Vieques, Puerto Rico: Wikis


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Vieques, Puerto Rico
—  Municipality  —
Vieques from the air, looking west


Coat of arms
Nickname(s): Isla Nena
Location within Puerto Rico
Coordinates: 18°07′N 65°25′W / 18.117°N 65.417°W / 18.117; -65.417Coordinates: 18°07′N 65°25′W / 18.117°N 65.417°W / 18.117; -65.417
Country United States
Territory Puerto Rico
 - Mayor Evelyn Delerme-Camacho (2008- )
 - Total 134.4 sq mi (348.15 km2)
 - Land 52.1 sq mi (135 km2)
 - Water 82.3 sq mi (213.15 km2)
Population (2000)
 - Total 9,106
 Density 174.8/sq mi (67.5/km2)
 - Demonym Viequenses
 - Racial groups[1] 72.7% White
13.8% Black
0.4% American Indian/An
0.6% Asian
0.8% Native Hawaiian/Pi
8.8% Some other race
3.4% Two or more races
Time zone AST (UTC-4)

Vieques (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈbjekes]; English: /viːˈeɪkɨs/), in full Isla de Vieques, is an island-municipality of Puerto Rico in the northeastern Caribbean, part of an island grouping sometimes known as the Spanish Virgin Islands. Although Puerto Rico is a U.S. Commonwealth, Vieques, like the rest of Puerto Rico, retains strong Spanish influences from 400 years of Spanish ownership.

Vieques lies about 8 miles (13 km) to the east of the Puerto Rican mainland, and measures approximately 21 miles (34 km) long by 4 miles (6 km) wide. The two main towns of Vieques are Isabel Segunda (sometimes written "Isabel II"), the administrative center located on the northern side of the island, and Esperanza, located on the southern side. At peak, the population of Vieques is around 10,000.

The island's name is a Spanish spelling of a Native American word said to mean "small island". It also has the nickname "Isla Nena", usually translated from the Spanish as "Little Girl Island", as a reference to its being perceived as Puerto Rico's little sister island. During the colonial period the British name was "Crab Island".

Vieques is best known internationally as the site of a series of protests against the United States Navy's use of the island as a bombing range and testing ground, which eventually led to the Navy's departure in 2003. Today the former Navy land is a national wildlife refuge, with numerous beaches that still retain the names given by the Navy, including Red Beach, Blue Beach, Green Beach and others. The beaches are commonly listed among the top beaches in the Caribbean for their azure-colored waters and white sands.



Pre-Columbian history

Archaeological evidence suggests that Vieques was first inhabited by ancient Native American peoples who traveled from continental America perhaps between 3000 BC and 2000 BC. However, estimates of these prehistoric dates of inhabitation vary widely. These tribes had a Stone Age culture and were probably fishermen and hunter-gatherers.

Excavations at the Puerto Ferro site by Luis Chanlatte and Yvonne Narganes[2] uncovered a fragmented human skeleton in a large hearth area. Radiocarbon dating of shells found in the hearth indicate a burial date of c.1900 BCE. This skeleton, popularly known as El Hombre de Puerto Ferro, was buried at the center of a group of large boulders near the south-central coast of Vieques, approximately one kilometer northwest of the Bioluminescent Bay. Linear arrays of smaller stones radiating from the central boulders are apparent at the site today, but their age and reason for placement are unknown.

Further waves of settlement by Native Americans followed over many centuries. The Arawak-speaking Saladoid (or Igneri) people, thought to have originated in modern-day Venezuela, arrived in the region perhaps around 200 BC (again estimates vary). These tribes, noted for their pottery, stone carving, and other artifacts, eventually merged with groups from Hispaniola and Cuba, to form what is now called the Taíno culture. This culture flourished in the region from around 1000 AD, and survived on Vieques until the arrival of the Europeans in the 15th century.

Colonial period

The European discovery of Vieques is sometimes credited to Christopher Columbus, who landed in Puerto Rico in 1493. It does not seem to be certain whether Columbus personally visited Vieques, but in any case the island was soon claimed by the Spanish. During the early 16th century Vieques became a center of Taíno rebellion against the European invaders, prompting the Spanish to send armed forces to the island to quell the resistance. The native Taíno population was decimated, and its people either killed, imprisoned or enslaved by the Spanish.

