The history of Vieques and Culebra illustrates an ugly colonial tale

The history of Vieques and Culebra illustrates an ugly colonial tale

July 15, 2022 0 By Ellen Novack

This was the tweet mentioning Vieques.


Given the responses, which were mixed, with far too many folks saying they hadn’t heard of the U.S. bombings—though I was delighted that quite a few of those responders immediately put Google to work—I thought it might be a good time to revisit that history and the current state of affairs on the island, as well as adding in the U.S. history with Culebra, which is also an island municipality.

Instead of attempting to completely rewrite what I’ve already done, I will use some excerpts from an earlier post.

In the video above, Robert Rabin gives a brief history of Vieques.

Studies show that Vieques was first inhabited by Native Americans who came from South America about 1500 years before Christopher Columbus set foot in Puerto Rico in 1493. After a brief battle between local Indians and Spaniards, the Spaniards took control of the island, turning the locals into their slaves.  In 1811, Don Salvador Melendez, then governor of Puerto Rico, sent military commander Juan Rosello to begin what later became the take-over of Vieques by the people of Puerto Rico.  In 1816, Vieques was visited by Simón Bolívar.  Teofilo Jose Jaime Maria Gillou, who is recognized as the founder of Vieques as a town, arrived in 1823, marking a period of economic and social change for the island of Vieques.

By the second part of the 19th century, Vieques received thousands of black immigrants who came to help with the sugar plantations. Some of them came as slaves, and some came on their own to earn extra money. Most of them came from the nearby islands of St. Thomas, Nevis, St. Kitts, St. Croix and many other Caribbean nations.

During the 1940s the United States military purchased 60% of the land area of Vieques including farms and sugar plantations from locals, who in turn were left with no employment options and many were forced to emigrate to mainland Puerto Rico and to St. Croix to look for homes and jobs. After that, the United States military used Vieques as testing grounds for bombs, missiles, and other weapons.

Many of you have seen U.S. military war footage portraying bombing of “the enemy.” However, this clip shows the bombing of Vieques during “war games,” often using live ammo. “On Vieques, the Navy runs the North Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility, one of the largest live weapons training grounds in the world.”

60 Minutes did a special called Bombing Vieques.

Vieques is usually a quiet place. Just off Puerto Rico’s east coast, it is a small island with around 9,000 inhabitants, mostly American citizens. But all is not peaceful: The Navy owns two-thirds of the island and for the past 50 years has regularly used part of that land as a practice range to train its troops to use live ordnance. […]

But the islanders say that living in a quasi-war zone has seriously damaged their environment and health. “I think that if this were happening in Manhattan, or if it were happening in Martha’s Vineyard, certainly the delegations from those states would make certain that this would not continue,” said Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Rossello.

But without Vieques, the Navy will not be able to train its troops properly, says Rear Admiral William Fallon, commander of the Atlantic Fleet. “It’s about combat risk,” he said. “The reason we do the live-fire training is because we need to prepare our people for this potential, this eventuality,” he continued. “If we don’t do it, we put them at a very, very direct risk,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to the Navy and the nation.”

Puerto Rico commissioned a study of the damage and hired explosives experts Rick Stauber and James Barton to survey the island. The two men said that there is a “wide array” of unexploded live ordnance scattered around the island and on the sea floor around it.

The documentary, Vieques: Worth Every Bit of Struggle, from Mary Patierno, details the evolution of the protest movement.

Photo of David Sanes Rodríguez
David Sanes Rodríguez.

In the 1940s the U.S. Navy expropriated much of the small island of Vieques, Puerto Rico and constructed a weapons testing and training site.  For over sixty years the citizens were left wedged on only 23% of the island, sandwiched between a weapons depot and a bombing range.

For years, a small group of activists protested the Navy’s regular bombing tests and their experiments with new weapons systems on Vieques. But the struggle against the Navy didn’t attract widespread attention until April 19, 1999 when David Sanes Rodríguez, security guard on the base, was killed when two misfired 500-pound bombs exploded on his post. The death of Sanes galvanized a movement against the military and ignited the passions of Puerto Ricans from all walks of life.

Vieques: Worth Every Bit of Struggle documents the David and Goliath-like story of the residents of Vieques and the peaceful transformation of a community against enormous odds.

The Christian Science Monitor had this story detailing how the “Pentagon has used the island of Vieques for training for decades, but an accidental bombing death has led to outrage”: 

The US Navy could lose a premier training ground after failing to appease the government and residents of Puerto Rico. The island- municipality of Vieques, which the US bought in the 1940s for $1.5 million, is considered an ideal setting for simulated ground and air attacks with live bombs. But following the accidental death this year of an island resident, Puerto Rican officials are likely to block the Navy and Marines from staging more exercises. The dispute raises accusations that the Pentagon has bullied Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of US citizens who have neither the right to vote nor representation in Washington.

