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Closed beaches have meant an economic and cultural disaster for Viequenses.

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Mosquito pier, Vieques.

To Beach or Not to Beach

by Lee Lawrence

VIEQUES. JUNE 4, 2000. To beach or not to beach, that is not the question. When you live on an island surrounded by some of the world's most magnificent beaches, "To beach!" is always the answer. Unless you live on Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico's eastern coast.

Since last fall, not just the bombing ranges, but many of the Vieques beaches have been designated off-limits by the U. S. Navy, who claims to own them.

The Navy summarily appropriated its Vieques land for training purposes shortly after the start of World War II. It claims it bought the land fair and square, overlooking the small fact that the residents who had lived there for generations were given no more than a few hours notice before their homes were bulldozed, and they themselves were shipped off to St. Croix and other Caribbean islands.

The Navy adds insult to injury by self-righteously declaring, "we permit the Vieques people to graze horses and cattle on our land—for free—and we let them use the beaches." That's like kicking a kid out of his sandbox and then telling him if he's good he can let his cat crap in it.

Closed Beaches: Disaster and Spur
The closing of the beaches has been a disaster for the Viequenses. Beaches are as much a part of day-to-day life as going to a club, the mall, or a church social. Family gatherings and reunions, children's birthday parties, wedding celebrations, Christmas dinners, even courting rituals are centered on them. Families return to the same spots year after year. It's like their home.

The beaches also provide a degree of economic security for Viequenses. Elderly couples fish, both to feed themselves and to swap for a few extra dollars. Some families gather coconuts to sell in the markets, or from the side of the road. An old man might clean shells to sell to crafts shops.

Living in Vieques isn't easy for anyone. We lack many of the basic amenities accepted as givens on the big island of Puerto Rico, or in the States. A visit to an eye doctor, buying a suit of clothes, or a trip to Home Depot is an all-day affair beginning with the seven o'clock ferry to Fajardo, then taking publicos (collective taxis) or renting a car, and finally trekking back to the ferry. Those of us who live in Vieques put up with the inconveniences because we had a highly prized tradeoff: peace, privacy, quiet, and our beaches.

Now all of that has been replaced by ill will, dissention, and an extremely negative publicity that is seriously affecting the economic well being of the island.

Until the military closed the beaches, the majority of Viequenses did not object to the military presence on the island. Nor was there any great opposition to the maneuvers. It was simply accepted, after so many years, as part of living on Vieques. Even after the "errant bomb" incident of last April, many people still felt that "accidents happen, but let's make sure it doesn't happen again."

It wasn't until the gates to the beaches were closed that the general population joined the battle. Closing the beaches accomplished nothing. No problems were solved, no issues were resolved. It was just a show of power on the part of the military.

A Tantalizing Reprieve
On Monday, May 29, Memorial Day, with no notice and little fanfare, the gates to Green Beach were opened. Word spread quickly, and within hours fishermen were back at the flats casting their nets for sardines or getting into their boats for a day on the water. There were kids roller blading on the road to Mosquito Pier, while the regulars on the pier, fishermen and -women, were swinging their hand lines overhead and spinning them into the water. Hammocks were strung between coconut palms, and BBQ's were smoking at almost every picnic site. It was a happy day on Vieques, even though getting in was a hassle.

There was a barricade a hundred yards or so down from the main gate. Every car was checked, and you had to sign papers promising not to harm the beaches, or military property. Every occupant of the vehicle had to have a picture ID, or was refused entry. Any car bearing anti-military stickers or painted-on slogans was also kept out.

At the next checkpoint, a military guard took a copy of the signed form and compared names to those on a list to determine if the bearer had been naughty or nice to the military. If your name was on the list, you were turned back.

The Strategic Retreat
As suddenly as it was opened, the beach was closed again for a few days, apparently in response to the Vieques Women's Alliance, which on Thursday, June 1st led a group of 25 protesters, most of them local residents, as well as 6 journalists, into a restricted area on the bombing range.

Their intent was to protest the Navy's presence, and in particular, to call attention to the deadly health problems resulting from the detonation of explosives on the eastern part of the island. The group was arrested while praying in the wooden chapel built by earlier protestors. The journalists were arrested as well, and threatened with punitive measures if they continued to accompany protesters without first gaining permission from the Navy.

By closing the beach so quickly after the arrests, the Navy appears to have decided to employ the age-old tactic of punishing the many for the few, to create divisions among the civilian population of Vieques. It may or may not work. There is still strong support for protests on the island, but there were more people at the cockfight this weekend than protesting outside the gate to the Navy's Camp Garcia.

Having made their point, the Navy's already reopened the beaches at Green again. They are the devil, laying the beach out before us. See what you get if you're nice.

Related links:

For up-to-the-minute info on Vieques protests go to Vieques Libre.

For Complete Coverage Puerto Rico


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