Vieques is one of those islands whose story isn’t fully understood until you know its background. So, here is a very rough sketch of the island’s history of the island. History buffs, please be merciful.
The Taino Indians had been living on the island of Vieques for some 1500 years when Christopher Columbus happened upon it in 1443. However, the Spanish quickly conquered the island. Over the next few decades, the English, French, and Danish alternately ran the island—and pirates used it to resupply their ships.
It’s worth noting it was around this time Vieques got its name (at least according to one theory). During these years the island was called Crab Island—in Spanish ‘bieque’ means crab. Since b’s and v’s are pronounced the same in Spanish, the island’s name evolved into ‘Vieques’, as it’s known today.
Then in the first part of the 19th century, the Spaniards made a dedicated effort to take control of the island again. In 1843 they built one of their last forts before the fall of the Spanish Empire on Vieques. The fort, Fort Conde de Mirasol, still stands, overlooking the bay at Isabel Segunda, the capital city. While the Spanish controlled the island, then, there was an economic boom, driven by the slave trade and sugar plantations on the island.
But it didn’t last forever. Following the Spanish American War, in 1898, the United States took over Vieques. A few white families got rich off the plantations, and the rest of the island worked on them. Then things changed again:
The U.S. Navy arrived in 1941, and bought 60% of the natives’ land—forcing many to evacuate their homes. As the military base was built, the island was flush with jobs, but when the project was completed, these jobs disappeared—which, combined with the fact the plantations were wiped with the Navy’s arrival, devastated the island. There were attempts to reestablish the agricultural system on the island after things were finished, but each failed. Then, in the 1960s, a General Electric plant was built, and people found jobs in manufacturing.
Meanwhile, for decades the Navy was testing bombs and missiles on the island. Viequenses’ anger with the Navy came to a head in 1999 when one of their own was killed by a bomb during a military exercise. There were protests and efforts to get the Navy off the island, headed by celebrities even, but little progress was made—until 2003 when the U.S. Navy left the island for good.
The Navy donated $40 million dollars to the island to help its improve its infrastructure when it left. And today, about a third of the island is still blocked off, because there are still unexploded shells on the eastern side of the island. The U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Service is now in control of the land the Navy used.
Still, since the Navy left, things have become less efficient, according to some Viequenses. Because the Navy no longer uses the island, many governmental agencies have moved in and got in the way the island’s every day operations. For instance, one woman, born and raised in Vieques, told us while the Navy was on the island, Vieques brought in their own oil and raised and butchered cattle, with little regulation. Now that the various agencies have moved in, though, they are so limited that gas only comes once per week, and the butchery was shut down—and never replaced. Today, there are almost no cows left on the island.
While the decline of the cattle industry is frustrating for some Viequenses, what may be more damaging is the limited fuel on the island. The woman I mentioned before said it hurts them today, because they are quite dependent on tourism. When no gas is available for tourists to tour the island, they could get discouraged and decide not to return.
Today, Vieques is beautiful, and somehow caters to everyone’s liking. It offers some tourist spots—condos, restaurants, a dive shop—but also caters to those wanting a more authentic experience. Horses, dogs, and cats hang out all around downtown and on the beaches. Most have owners, but even if they don’t, no one minds. Swimsuits are pretty much acceptable most places in Esperanza. And the authentic Puerto Rican food (even when mixed in with American fare) makes everything feel even more natural. It’s a friendly, welcoming atmosphere—epitomizing Puerto Rico’s former slogan, that they are the ‘Isle of Enchantment’.