The Spanish did not, however, permanently colonise Vieques at this time, and for the next three hundred years it remained a lawless outpost, frequented by pirates and outlaws. As European powers fought for control in the region, a series of attempts by the French, English and Danish to colonise the island in the 17th and 18th centuries were repulsed by the Spanish.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Spanish took steps to permanently settle and secure the island. In 1811, Don Salvador Meléndez, then governor of Puerto Rico, sent military commander Juan Rosselló to begin what would become the annexation of Vieques by the Puerto Ricans. In 1832, under an agreement with the Spanish Puerto Rican administration, Frenchman Teófilo José Jaime María Le Guillou became Governor of Vieques, and undertook to impose order on the anarchic province. He was instrumental in the establishment of large plantations, marking a period of social and economic change for the island. Le Guillou is now remembered as the "founder" of Vieques (though this title is also sometimes conferred on Francisco Saínz, governor from 1843 to 1852, who founded Isabel Segunda, the "town of Vieques", named after Queen Isabel II of Spain). Vieques was formally annexed to Puerto Rico in 1854.

In 1816, Vieques was briefly visited by Simón Bolívar while fleeing defeat in Venezuela.

During the second part of the 19th century, thousands of black immigrants came to Vieques to work on the sugar cane plantations. They arrived from the nearby islands of St. Thomas, Nevis, St. Kitts, St. Croix, and many other Caribbean nations, some of the Puerto Ricans arrived as slaves and some as independent economic migrants. By the time of settlement of Vieques the Eastern Caribbean was post-Emancipation but some arrived as contract labor. Since this time black people have formed an important part of Vieques’ society.

United States acquisition

In 1898, after Spain's defeat in the Spanish–American War, Vieques, along with mainland Puerto Rico, was ceded to the United States.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the sugar industry, on which Vieques was totally dependent, went into decline due to falling sugar prices and industrial unrest. Many locals were forced to move to mainland Puerto Rico or Saint Croix to look for work.

During World War II, the United States military purchased about two thirds of Vieques as an extension to the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station nearby on the Puerto Rican mainland. The original purpose of the base (never implemented) was to provide a safe haven for the British fleet should Britain fall to Nazi Germany. Much of the land was bought from the owners of large farms and sugar cane plantations, and the purchase triggered the final demise of the sugar industry. Many agricultural workers, who had no title to the land they occupied, were evicted.[3]

After the war, the US Navy continued to use the island for military exercises, and as a firing range and testing ground for bombs, missiles, and other weapons in a manner not unlike Kahoʻolawe in the Hawaiian Islands.

Protests and departure of the United States Navy

The continuing post-war presence in Vieques of the United States Navy drew protests from the local community, angry at the expropriation of their land and the environmental impact of weapons testing. The locals' discontent was exacerbated by the island's parlous economic condition.

These protests came to a head in 1999 when Vieques native David Sanes, a civilian employee of the United States Navy, working as a security guard at the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility on Vieques, was killed by a bomb dropped during target practice. A campaign of civil disobedience began. The locals took to the ocean in their small fishing boats and successfully stopped the US Navy's military exercises. The Vieques issue became something of a cause celèbre, and local protesters were joined by sympathetic groups and prominent individuals from the mainland United States (such as Al Sharpton and Edward James Olmos) and abroad.

As a result of this pressure, in May 2003 the Navy withdrew from Vieques, and much of the island was designated a National Wildlife Refuge under the control of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Closure of Roosevelt Roads Naval Station followed in 2004.



Vieques is a municipio of Puerto Rico, translated as "municipality" and in this context roughly equivalent to "township". It is in the Puerto Rican electoral district of Carolina. Local government is under the leadership of a mayor (Spanish alcalde), presently Evelyn Delerme Camacho. Like the rest of Puerto Rico, the head of state is the President of the United States.

Administrative divisions

Administratively Vieques is divided into Isabel Segunda plus twelve wards:

  • Monte Santo
  • Florida
  • Puerto Real
  • La Llave
  • Luján
  • Destino
  • Esperanza
  • Martineau
  • Villa Borinquen
  • Monte Carmelo
  • Verde Vieques
  • Pilón

These are often referred to as "barrios", though this term is also applied to various other sublocalities and townships on the island.


