Last Christmas, I spent the day by myself, exploring abandoned military ruins and off-roading in the jungle on the island of Vieques. That might horrify those of you who are traditionalists and prefer to spend Christmas day with family, drinking hot chocolate and listening to (but not necessarily enjoying) your sibling’s farting contest, but it was my idea of a perfect day. Don’t get me wrong, I love hanging out with my family, they’re a bunch of delightful weirdos, but we don’t put much emphasis on holidays, which is why I get to do things like spend Thanksgiving in an abandoned asylum, and Christmas in Puerto Rico.
Vieques is a small island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. It was inhabited by Native American tribes from around 3000bc (dates debatable) to the 15th century when the Spanish “discovered” it. They took over during the 16th century, enslaving, killing and/or imprisoning the natives.
Over the next 300 years, various European powers tried to seize Puerto Rico but were consistently beat by the Spanish, who allowed Vieques Island to become a “lawless outpost, frequented by pirates and outlaws.” In 1898, the US took over after defeating the Spanish in the Spanish-American war.
Throughout the 1800’s and early 1900’s, sugar was the main source of Vieques’ profitable industry. The island had five plantations, tended to by slaves, natives and immigrants. For more info on the sugar mills, go read this post.
In 1940, in the midst of WWII, the United States Navy began to look for a place to set up a naval base, and they settled on Vieques. They purchased some land in 1941 and by 1950, they owned and occupied two thirds of the island. The eastern end was used for training exercises and the western end as an ammunition depot, which still remain today as bunker ruins.
With the US Navy on one end and the US Marines on the other, citizens of Vieques were forced to move to the center of the island. Here is a detailed map of Vieques during military occupation:
And a simplified map to emphasis how little land civilians were allowed to occupy:
If you look for a map of Vieques now, you’ll find ones like this, outlining tourist destinations.
Areas previously occupied by the military are restricted for two reasons: 1) the EPA is working to stabilize wildlife in the area and 2) the US Military has not finished cleaning out the area and unexploded bombs can still be found.
For 60 years, the residents of Vieques lived with constant bomb and ammunition testing that culminated in a series of protests starting in 1999. The protests heightened when a bomb was dropped too close to a civilian employee’s security post, killing one man and injuring four others.
The largest protest took place in May of 2000, in which hundreds of civilians and outside supporters charged the military’s practice grounds. Many were arrested but released on minor trespassing charges. The protest did not stop the military, which continued to occupy the island until May 2003.
Prior to full military withdrawal in 2003, the Navy had already vacated the western end in 2001. The ammunition depot bunkers still remain, some locked and some wide open.
Cleanup of hazardous materials continues, as both ends of the island have been turned into wildlife refuges. So far the estimated cost of the cleanup is $200 million, making it the most expensive cleanup in military history.
Disabled artillery and mortar shells being broken down for recycling in 2007.
An unexploded bomb being blown up in 2008 on the former Naval Training Range. The Navy estimates cleanup won’t be finished until 2025.
An unexploded bomb about 80 feet off the coast of Vieques, discovered by a fisherman in early 2013.
Although the military vacated Vieques 10 years ago, the island still struggles with the aftermath of its occupation. Reports of unexploded bombs and harmful debris, along with detections of carcinogens like mercury, lead and uranium are just a few of the claims. High cancer and infant mortality rates were reported, however multiple official sources refuted the claims, including a study conducted by John Hopkins University and multiple evaluations by the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
I am not going to insert an opinion into a situation I only know about from reading things on the internet, but if historical patterns are to be believed, I wouldn’t be surprised if both parties are half right and half wrong. In situations like this, the party claiming damage often exaggerates said damage, and the defending party underestimates the damage to protect themselves. I’m inclined to side with the prior since it involves the health of human beings, but again, I’m remaining (mostly) neutral. I suppose if I had the time to do more research, I could easily pick a side, but I’ve got to go on Facebook and make a compelling argument against soup, because soup is bullshit. Oof, I am what’s wrong with everything. Let’s wrap this up…
To see more photos, go to the Vieques military bunkers Flickr set.
Disclaimer: If any information on this post is incorrect, if you have more info or would otherwise like to tell me something, feel free to contact me.