Ten Years After Ousting US Navy, Vieques Confronts Contamination

05/14/2013 07:17 pm ET | Updated Jul 14, 2013

The island of Vieques -- referred to as la Isla Nena in Puerto Rico--recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary of a struggle that became an international cause célèbre and ended 60 years of U.S. Navy test bombing there. Yet the legacy of Navy devastation is sobering, and Viequenses remain dispossessed of their lands.

Attending the festivities to mark the May 1st anniversary were activists from relief missions to Gaza and protests against drones in upstate New York, as well as Puerto Ricans from New York and as far as California. Radical environmentalist Tito Kayak, known for his 2001 Statue of Liberty stunt to publicize the Vieques struggle, was also on hand. Concerts featured Puerto Rico's finest, including Zoraida Santiago, Chavela Rodríguez and Tito Auger, and a Vieques calypso band lent an air of the island's distinct regional identity.

"We came out of solidarity and in recognition of its geopolitical importance," said drones opponent Mary Anne Grady Flores, noting that Vieques was used in major U.S. interventions in Latin America, such as the Bay of Pigs. She was accompanied by Ann Wright, who had been on the relief flotilla to Gaza that was attacked by the Israeli military in 2010.

Though there were also those who came mainly to relax. Campers cracked coconuts to sip morning agua de coco at Sun Bay, and the crystalline waters of Playa Caracas, named for Simon Bolívar's historical visit there and also known as Red Beach, worked their mojo.

Yet the beauty of Vieques is belied by its grim social reality: severe environmental contamination; shockingly high cancer, unemployment and crime rates; and even more restricted access to its land than before the Navy ceasefire, with nearly 18,000 acres outside the bombing range now strictly controlled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior. Add to that gentrification brought on by an influx of new residents in the tourist sector, with both communities often excluded from each other.

Ten years later, Vieques languishes in neglect.

Things are so bad for the community of about 10,000 there, that an editorial opening a special series in Puerto Rico's main daily El Nuevo Día called the situation a crime against humanity.

Chief among the problems is the deadly contamination that the US Navy is required to clean up, as Vieques was in 2004 deemed a Superfund site, the federal program for the worst toxic waste dumps. Though more than $180 million has been reportedly contracted and more than 38,000 munitions removed, completion has shifted from projections of 2020 to 2022 and 2029. Among the luminaries that were arrested in Vieques during the mass civil disobedience campaigns, Robert Kennedy, Jr. returned in February to press for a faster and more thorough cleanup.

And locals are wary of continued abuses. While the U.S. Navy is supposed to find and remove munitions by cutting vegetation, cameraman Carlos Pérez recently entered a prohibited area to film evidence (video below) that vegetation was being burned instead, at the risk of igniting munitions and causing further contamination. The smell of combustible fuel was prevalent, and empty containers appeared to have had their labels removed. Also notable are the leisure boats nearby, as the wealthy of Puerto Rico party undisturbed at the stunning Cayo La Yayí.

An Environmental Protection Agency official on site in Vieques for nine years, Daniel Rodríguez denied that the U.S. Navy is responsible for the burning, and speculated that trespassers have lit the fires, though he did not have answers for why such dangerous zones lack vigilance against trespassing. The EPA is charged with overseeing the US Navy adheres to stipulated cleanup rules.

If the U.S. Navy is burning vegetation, it would be violating legally-binding accords for the cleanup, according to Rodríguez and other officials, as local law prohibits burning without permission, as these government agency documents show.

With nearly 30 percent higher cancer rates there than in Puerto Rico, also urgent is a lack of access to health facilities, and spotty ferry service to the mainland for those seeking regular medical treatment. Recent findings by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that deny the health crisis is linked to the widespread contamination are being questioned, and with good reason, according to Yale University scientist Daniel Colón-Ramos, who suggests in a recent column that the study was "inconclusive by design."

The contamination includes long list of heavy metals that are known carcinogens, such as mercury, lead and depleted uranium. Yet the level of cleanup will not make the land fit for human habitation, which is much more expensive, confirmed Rodríguez.

Some Vieques community activists were skeptical when Puerto Rico's Governor Alejandro García Padilla visited there last week and reactivated a key community development initiative that had been instituted a decade ago but was since abolished by a previous governor of his Popular Democratic Party, which favors Puerto Rico's Free Associated State status instead of Statehood or Independence.

"Vieques reflects the country," said activist and educator Hector Olivieri, who attributed a relative lack of mobilization today to collective weariness, and sees the restitution of lands as the only hope for the island.

While the Free Associated State status that defines Puerto Rico's relationship to the US was being negotiated, and as African Americans still suffered segregation and lynching in 1951, Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes asked: "What happens to a dream deferred?"

After the celebrities came and went, and as this anniversary's media attention subsides, his same questions -- so wedded to the American Dream in the broadest sense -- echo for a Vieques community freed from decades of US Navy bombing but still chained to its aftermath:

"Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?/ Or fester like a sore--/ and then run?/ Does it stink like rotten meat?/ Or crust and sugar over--/ like a syrupy sweet?/ Maybe it just sags/ like a heavy load./ ...Or does it explode?"