Location of Vieques, with the Spanish Virgin Islands highlighted in yellow, the US Virgin Islands of St Thomas, St John and St Croix in white, and Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, in beige.
Sub-tropical dry forest on Vieques

Vieques measures about 21 miles (34 km) east-west, and three to four miles (5 km) north-south. It has a land area of 52 square miles (135 km²) and is located about ten miles (16 km) to the east of Puerto Rico. To the north of Vieques is the Atlantic Ocean, and to the south the Caribbean Sea. The island of Culebra is about 10 miles (16 km) north of Vieques, and the US Virgin Islands lie to the east. Vieques and Culebra, together with various small islets, make up the so-called Spanish Virgin Islands, sometimes known as the Passage Islands.

The former US Navy lands, now wildlife reserves, occupy the entire eastern and western ends of Vieques, with the former live weapons testing site (known as the "LIA", or "Live Impact Area") at the extreme eastern tip. These areas are unpopulated. The former civilian area occupies very roughly the central third of the island and contains the towns of Isabel Segunda on the north coast, and Esperanza on the south.

Vieques has a terrain of rolling hills, with a central ridge running east-west. The highest point is Monte Pirata ("Pirate Mount") at 987 feet (300 m). Geologically the island is composed of a mixture of volcanic bedrock, sedimentary rocks such as limestone and sandstone, and alluvial deposits of gravel, sand, silt, and clay. There are no permanent rivers or streams. Much former agricultural land has been reclaimed by nature due to prolonged disuse, and, apart from some small-scale farming in the central region, the island is largely covered by brush and subtropical dry forest. Around the coast lie palm-fringed sandy beaches interspersed with lagoons, mangrove swamps, salt flats and coral reefs.


Vieques has a warm, relatively dry, tropical to sub-tropical climate. Temperatures vary little throughout the year, with average daily maxima ranging from 82 °F (28 °C) in January to 87 °F (31 °C) in July.[4] Average daily minima are about 10 °F (6 °C) lower. Rainfall averages around 45 to 55 inches (1150 to 1400 mm) per year, with the months of May and September–November being the wettest. The west of the island receives significantly more rainfall than the east. Prevailing winds are easterly.

Vieques is prone to tropical storms and at risk from hurricanes from June to November. In 1989 Hurricane Hugo caused considerable damage to the island.[5]


The sugar industry, once the mainstay of the island's economy, declined during the early decades of the twentieth century, and finally collapsed in the 1940s when the US Navy took over much of the land on which the sugar cane plantations stood. After an initial naval construction phase, opportunities for making a living on the island were largely limited to fishing or subsistence farming on reduced area. Crops grown on the island include avocados, bananas, coconuts, grains, papayas and sweet potatoes. A small number of permanent local jobs were provided by the US Navy. Since the 1970s General Electric has employed a few hundred workers at a manufacturing plant. Unemployment was widespread, with consequent social problems. The 2000 US census reported a median household income in 1999 dollars of $9,331 (compared to $41,994 for the USA as a whole), and 35.8% of the population of 16 years and over in the labor force (compared to 63.9% for the USA as a whole).[6]

Like the rest of Puerto Rico, the island's currency is the US dollar.

Following the 2003 departure of the US Navy, efforts have been made to redevelop the island's agricultural economy, to clean up contaminated areas of the former bombing ranges, and to develop Vieques as a tourist destination.


Playa del Corcho (Corcho Beach)

For sixty years the majority of Vieques was closed off by the US Navy, and the island remained almost entirely undeveloped for tourism. This lack of development is now marketed as a key attraction. Vieques is promoted under an ecotourism banner as a sleepy, unspoiled island of rural "old world" charm and pristine deserted beaches, and is rapidly becoming a popular destination.

Since the Navy's departure, tensions on the island have been low, although land speculation by foreign developers and fears of overdevelopment have caused some resentment among local residents, and there are occasional reports of lingering anti-American sentiment.

The lands previously owned by the Navy have been turned over to the U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Service and the authorities of Puerto Rico and Vieques for management. The immediate bombing range area on the eastern tip of the island suffers from severe contamination, but the remaining areas are mostly open to the public, including many beautiful beaches that were inaccessible to civilians when the military bases were open.

