A View of the Other Vieques

Despite its poverty, residents love their scruffy, sleepy island


Sunday, August 26, 2001

By Hugo Kugiya, Staff Correspondent

VIEQUES, PUERTO RICO  - At first they look like jewels misplaced in the sand, which is powder-​​soft and white, like unsifted flour. Weathered to a rough polish, the stones are unnaturally brilliant, almost phosphorescent, in hues of amber, blue and green.

But some come in puzzling shapes, possessing the uniform curves of a beer bottle. Another fragment, although worn down, clearly is a piece of a beer bottle with discernible grooves where it once was mated to a bottle cap.

The locals of this tropical island know the jewels as “seaglass,” an unintentional hoax perpetrated by waves, sand and wind, and the result of the islanders’ habit of littering. It is also the result of the ability of the place, with enough time, to turn refuse into a thing of beauty.

Despite the shortcomings of the island — the high unemployment, the poverty, the relatively high cost of living, the infrequent ferry service, the stresses caused by decades of regular bombing — few residents think of leaving. Those who try tend to return.

I can’t live anywhere else,” said Jose Adams, whose fierce love and loyalty for Vieques are not unique among those who live here. “This is my home. I was born here. I love Vieques.”

To the rest of the world, Vieques is known almost entirely for its bombing range and the civil disobedience it has inspired. The U.S. Navy, for 60 years, has used Vieques to stage military exercises. Protesters, who still regularly arrive here, have marched on the bombing range to block the shelling. Many have been arrested and served jail time, among them the Rev. Al Sharpton; environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who named his sixth child after the island; actor Edward James Olmos; Vieques Mayor Damaso Serrano, and several New York politicians backed by the city’s sizable Puerto Rican community.

Protests began in earnest two years ago after a civilian security guard at the Navy base, a local man named David Sanes, was killed by an errant bomb. Environmentalists also accused the Navy of carelessly polluting the island over the years, citing unusually high rates of cancer. It is nearly impossible to find someone on Vieques who doesn’t have at least one relative who is fighting or has died of cancer.

President George W. Bush has promised to remove the Navy by May 2003, but the majority of residents want the Navy out now, a desire expressed last month through a local referendum. On the Puerto Rican mainland, Vieques has become a glamorous cause. The popular Latin metal band Puya put an image of Vieques on its latest album cover, dedicating one of its songs to the island’s plight.

Along the island’s narrow, potholed roads, the story of another Vieques is told. Roasted chickens are sold from portable shacks. Stray dogs and cats, skinny and mangy, share footpaths with pedestrians. Unfinished homes, with no construction crews in sight, are everywhere. When the money runs out, and it often does, the work simply stops. Almost all automobiles here are rusty. Many residents ride bicycles and horses, which are allowed to graze freely in backyards and on roadsides and decrepit baseball fields.

Apart from the occasional handsome hacienda, the homes are small and poorly kept. Some are fenced with wire hangers and in large part subsidized by public money. Alcoholism and drug use are common. Official reports of unemployment on the island vary from 20 percent to 70 percent. When asked, most people on the island put it at 50 percent or more.

Some blame the Navy; Others think the island’s economy will only get worse when the Navy leaves. Virtually all agree that the Navy has prevented the island from developing a tourism industry, perhaps its best hope of employment.

Before the Navy arrived, Vieques, one of two small and rural cays off the east coast of Puerto Rico, was a community of sugar cane farmers and fishermen. In protected coves on the Caribbean side of the island, turquoise waters are as still as ponds. These same coves contain primitive organisms that emit light when agitated. The luminescent bays are the island’s most popular attractions.

Tourism on the island is not for the pampered. Lodgings, generally, are spartan. A luxury resort called Martineau Bay has stood empty since its promised opening four years ago. Mismanaged and plagued by financial troubles, the resort is deserted except for a security guard at the gated entrance who watches for vandals.

