New Vieques independence movement seeks to cut ties with … Puerto Rico, by Caribbean Business

008Caribbean Business

May 23, 2014

Nearly 200 Vieques residents have signed a petition to ask Congress to allow the offshore island town to secede from Puerto Rico over what they see as the commonwealth government indifference to the municipality’s problems.

The “Viequenses Seeking Independence” movement does not seek independence from the United States.

However, it does argue that the offshore town is a type of double colony under the yoke of San Juan and Washington and aims to get more support from the federal government to spur development and self-sufficiency, movement spokespeople said in a media interview.

Among the most pressing concerns is spotty Puerto Rico-government run ferry service that islanders say is wreaking havoc in the lives of Vieques and Culebra residents and dealing a big blow to business owners on the two tourism-dependent island towns.

Mechanical failures, including a damaged cargo ferry, are driving the service lapses that include daily cancellations of scheduled ferry runs and hours-long delays. The situation has affected the shipping of vital supplies, including food and gasoline, and is also causing problems with everyone from senior citizens needing to get to medical appointments in Fajardo to university and high school students who travel to Puerto Rico to study, residents and businessowners told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS.

Vieques residents also cite the lack of healthcare infrastructure and a spate of violence tied to drug trafficking as pressing problems.

Community leader Ismael Guadalupe says he’s not on board with the independence drive, arguing it would open the door for the Navy to resume using Vieques as a firing range. The U.S. military conducted live-fire training on the island town for 60 years before leaving more than a decade ago amid large-scale protests in Puerto Rico.

Vieques has a population of only 10,000 and just two notable towns — Isabel Segunda on the northern side of the island and the far smaller Esperanza on the south. Vieques along with neighboring Culebra comprise the so-called Spanish Virgin Islands.

The island town is 21 miles long and 3 miles wide, covering 52 square miles of area about 30 miles off the coast of Fajardo. Vieques derives its name from the Taíno Indian word for small island (biekes).

Long a favorite of locals, Vieques has become a hot international tourism destination since the Navy abandoned its firing range and returned the military lands to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department in 2003.

There is now air service by a half-dozen airlines making the 20-minute flight from both the international airport in San Juan and the regional airport in Isla Grande.

The inexpensive ferry remains the main link between Vieques and Fajardo, on Puerto Rico’s northeast coast, with several roundtrips daily. The problem of spotty service — including delays, cancellations and broken down boats — resurfaced earlier this year after the Puerto Rico government’s Maritime Transportation Authority (MTA) retook full control of all ferry service between Fajardo and the offshore islands of Culebra and Vieques after letting the contract of private provider Puerto Rico Fast Ferries expire in a move it said would save the cash-strapped public agency about $900,000 a month.

Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla last year reactivated the position of special commissioner for the economic development of the offshore island towns of Vieques and Culebra.

The commissioner’s tasks include advising La Fortaleza on policies based on a 2004 development plan for the two island towns and coordinating and integrating inter-agency efforts for Vieques and Culebra and serve as a liaison between the two communities and the executive branch.

With the military’s departure, the decades-long practice bombing of Vieques stopped, and the island has become one of the more exclusive tourist destinations in the Caribbean.

But the cleanup of the bombing range on an island the Navy once called its “crown jewel” of live-fire training is expected to take another decade, and the mayor of Vieques noted the island of roughly 10,000 people still has no hospital to treat illnesses ranging from cancer to asthma that local residents blame on military activity.

Vieques is battling an unemployment rate of nearly 20 percent and depends on a crippled ferry system that serves as the primary link to the main island of Puerto Rico.

George Withers, a senior fellow with the non-governmental Washington Office on Latin America, recently published a report calling on the U.S. to respond more aggressively to the cleanup and other problems in Vieques. He said the lack of care for ongoing health problems remain big concerns.

The island was once a cause celebre, with people such as singer Ricky Martin, actor Edward James Olmos and politician Jesse Jackson joining hundreds of other protesters to demand that the Navy leave Vieques after an errant 500-pound bomb killed a security guard in April 1999.

But after the Navy left on May 1, 2003, interest in helping boost the island’s economy waned, with residents blaming both the U.S. and local government.

Of the 23,000 acres that the Navy began to use for target practice in the early 1940s, 4,000 acres have been awarded to Vieques municipality, 3,100 acres went to the U.S. Department of the Interior and about 800 acres to the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust.

The Navy has so far cleaned roughly 2,600 acres, with the operation expected to run through at least 2025 in one of the Navy’s most extensive rehabilitation efforts, budgeted at some $350 million.

In March 2013, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry issued a long-awaited report stating it found no proof that residents had been sickened by substances left behind by bombs and other munitions, identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as TNT, napalm, depleted uranium, mercury and lead. The report was rejected by thousands of Vieques residents, many of whom filed a lawsuit, later dismissed, that accused the U.S. government of causing illnesses by leaving harmful residues on the land.

Tourism remains the island’s main economic engine.

Vieques has always been a day trip and weekend destination for Puerto Ricans and intrepid tourists willing to rough it. But the departure of the Navy — which closed down a training base that took up two-thirds of the island’s acreage — led to a land rush as visitors bought vacation homes and set up bed-and-breakfast lodgings.

The land rush settled down due to tight local building codes and the onset of recession. But the opening of the 150-room W resort, in what had been a Wyndham hotel, doubled the number of rooms available in the island and has been attracting a more upscale crowd.

Vieques still retains some of its frontier vibe. Wild horses roam and signs warn visitors away from beaches still being cleared of unexploded Navy ordnance. Some beaches still carry the code names assigned by the Navy during exercises, such as Punta Arenas (Green Beach), Playa Caracas (Red Beach) and Playa la Chiva (Blue Beach).

While the roads to Blue and Red Beach have been paved recently, many fine secluded beaches are accessible via dirt roads that require all-terrain vehicles. Beyond the beaches, the island has low-key culture and nature attractions including a Spanish colonial fort in the capital of Isabel Segunda and the bioluminescent Mosquito Bay — considered one of the brightest in the world.

The Associated Press contributed extensive background material to this report.

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