ISABEL SEGUNDA, 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.

The explorer 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 Segunda.)

The municipality 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 1880.

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 plantations.

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.

Expropriated 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.

During the 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 exercises.

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.

Protests 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 2003.

The military 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.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].

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For more details on this article, see Vieques: Puerto Ricos little sister comes into her own.


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