“Nowhere in the 50 states would you have military exercises like the ones at Vieques,” says Charles Kamasaki of the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights group in Washington.

Critics accuse the Navy of using live ordnance too close to civilian populations and of breaking a 1983 agreement to limit exercises on the firing range. The Pentagon has admitted using radioactive uranium-depleted bullets, napalm, and cluster bombs. At least one study reported that residents of Vieques have had significantly higher cancer rates than other Puerto Ricans – a charge the Navy denies.

Key in the article is this:

The Vieques movement was not galvanized until April 19, when a Navy pilot dropped two 500-pound bombs off course, killing a civilian security guard at the base and injuring four others. The accident was blamed on pilot and communications errors.

Since then, demonstrators have camped out on the range and the Navy has had to suspend operations. Each Saturday, some 300 protesters hold a vigil outside one military site. “When the Navy makes its next move, we’ll make our next move,” says Oscar Ortiz, a union worker. “If they want to arrest us, we’re prepared. They’re going to have to arrest all the people of Puerto Rico.”

For more, I suggest you read Military Power and Popular Protest: The U.S. Navy in Vieques, Puerto Rico, by Katherine T. McCaffrey.

Bookcover: Military Power and Popular Protest: The U.S. Navy in Vieques, Puerto Rico

Residents of  Vieques, a small island just off the east coast of Puerto Rico, live wedged between an ammunition depot and live bombing range for the U.S.  Navy. Since the 1940s when the navy expropriated over two-thirds of the island, residents have struggled to make a life amid the thundering of bombs and rumbling of weaponry fire. Like the army’s base in Okinawa, Japan, the facility has drawn vociferous protests from residents who  challenged U.S. security interests overseas. In 1999, when a local civilian employee of the base was killed by a stray bomb, Vieques again erupted in protests that have mobilized tens of thousands individuals and transformed this tiny Caribbean Island into the setting for an international cause célèbre.

Katherine T. McCaffrey gives a complete analysis of the troubled relationship between the U.S. Navy and island residents. She explores such topics as the history of U.S. naval involvement in Vieques; a grassroots mobilization led by fishermen that began in the 1970s; how the navy promised to improve the lives of the island residents and failed; and the present-day emergence of a revitalized political activism that has effectively challenged naval hegemony.

The case of Vieques brings to the fore a major concern within U.S.  foreign policy that extends well beyond Puerto Rico: military bases overseas act as lightning rods for anti-American sentiment, thus threatening this country’s image and interests abroad. 

Interestingly, the Library of Congress has, as part of its Latinx Research Guide, a timeline of the protests:

1898 The U.S. annexes Puerto Rico along with Vieques Island.
1947 During World War II, the U.S. Navy sets up a training base, firing range, and ammunition storage in Vieques Island, evicting native residents.
1975 The U.S. Navy departs from Culebra, another Puerto Rican island used for military operations leading to an increased Naval presence in Vieques.
1983 Puerto Rican Governor Carlos Romero Barceló signs the Fortin Accord with the Navy, ending civilian protest on the island and the U.S. consents to return expropriated land and bring economic production to the island.
October 1993 A navy jet drops five hundred pound bombs off target, destroying homes in Vieques’ civilian sector.
March 1993 The Committee to Rescue and Develop Vieques protests naval presence in the island by gathering signatures and sending them in a letter to Les Aspin, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense.
1994 The Vieques Land Transfer Act of 1994 contends to transfer 8,000 acres of land in western Vieques for public usage.
April 19, 1999 While training for a conflict with Yugoslavia, the U.S. Navy dropped a 500-pound bomb on a Vieques lookout post and killed David Sanes, a Vieques native.
May 8, 1999 Rubén Berríos from the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) camps for 362 days inside the U.S. Navy training facility.
June 9, 1999 The Clinton administration requests Secretary of Defense William Cohen to establish a 4 person panel to provide a study and recommendation of the issue.
October 19, 1999 The four person panel proposes to end all naval operation on Vieques within the next 5 years.
June 14, 2001 The Bush Administration decides to withdrawal the Navy from Vieques by May 2003.
May 1, 2003 President George W. Bush orders the shutdown of naval facilities in Vieques.
2003-Present The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees the former Naval base and reports indicate cancer rates to be 25% higher among residents in Vieques than residents in mainland Puerto Rico.

