Studies show that Vieques was first inhabited by Native Americans who came from South America about 1500 years before Christopher Columbus set foot in Puerto Rico in 1493. After a brief battle between local Indians and Spaniards, the Spaniards took control of the island, turning the locals into their slaves. In 1811, Don Salvador Melendez, then governor of Puerto Rico, sent military commander Juan Rosello to begin what later became the take-over of Vieques by the people of Puerto Rico. In 1816, Vieques was visited by Simón Bolívar. Teofilo Jose Jaime Maria Gillou, who is recognized as the founder of Vieques as a town, arrived in 1823, marking a period of economic and social change for the island of Vieques.
Thousands of Lush Green Acres - Vieques isalnd, Puerto Rico
By the second part of the 19th century, Vieques received thousands of black immigrants who came to help with the sugar plantations. Some of them came as slaves, and some came on their own to earn extra money. Most of them came from the nearby islands of St. Thomas, Nevis, St. Kitts, St. Croix and many other Caribbean nations.
Since 1938, the United States Navy has occupied a significant portion of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, a fifty-two square-mile island eight miles east of the mainland of Puerto Rico. By the end of the twentieth century, the U.S. Navy controlled over 70% of the island. Thousands of the island's 10,000 inhabitants had been forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to the center portion of the island, surrounded by training grounds, weapons depots, and bomb sites on both sides. According to the U.S. Navy, the island was used for live-fire practice, air-to-ground bombing, ship-to-shore shelling and various other maneuvers. Other countries also used the island for training purposes. During World War Two and the Cold War, Vieques and other Caribbean islands served as important military locations for the U.S. armed forces.
In 1998, 23,000 bombs were dropped on the island and live training took place 180 days out of the year. Additionally, the municipality faced an unemployment rate above 50% and more than 70% of the population lived below the poverty line. A campaign to remove the U.S. Navy two decades earlier had failed after violence broke out and the Puerto Rican governor was forced to sign a good-neighbor agreement with the United States to guarantee continued financial support.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the twentieth century, the U.S. began to reassess its presence at various bases around the world. The people of Vieques hoped that the two Navy sites on the island would be among those closed. When Vieques was not included on the list, the grassroots movement was revitalized in its fight to evict the U.S. Navy and return control of the island to Puerto Rican citizens.
Navy History - "Stop Terrorizing Vieques"In March, 1999, Vieques native David Sanes was killed by a bomb dropped by a military jet during bombing exercises. A a civilian employee of the Navy, Sanes was on duty at a military Observation Point when two bombs fell 1½ miles (2½ kilometres) away from their designated target; one of them fell 300 feet (100 metres) away from Sanes and exploded, killing him instantly.
Ever since, Puerto Ricans from all over mainland Puerto Rico as well as from the United States travelled to Vieques to protest the bombings, by illegally introducing themselves on the bombing grounds and camping there. People from all over Latin America joined the struggle. Many celebrities, including the political leader Ruben Berrios, singers Danny Rivera and Ricky Martin, boxer Felix Trinidad, Mexican actor Edward James Olmos and Guatemala’s Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu have protested. Pope John Paul II said that he wanted peace for Vieques. And many hundreds of Puerto Ricans served time in jail for illegally entering the bombing grounds.
Navy History - Isla de Vieques, Puerto Rico
In 1999, then-Governor Pedro Rosselló began talks with the U.S. government to try to look for a solution to the problem, and in 2001, Governor Sila María Calderón signed a treaty with President George W. Bush that guaranteed the military’s leaving of the island in May of 2003.
On May 1, 2003, the military commenced their moving out of Vieques, in an event that was covered by the international media. At 12:01 AM EST of that day, a street party erupted all over Vieques, many of Vieques’ citizens celebrating the military’s move out of the island. The celebration turned violent as celebrants destroyed $750,000 of facilities turned over to the local government by the U.S. Navy.
Ever since that disturbance, things have been tranquil on the island and there have been no more violent protests. The Navy gave $40 million in direct funds which are now being used to improve the infrastructure of the island. Tourism is increasing and Vieques is rapidly becoming a popular tourist destination. The lands previously owned by the Navy have been turned over to the U.S. National Fish & Wildlife Service for management. The immediate bombing range area on the eastern tip of the island suffers from severe contamination but the remaining areas are mostly open to the public, including many beautiful undeveloped beaches which were closed during the recent protests.