Since 1938, the United States Navy occupied up to 70% of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a training ground for live-fire practice and as a bomb testing site. Thousands of the island's 10,000 inhabitants had been forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to the center portion of the island.
Vieques was the site of protests against the United States Navy's use of the island as a bombing range, which finally led to the navy's departure in 2003.
It has now become a national wildlife refuge yet the pollution has not been totally cleaned up.
The U.S. has removed more than 16.5 million pounds of munitions so far, and the clean-up is expected to run through at least 2025 and is budgeted at around $350 million.
Political scientist Amílcar Barreto chronicles how during World War II the location of Vieques became increasingly useful for the U.S. navy. This led to the forced displacement of half of the island’s inhabitants for military operations. In the 1970s, the U.S. Navy started bombing “Vieques for military war games with live shells” (Barreto, 2002, p. 3). The destruction of bombing remains with bullet casings and pollution strewn about the island. “Portions of Vieques were transformed into an environmental nightmare and a health hazard to those who call this place home….a windfall for the military became a disaster for Vieques residents—viequenses” (Barreto, 2002, p. 1).
While resistance to military presence has always been a fixture of the Navy-viequense relationship, April 19, 1999 marked a precipitating event for widespread mobilization across the Puerto Rican diaspora. When Navy bombs were dropped nearby civilians, killing David Sanes Rodríguez, mass outcry erupted.
In 2000, several encampments of peaceful protestors were established on the island, and on May 4, more than 200 of these civil disobedients were forcibly removed in the military’s “Operation Access to the East” (Duany, 2002, p. 3). This was a catalyzing moment further unifying the Puerto Rican diaspora to demand an end to militarization on the island. All the while, the military continued to bomb Vieques (McCaffrey, 2002). In February 2000, 150,000 people participated in the Peace for Vieques March in San Juan.
President Clinton tried to negotiate with the Islanders offering $90 million to permanently continue navy operations there, but an informal referendum in July 2001 showed that 70% of the population wanted the Navy to leave immediately. President Bush reversed Clinton's attempts to negotiate with Vieques and stated that the Navy would halt military exercises in February and leave the island by May 2003 .
The military abuse inflicted on the island signals an important marker calling attention to the intersection of Puerto Rican transnational citizenship and militarized environmental experimentation. Study results from 2000 reveal that the cancer rate on Vieques, also called La Isla Nena, was nearly 27 percent higher than on Puerto Rico’s big island (McCaffrey, 2002). Studies by Puerto Rican scientists have found 34% of residents with toxic levels of mercury, 55% contaminated with lead, and 69% with arsenic .
The island of about 10,000 people also lacks a hospital to treat illnesses such as asthma and cancer that may be attributed to the military’s former bombing activity.
Even though the island is currently presented as an ideal tourism spot, the toxic chemicals remaining on Vieques tell a very different story. PCBs, napalm, depleted uranium make the island very dangerous (McCaffrey, 2008). While the Navy is no longer physically there, the toxins are far from gone. “[T]housands of unexploded bombs” still exist on the island (McCaffrey, 2008, p. 264) and in the area’s waters.
Meanwhile, the bombing range on Vieques has been converted into an unsuspecting wildlife refuge. The cleanup of this nature reserve area has been deemed complete even though about 200 acres has not been cleared of munitions debris, some potentially still live.
In 2005, Vieques was added to the U.S. Superfund list, which allocates funds for clean up of toxic waste.
The island is now facing another form of invasion and injustice: land grabbing and gentrification by the rich (McCaffrey, 2008).