Snorkeling is excellent, especially at Blue Beach (Bahía de la Chiva). Aside from archeological sites, such as La Hueca, and deserted beaches, a unique feature of Vieques is the presence of two pristine bioluminescent bays, including Mosquito Bay. Vieques is also famous for its feral horses, which roam free over parts of the island. These are descended from stock originally brought by European colonisers.

Landmarks and places of interest

The 300-year-old ceiba tree in August, 2005.
  • Fortín Conde de Mirasol (Count Mirasol Fort), a fort built by the Spanish in the mid 19th century, now a museum
  • Playa Esperanza (Esperanza Beach)
  • The tomb of Le Guillou, the town founder, in Isabel Segunda
  • La Casa Alcaldía (City Hall)
  • Faro Punta Mulas, built in 1896
  • Faro de Puerto Ferro
  • Sun Bay Beach
  • The Bioluminescent Bay
  • The 300-year-old ceiba tree
  • Rompeolas (Mosquito Pier), renamed Puerto de la Liberdad David Sanes Rodríguez in 2003
  • Puerto Ferro Archaeological Site
  • Black Sand Beach
  • Hacienda Playa Grande (Old Sugarcane Plantation Building)
  • Underground U.S. Navy Bunkers
  • Wreckage of the World War II Navy Destroyer USS Killen (DD593)

Bioluminescent Bay

The Bioluminescent Bay (or "Bio Bay" as it is sometimes called), is perhaps the world's largest and brightest. The luminescence is caused by micro-organisms (dinoflagellates) which glow whenever the water is disturbed, leaving a trail of neon blue. A combination of factors create the necessary conditions for bioluminescence: red mangrove trees surround the water (the organisms feed off the dead leaves); a complete lack of modern development around the bay; the water is cool enough and deep enough; and a small channel to the ocean keeps the dinoflagellates in the bay. This small channel is the result of Spanish ships' attempts to choke off the bay from the ocean's waters. The Spanish believed that the bioluminescence they first encountered was the work of the Devil ('El Diablo') and tried to block the ocean's waters from entering the bay by dropping huge boulders in the channel. The Spanish only succeeded in preserving and increasing the luminescence. Kayaking is permitted in the bay and can be arranged through local vendors. Swimming is allowed on limited basis through guided tours.

Festivals and events

Fiestas Patronales, Isabel Segunda, 2008
  • Festival de los Reyes Magos (Epiphany Festival) – January 6
  • Via Crucis (Passion Play) – Holy Week
  • Festival Cultural Viequense (Vieques Cultural Festival) – March/April
  • Fiestas Patronales (Traditional Town Festivities) – July
  • Trova Navideña (Christmas Troubador Night) – December
  • Festival Navideño (Christmas Festival) – December-January


According to the 2000 US census,[6] the total population of Vieques was 9,106. 97.4% of the population are Hispanic or Latino (of any race). Natives of Vieques are known as viequenses.

Race (self-defined)
Vieques Puerto Rico - 2000 Census[7]
Race Population  % of Total
White 6,621 72.7%
Black/African American 1,256 13.8%
American Indian
and Alaska Native
69 0.4%
Asian 52 0.6%
Native Hawaiian
Pacific Islander
0 0%
Some other race 799 8.8%
Two or more races 309 3.4%


Both Spanish and English are recognized as official languages. Spanish is the primary language of most inhabitants.


Vieques is served by Antonio Rivera Rodríguez Airport, which currently accommodates only small propeller driven aircraft. Services to the island run from San Juan's Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, Ceiba Airport or Isla Grande Airport (20-30 minute flight). Flights are also available between Vieques and Saint Croix and Saint Thomas.

A ferry runs from Fajardo several times a day.

Public health

There have been claims linking Vieques' higher cancer rate[8] to the long history of US weapons testing on the island, especially after the US Navy admitted using depleted uranium at least on one occasion in 1999. Dr. Nayda Figueroa, an epidemiologist for Puerto Rico's Cancer Registry, claimed that research showed Vieques' cancer rate (latest available is for 1995 to 1999) was 31 percent higher than for the main island. Dr. Michael Thun, head of epidemiological research at the American Cancer Society, cautioned that the variations in the rates could be attributed to chance, given the small population on Vieques.[9] A 2000 NRC report concluded that "the public had not been exposed to depleted uranium contamination above normal background (naturally occurring) levels".[10]

However, surveys of the wreckage of a target ship in a shallow bay at the bombing range revealed its identity to be that of the USS Killen (DD 593), a target ship in nuclear tests in the Pacific in 1958. By 2002, it was evident that thousands of tons of steel that had originally been irradiated in the 1958 nuclear tests was missing from the wreckage in the bay. That steel has been missing for over 35 years and is still unaccounted for by the US Navy, EPA, and ATSDR. Hundreds of steel drums of unknown origin were found among the wreckage. Their identity and contents have not been adequately verified.