Data concerning Culebra, and U.S. actions there, is not as easy to find. The Global Nonviolent Action Database, a project of Swarthmore College, has this information:

In 1970, Puerto Rico was a non-sovereign territory of the United States. Its residents were U.S. citizens but could not vote in presidential elections, nor did they have political representation in the U.S. Congress, although they could serve and be drafted in the U.S. armed forces. At the beginning of the 20th century, the U.S. Navy eliminated the principal town on the island of Culebra and evicted its residents so that a marine base could be built. In 1941, President Roosevelt claimed exclusive rights to the air space above Culebra as well as a three-mile wide radius around the island. The U.S. claimed that occupation of Puerto Rico was a key component of the U.S. armed forces presence in the Western Hemisphere. By 1950, the U.S. Navy had claimed 1,700 acres of the ten-square-mile island east of Puerto Rico and the civilian population had been reduced from 4,000 in 1900 to 580. The U.S. Navy owned 1/3 of the land and controlled all of the coastline and transport to and from the island. In the mid-1950s, the U.S. Navy proposed to evict all of Culebra’s residents to expand the marine base, but the Puerto Rican government resisted, claiming that its Commonwealth status according to U.S. law guaranteed a popular vote to abolish the municipality of Culebra.

In 1970, the U.S. Navy tried again to forcibly remove the entire population of Culebra. The year before, Culebra had been hit by directed missiles for 228 days out of the year and live-fire exercises took place for more than 100 days. Citizens of Culebra and Puerto Rico were angered by the constant training exercises and shelling which were both a direct and an indirect threat to human and environmental health. Occasional misfires resulted in major damage to the island and its people. Culebra was riddled with craters, unexploded bombs, and toxic waste from military activity.

Citizens on the island responded to the Navy’s second attempt at total eviction by demonstrating on the island’s beaches in 1970. After a court reaffirmed the Navy’s right to use Culebra as a military site, residents marched to a local command post and issued an ultimatum, warning that they would use direct action to force removal of the U.S. Navy. The Puerto Rican Senate also passed a resolution in which they asked President Nixon to reevaluate the Navy’s presence on the island. This increased national attention on the issue and brought congressional support that would prove helpful later in the campaign. Congressional hearings and investigations continued throughout the summer to determine what could be done about the issue.

For many years the people of Culebra had to live their lives amidst explosions, bombs, bullets and pollution caused by the Navy, who secretly suggested to the Puerto Rican government that they get rid of the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra and send their inhabitants to the main island of Puerto Rico; they would even send the dead from their graves.

The Navy’s intention was to gain the exclusive use of both islands and ban the people of Vieques and Culebra from setting foot on their land again, even if it was to bring flowers to the gravestones of their loved ones. Due to the macabre nature of the Navy’s proposal, it became known as “Plan Dracula.”

Nevertheless, the people of Culebra triumphed, succeeding in sending the Navy them from their island in 1975. Vieques expelled the Navy in 2003 after years of civil disobedience campaigns and the efforts of social movements and individuals across the political spectrum.

Included in his story is this Culebra documentary in Spanish from Diálogo at the University of Puerto Rico:

Where do things stand now with cleaning up U.S.-made messes? Our U.S. Government Accountability Office has this data:

The Department of Defense continues cleanup efforts of munitions and hazardous substances at former military sites in Vieques and Culebra, Puerto Rico. But substantial work remains. DOD estimates cleanup efforts will continue through FY 2032. The costs of prior work combined with DOD’s reported estimates for planned cleanup on both islands and the surrounding waters totals nearly $800 million.

DOD faces several challenges with cleanup, such as the islands’ rugged topography, logistics, and safety concerns with handling unexploded munitions. DOD is using a variety of technologies, some innovative, to clean up the land and underwater sites.

The year 2032? WTF?

Meanwhile, an intrepid resident of Vieques posts daily reminders on Twitter that Vieques still has no hospital.

The hashtag #JusticiaParaJai in her tweet refers to Jaideliz Moreno Ventura, a 13-year-old who died due to a lack of proper medical equipment and facilities on the island.


A playground on Vieques was just dedicated in the name of Jahn Lee Hill Rivera, a 3-year-old who died as a result of the absence of medical services.


Before closing, I’d like to acknowledge the passing of Robert Rabin on March 28, 2022. Rabin was a lifelong activist for Vieques and the people of Puerto Rico. May he rest in power. 

Please join me in the comment section below for more on Vieques and Culebra, and for the weekly Caribbean news roundup.