miércoles, diciembre 15, 2004


Carmelo Ruiz Marrero

(Published in 2004 in the Viva New York supplement of the New York Daily News. Don't know exactly when because they have yet to send me a copy.)

Now that the United States Navy is gone, the residents of the Puerto Rican island-town of Vieques face pressing social and environmental problems. The "boom" of bombs might be a thing of the past, but Vieques residents are now bracing for another "boom": the real estate boom. On the other hand, the pollution left behind by the military, which includes the controversial depleted uranium ordnance, is another major challenge facing the Viequenses, as the island's residents refer to themselves.

Now that the bombing is no more, the Isla Nena, as Puerto Ricans are fond of calling this island, is becoming a real paradise for Americans and Puerto Ricans from the main island who are rushing to buy land and houses, and to open businesses.

These new arrivals, which include San Juan residents looking for a good beach house, Americans anxious to open a bar or restaurant, and speculators, are causing demographic and economic changes in Vieques which can transform the character and soul of this island-town in a permanent way, for good or ill.

There is great concern in Vieques and in the main island of Puerto Rico that Vieques could end up like its island-town neighbor Culebra, a few miles to the north. Culebra was also occupied by the US Navy and used for target practice until a civil disobedience campaign forced the firing range's closure in the 1970's. After the military left, Culebra has experienced an unsustainable and uncontrolled development boom that threatens to turn that idyllic island into an uninhabitable boulder in a not too distant future. Many Puerto Ricans fear that land speculation will do in Vieques what the Navy could not do: turn the Viequenses into foreigners in their own land, this time not for the sake of national security but by the functioning of private enterprise.

Local groups like the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (CRDV) and the newly formed Community Coalition for Sustainable Development advocate a moratorium on speculation. "The struggle to control our economy will be fierce and against great odds - as was the struggle to end the military presence", declared the CRDV. "We stopped the bombing and we can also stop the speculators and others who would try to take advantage of this blessed island that belongs, by natural right, to the next generations of Viequenses."

In the freight ferry to Vieques we spoke with Gustavo Marín Méndez, a former San Juan resident who moved to the Isla Nena a couple of years ago and opened a restaurant there with his Viequense wife. Every Wednesday at the crack of dawn he puts his car in the freight ferry to the coastal town of Fajardo and drives to megastores to get produce and supplies for the restaurant and returns to Fajardo just in time for the last ferry back to Vieques.

Marín Méndez is also a real estate broker. He said that after the Navy's departure, Vieques is a land of opportunity, and does not share the pessimism of other sectors that look upon foreign investment with suspicion. However, he is concerned that Vieques might import the uncontrolled urban growth of Culebra and Puerto Rico's main island.

"We real estate agents are being blamed for the increase in prices. We have nothing to do with it”, said Lin Wetherby, an American who runs a real estate business in Vieques's Esperanza neighborhood in the island's south coast. “What determines value is what people are willing to spend. It's as simple as that, the market drives the prices. It goes back to the simple basic principle of supply and demand.”

Wetherby told us that before the Navy's departure she would sell one property a month, at most. But in 2003 her business tripled and property values are inflating now at a rate of 25% a year. To her, the idea of imposing a moratorium on speculation is laughable. She argues that if demand is suppressed- as such a moratorium would do- the demand would still be there, exacerbating the problem even more. But Wetherby agrees that there has to be some kind of control. She holds that high-rises and fast food joints would spell the ruin of Vieques as a tourist destination.

During the Navy years, most buyers were people enchanted with the beauty of Vieques, anxious to move there or to at least get a vacation home there, and would shower Wetherby with questions about the quality of life there. But now she sees with increasing frequency speculators with dollar signs in their eyes, who are only interested in reselling the properties they buy. The only questions they have for Wetherby are along the lines of "How much can I get for that property if I resell it in two or three years?"

Apart from real estate speculation, Vieques must also now deal with the daunting question of what to do about the toxic mess caused by decades of military activity.

Most of the former military lands are now the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Measuring a total of 18,600 acres of the island's approximately 30,000 acres.

Most of those who opposed the Navy presence find it particularly insulting that the lands they struggled for have been transferred to another US government agency, instead of being returned to the people of Vieques. Local fishermen complain that FWS won't allow them to do any fishing in the refuge.

"This is the same agency that stood by while the Navy bombed the flora, fauna and wilderness, without raising a finger in protest, and now they're fining people for fishing crabs. This is insulting and completely unacceptable", said CRDV spokesman Robert Rabin.

But Vieques FWS employees interviewed by this reporter, most of whom are Puerto Ricans, assured that they are committed to protecting the natural resources of the lands they administer. Refuge manager Oscar Díaz said he doesn't want to see these lands destroyed by the uncontrolled construction of beachside mansions and tourist resorts that is currently taking place in the main island.

"This refuge has a dry forest. That's a treasure that must be preserved because 94% of all dry forest in Puerto Rico has been destroyed", said Díaz. "We are blessed to have in this island three species of marine turtles, of eight that exist in the world."

But this wilderness refuge is simultaneously a toxic disaster area, which seems to many like a bizarre, postmodern twist. In 2003 the Environmental Protection Agency recommended that the lands and marine areas polluted by the Navy be declared a Superfund site.

Superfund is a federal program for the identification and cleanup of places contaminated with hazardous waste. Puerto Rico has a dozen of these sites under the program. Once a place is declared a Superfund site, the polluting party- in this case the Navy- is obligated to pay for its decontamination and restoration.

After the EPA recommends that a place be declared a Superfund site it receives comments and input from the public, the polluting party and other government agencies, such as the Office of Management and Budget, before making its final decision.

Although many who took part in the Vieques struggle consider this a great victory, University of Puerto Rico biology professor Arturo Massol warns that the Superfund process is a bureaucratic litany and that twenty years can pass before any cleanup even starts.

"Superfund status is no guarantee that the cleanup will be done thouroughly and efficiently", says the professor. "Most of the money will spend years stuck in litigation or slowed down by administrative matters." Massol, who is a volunteer with the internationally-renowned grassroots organization Casa Pueblo (profiled in a previous issue of Viva), directed the only in situ studies of military pollution in Vieques to be accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Massol said that if the history of Superfund in Puerto Rico is any guide, then not much can be expected. He told of a Superfund site in the abandoned Sabana Seca Navy base in the town of Toa Baja. A parking lot was built over the toxic wastes there, and the EPA declared that this solved the problem and removed the site from the Superfund list.

The idea that the former Navy lands should be returned to the people of Puerto Rico also has allies in the US Congress. Congressman Joseph Crowley (D-NY), who visited Vieques last year, said that transferring the lands from the Department of Defense to the Department of the Interior is not enough.

"I think the lands should be transferred to the government of Puerto Rico. Only that will assure the people that these lands will never again be used for military purposes", said Crowley during his visit. He added that if Congress assigned billions of dollars to the reconstruction of Iraq, then the decontamination of Vieques is no less than a moral obligation. "Congress has the last word", he said.

The Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques summed up the island's situation thus: "Peace is more than the cessation of bombing: the struggle continues!"


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