The runway at the airport was recently doubled in length to accommodate the jets that still have not come. Petty theft, most of it directed at tourists, is common. All vacation homes have bars over windows and doors. Guests are instructed to keep them locked at all times, even when they are in them.

The island’s 10,000 residents live in two towns. Esperanza, on the south coast, has a short, seaside promenade, tourist bars and a gift shop. Most live in Isabel Segunda, where the ferry docks. On the north coast, Isabel Segunda has a town hall, a town square, a school and a municipal gym, where local boys play basketball and box. One mile from the center of town is the cockfighting stadium. Between November and August, the Sunday cockfights are the biggest event on the island, drawing more than 200, who pay $8 or $6 to sit or stand around the covered ring.

General Electric once employed a few hundred workers, but the plant has long since closed. Apart from civil service jobs, there is not much of a base for employment.

Luis Armando Rodriguez Bonano is known as the coconut man, for reasons that are clear from the T-​​shirt he always wears. It reads in Spanish and English:

Se Viende Cocos”

Coconuts For Sale”

” $1″

On a recent Sunday afternoon he was, beyond a doubt, drunk. He harvests coconuts from trees on public beaches and on Navy land, sometimes giving security guards a few coconuts in exchange for access to the trees. On a good day he sells 50 coconuts, on a bad day, none. He transports them in a cart he can pull on his bicycle. He supplements his income by cleaning yards and catching shrimp in freshwater creeks.

This is my calling,” said Bonano, 50, who has lived on Vieques almost all his life. “The island is my office. The Navy can stay or go, I don’t care. I will never leave anyway.”

Most are not so indifferent. The nonbinding referendum on July 29, in which about 5,000 voted, showed about 70 percent of voters wanted the Navy to leave immediately. About 30 percent wanted the Navy to stay.

I don’t like the live ammunition … but if the Navy leaves, we’ll be like Cuba,” said Luis Roldan Roman, who lives with his wife, Victoria Santiago Roman, and their two daughters, Katia and Luz, in a small house given to them by the Puerto Rican government years ago after their wooden house was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo. Their neighborhood is known as Hugo Village.

Tourists won’t come here,” Roman said. “The land is contaminated. And if there is tourism, they won’t hire ordinary people. They’ll only hire good-​​looking people or people with connections.”

The family lives on about $10,000 a year, which includes $380 a month in food stamps. Roman also fishes and finds occasional work as a carpenter. He owns two small Toyotas, one of them payment for construction work. The family eats regularly, even if it is a meal of fish caught by Roman, bananas from the family’s backyard and yams and potatoes from his mother’s yard. Store-​​bought groceries can be expensive. They own a sofa and a television, and they rent movies.

Here, we are the lucky ones,” Roman said.

Just after Milivy Marie Adams turned 2, doctors told her parents, Jose and Zulayka, that she had cancer and they should not get attached, as if they could help it, because she would probably not survive her second chemotherapy treatment. She is so small, she receives the chemicals through a catheter in her heart. On Aug. 12, against the odds, she celebrated her fourth birthday with her relatives on Media Luna beach, about a mile from the gates of the Navy base, Camp Garcia.

Tests showed Milivy had unusually high levels of lead and other heavy metals in her blood, the result, her parents believe, of eating local crabs, her favorite food. Her cancer formed tumors in her head, arms and thighs.

Jose Adams’ cousin Rolando Garcia, 31, who also attended the birthday party, has lost almost all of his hair. About two years ago, he took a job sealing windows on an observation platform in Camp Garcia during live bombing exercises. Within a year his hair began falling out, slowly at first. Now his skin is baby smooth. Even his eyebrows fell out. He has only a few curly wisps on the end of his chin. He expects to lose them this month. He said doctors believe he has radiation poisoning from depleted uranium used in the bombs.

I have stomach cramps, pain in my joints and nerve sensitivity. I feel tingly all the time. And psychologically I’m traumatized. I can’t sleep. I get depressed,” Garcia said. “The only way I’ll leave Vieques is if I die because I’m proud of my island.”