote in favor of the US Navy leaving Vieques. Fall 2001: Dust raised by bombing impacts during Navy exercises shows an increase of radioactive gamma rays by over 200% from previous readings in civilian areas.

  40. Vieques Time Line (2001) 2001: • Almost 200 non-violent protesters opposing the US Navy in Vieques are arrested, including the mayor. • “The American Public Health Association adopt(s) a resolution calling on the President to order a permanent cessation of military exercises on Vieques and to establish a cleanup program to restore the island’s environment.”- from Vieques, Puerto Rico in Focus, Environmental and Health Impacts of Navy Training, A Crisis and its Causes.

  41. Vieques Time Line (2001-2014) 2001: The US Military spending bill requires the Navy to hand over 8,000 acres in western Vieques to the municipality of Vieques, the Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as the Puerto Rican Conservation Trust. April 2003: 14,400 acres of eastern Vieques are transferred from the US Navy to the Department of the Interior. May 2003: The Navy leaves Vieques 2014: The US Navy anticipates to have “completed” the cleanup of Vieques by this time.

  42. Bibliography • Contains articles, photos, history, and news updates. • DuBow, Shane; Warren, Scott S.; January 2004, Vol. 34 Issue 10; Vieques on the Verge; Smithsonian • Health in Vieques: A Crisis and its Causes By Cruz Maria Nazario, John Lindsay-Poland, and Déborah Santana • A Puerto Rican Island's Fight for Freedom From Occupation,Article and Photos by Paul Jeffrey, New World Outlook • September - October, 1999 • Contains art, posters, and articles. • Poem: Grito De Vieques, Aya DeLeon