In response to concerns about potential contamination from toxic metals and other chemicals, the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) conducted a number of surveys in 1999–2002 to test Vieques' soil, water supply, air, fish and shellfish for harmful substances. The general conclusion of the ATSDR survey was that no public health hazard existed as a result of the Navy's activities.[10] However, scientists have pointed out that fish samples were drawn from local markets, which often import fish from outside. Also sample sizes from each location were too small to provide compelling evidence for the lack of a public health danger (Wargo, Green Intelligence). The conclusions of the ATSDR report have more recently, as of 2009, been questioned and discredited. A review is underway.[11][12][13]

Casa Pueblo, a Puerto Rican environmental group, reports a study of the flora and fauna of Vieques that "clearly demonstrates sequestration of high levels of toxic elements in plant and animal tissue samples", and that "Consecuently [sic], the ecological food web of the Vieques Island has been adversely impacted."[14]

Notable natives and residents

  • Jaime Benitez Rexach, educator, politician and humanist
  • Eddie Ríos Mellado inventor of the three-point rule in basketball[citation needed]
  • Germán Rieckehoff Sampayo, a renowned president of the Puerto Rican Olympic committee.
  • Rafael Rivera Castaño, physician and Public Health pioneer
  • Carlos Vélez Rieckehoff, Vieques nationalist leader and political activist.
  • Carla Tricoli Rodríguez, Miss Puerto Rico Universe 2005 / Miss Photogenic 2005


See also


  1. ^ Demographics/Ethnic U.S 2000 census
  2. ^ American Antiquity, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Jan. 1992) pp. 146-163.
  3. ^ "From Sugar Plantations to Military Bases: the U.S. Navy’s Expropriations in Vieques, Puerto Rico", César Ayala.
  4. ^
  5. ^ U.S. Geological Survey report
  6. ^ a b "US Census (2000)". Retrieved 2007-04-17. 
  7. ^ Ethnicity 2000 census
  8. ^
  9. ^ ""Vieques Cancer Rate an Issue"". Miami Herald. Retrieved 2007-04-17. 
  10. ^ a b ""Soil Pathway Evaluation, Isla de Vieques Bombing Range"". Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Retrieved 2007-04-17. 
  11. ^ "New Battle on Vieques, Over Navy’s Cleanup of Munitions", Mireya Navarro, New York Times, Aug 6 2009
  12. ^ "Navy’s Vieques Training May Be Tied to Health Risks",Mireya Navarro, New York Times, Nov 13 2009
  13. ^ "Reversal Haunts Federal Health Agency",Mireya Navarro, New York Times, Nov 29 2009
  14. ^ "Casa Pueblo report". Retrieved 2007-04-17. 

External links

Simple English

Coordinates: 18°7′37″N, 65°25′26″W

Vieques, Puerto Rico
—  Municipality  —
File:Vieuqes flag.gif
File:Coat of Arms of Vieques,
Coat of arms
Nickname(s): Isla Nena (Baby Girl Island)
Location within Puerto Rico
Coordinates: 18°07′N 65°25′W / 18.117°N 65.417°W / 18.117; -65.417
Country United States
Territory Puerto Rico
 - Mayor Damaso Serrano López
 - Total 134.4 sq mi (348.15 km2)
 - Land 52.1 sq mi (135 km2)
 - Water 82.3 sq mi (213.15 km2)
Population (2000)
 - Total 9,351
 Density 174.8/sq mi (67.5/km2)
 - Demonym Viequenses
Time zone AST (UTC-4)

Vieques (English pronunciation: vee-AY-kayz or -kez), in full Isla de Vieques, is an island-municipality of Puerto Rico in the northeastern Caribbean. Like mainland Puerto Rico the island is US territory, though it retains strong Spanish influences from 400 years of Spanish ownership.

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