Vieques -- The history of Vieques (Vee-AY-kes), Puerto Ricos little
sister island, is a heady mixture of Arawak Indians, European
explorers, pirates of the Caribbean, sugar plantation owners,
exploited workers and expropriated families.
At various times
in the last 500 years, Vieques has been a battleground, a refuge, a
scene of protests and a bomb site.
The island was
first inhabited by the Arawak Indians who arrived from South
America about 1,500 years before Christopher Columbus strode ashore
in 1493. (A very busy explorer, he reportedly set foot or eye upon
most of the Caribbean islands in the 1490s.)
After a brief
battle between local Indians and conquistadors, the Spaniards took
control of the island.
In the 17th
century, Vieques became a refuge for pirates roaming the Caribbean.
Later, it was fought over by the major European powers.
Simon Bolivar visited in 1816 to promote his struggle for the
independence of the Hispanic-American countries. Bolivar was
followed in 1823 by Teofilo Jose Jaime Maria Gillou, now recognized
as the founder of modern day Vieques.
Spain built a
fort on the island in the 1840s to affirm its control over the
region, but it turned out to be the last edifice built by the
Spaniards in North America. (Visitors can tour Fort Conde de
Mirasol, now a museum, perched on a hill just above Isabel
of Isabel Segunda, the islands only city, was founded in 1844, 10
years before the Puerto Rico governor officially declared the
islands annexation to Puerto Rico. It became an important
commercial port where the French and English traded goods until
By the second
part of the 19th century, Vieques had received thousands of black
immigrants who came from nearby islands to work on the sugar cane
The Depression of
the 1930s and the closing of several sugar operations left
residents dependent upon one remaining sugar plantation.
Between 1941 and
1947, the U.S. Congress authorized the Navy takeover of 26,000
acres on the eastern and western sections of Vieques, leaving a
small civilian zone in the center of the island.
families were moved off their land and assigned plots in a
bulldozed cane field. Many were forced to emigrate to Puerto Rico
and nearby St. Croix to look for homes and jobs.
The 1950s and 60s
were marked by violence stemming from the U.S. military presence.
Tensions between locals and the military continued to simmer,
coming to a head in 1979 during a protest by the Vieques Fishermens
Association, whose livelihood was affected by bombing and naval
maneuvers on the east end of the island.
conflict, then-governor Romero Barcelo filed a petition in federal
court against the Navys use of Vieques.
This resulted in
a memorandum of understanding, or the Fortin Accord, which pledged
the Navys commitment to promote economic development on Vieques in
exchange for use of the island.
In 1983, the U.S.
governments economic development program undertook an effort to
attract large defense contractors to establish business ventures on
Vieques. This move ultimately collapsed.
Things came to a
head in March 1999, when Vieques native David Sannes was killed by
a bomb dropped by a military jet during bombing
Sannes was a
civilian employee of the Navy and was on duty at a military
observation point when two bombs fell 1.5 miles from their
designated target. One of the bombs exploded 300 feet from Sannes,
killing him instantly.
increased, with Puerto Ricans from mainland Puerto Rico and the
U.S. staging sit-ins on the bombing grounds. Many served time in
jail for illegal trespass.
In 1999, the
governor initiated talks with the U.S. government to look for a
solution. In 2001, a treaty was signed under which the U.S.
government guaranteed that the military would depart in May
finally ceased all operations in 2003, pulled out of Vieques and
handed over its land holdings to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, which now maintains more than 8,000 acres as a wildlife
refuge, the largest in the Caribbean.
Access to parts
of the former Navy land is still limited, but the publicity
surrounding the pullout in 2003 breathed new life into what had
been a very dormant tourism scene.
reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].
details on this article, see Vieques: Puerto Ricos little sister comes into her