They’re living in the tropics, they’re well fed, they’ve got everything they could possibly want.—Dick Cheney, on prisoners at Guantánamo, June 2005
If you type “Vieques” into a search engine today, in 2016, you will be bombarded by travel ads, first from big commercial outfits like TripAdvisor or BookingBuddy, followed by a long string of vacation guides, hotel guides, island guides, beach guides, spa guides, and an image bank of aerial shots with turquoise waters, curved sun-drenched beaches, and nary a soul in sight. Those empty, uncommercialized beaches are there because until 2003, two-thirds of the island of Vieques was owned by the US Navy, who used it for sixty years as a training site for aerial bombing, amphibious landings, ship-to-shore gunfighting, and ground warfare. Here, tourism is layered on top of the detritus of militarism, just one of the ways these two imperial enterprises converge and intersect on the planet’s tropical islands. Vieques shares this history of convergence with Hawai‘i, Guam, the Marshall Islands, the Philippines, and other places certain to be mentioned in this thematic cluster.1
Vieques is an island of fifty-two square miles that lies a few miles east of Puerto Rico, to which it was annexed in 1854. It has been an imperial playing field for five centuries. Claimed by Spain in the 1490s, it became a base for Taino resistance to the Spanish invasion. After the Taino were crushed, Vieques was left unsettled and became a haven for piracy, contraband, and accompanying forms of frontier anarchy, while Spain fended off attempts by France, Britain, Denmark, and Scotland to take it over and colonize it. Three hundred years later, in the early 1800s, the colonial governor of Puerto Rico finally decided to settle Vieques. Sugar plantations were established, attracting laborers, slave and free, from all over the Caribbean. Sugar was gold in the nineteenth century.2 In 1898, after Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American war, Vieques was annexed to the United States’ expanding empire, along with the Philippines, the rest of Puerto Rico, and another potential but as yet unrealized resort site, Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. The island’s economy was in deep decline when in 1941, in the middle of World War II, the US Navy expropriated the plantations, paid off the landowners, threw out the sugar [End Page 557] workers, and turned two-thirds of the island—26,000 acres—into a training colony, firing range, and military waste dump.3 For the inhabitants, by then fewer than ten thousand, it was a military occupation. For the next sixty years, Vieques and its surrounding waters were bombed an average of 180 days a year by an estimated five million pounds of ordnance per year, some of it live and much of it not. Its waste dump received an estimated twenty-two million pounds of military and industrial waste during the navy’s occupation.4 The occupation generated almost no jobs for the local economy, which depended mainly on subsistence agriculture and fishing. Today 43 percent of Viequenses live below the poverty line.
Anticolonial politics have flourished in Puerto Rico from the moment of its annexation by the United States. Efforts to expel the navy, led by the Puerto Rican Independence Party, were continuous, but got traction only in 1999 when the death of a Puerto Rican worker in a practice bombing made Vieques into a cause célèbre for Americans opposed to the rightward shift of US politics. Celebrity activists joined occupations of the island, and some of them, most memorably Rev. Al Sharpton, went to jail for months. In 2003 the navy ended all its military operations in Vieques and began what was to become its largest cleanup operation ever. Under the guidance of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of the Interior, the navy was charged with demilitarizing the landscape and making Vieques safe for tourism.5 In a strategic move, the federal government turned over most of the navy’s lands to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which declared the eastern part of the island, the former...