La Isla Nena

Annalisa Natali Murri

2019 - Ongoing

Vieques Municipality, Puerto Rico

Since the 1940s, the island municipality of Vieques and its surrounding waters served as a U.S. Navy and training ground, the western part of the island being used as a military munitions depot, while the eastern part served as a target range for combined sea–air–ground maneuvers. Indeed, for six decades the civilian population, after being expropriated of its lands and homes, has been constrained in the center of the island, surrounded by the ecological devastation produced by Navy bombardments.

With this, for over 60 years the island of Vieques has been exposed to the heavy contamination produced by the military activities (which have made use, among others, of depleted uranium- and agent orange-based ordnances), which has produced an evident increase in cancer rates over the last 30 years, as well as excessive levels of toxic elements and heavy metals in the inhabitants’ blood, such as arsenic, cadmium, lead or mercury, which in turn resulted in the development of severely affecting or deadly illnesses.

A civil movement against the presence and activities of the US Navy started to root among residents native to the island, and reached a crescendo which culminated in a non-violent civil disobedience movement after the accidental death of a civil employee on the U.S. base on April 1999. After years of protests, the military was ultimately forced off the island, whose final retreat came after four years of pacific mass mobilization and thousands of arrests for civil disobedience.

Unfortunately the closure of the military base was not enough to solve the persistent environmental and health issues: the island is still very polluted and has been designated a Superfund Toxic Site. Moreover, the problems of reclamation entrusted to the US Navy- which still maintains control of the territory- remains mainly unresolved, as the methodology of the environmental cleanup, using detonation and open burning of bombs on the ground which further increase the pollution levels, is very questionable, and still poses a further threat for the island of Vieques and its inhabitants.

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  • One of the rusted military tanks abandoned on the beach of Culebra island, few kilometers away from Vieques. As in Vieques, military troops have been conducting test landings and ground maneuvers on the island, and in 1936 the Navy began using Culebra for bombing practice until 1979, when the Navy moved all the training activities and bombing tests to Vieques.

  • The main town of Isabel II in the civil area of Vieques.

  • The gas mask used by one of the main civil activists during the fiercest years of the struggle for the liberation of Vieques, from 1999 to 2003.

  • Angel "Tato" Guadalupe (80 yo), activist for Vieques, has been a key figure during the period of the resistance camps in the bombing range.

  • A street in Isabel II village, Vieques

  • "Puerto Rico, The island of enchantment”, as written on the plate of a destroyed and abandoned car in Isabel II, Vieques.

  • “When the wind came from the east, it brought smoke and piles of dust from their bombing ranges. They’d bomb every day, from 5 am until 6 pm. It felt like a war zone. “You’d hear eight or nine bombs a day, and your house would shudder. Everything on your walls, your picture frames, your decorations, mirrors, would fall on the floor and break”, recalls a Vieques resident.

  • The only bed in the chemotherapy center under construction at the VER association, where the island's many cancer patients will be able to receive their treatments.

  • Dead corals found on Caracas beach, in the east part of Vieques, the former trial area, now belonging to the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. Several studies have shown that coral reefs and sea grass beds have been significantly damaged by bombing, sedimentation, and chemical contamination.

  • Old military cartridges recovered in the eastern shooting range of Vieques and preserved in the historical museum of the island.

  • “I remember the red skies when they were bombing, the thunders of the bombings and I remember a lot of the protests in front of Camp Garcia, ”says Kiani, whose father, Pablo Connelly, was among the first civil disobedients.

  • Diane Rivasy, 61, showing the scar after breast cancer surgery. She had been working in the Camp Garcia base for 13 years as a guard. Diane was a colleague of David Sanes, the young boy who died in 1999 for a bomb accidentally launched on the observatory where he was working by a military aircraft in training. She is one of the many people on the island who have developed cancer after years of presence of the Navy on the island.

  • An archive picture showing Bob (Robert Rabin, 62) during the civil disobedience protests. Bob is a U.S. citizen, now residing in vieques for decades, who in 2002 served a six-month sentence in Guaynabo (PR), the federal prison where the repeat civil disobedience offenders of Vieques were sent.

  • Puchita, a resident of the main island of Puerto Rico, who joined the disobedient group of women led by Norma Torres Sanes, who sneaked into the military base of Camp Garcia by cutting the limiting fence the night of August 7th 2000.

  • The grave of David Sanes Rodriguez in Isabel II, Vieques. David died on Apr 19, 1999 at Camp Garcia, as the result of an accidental bombing by the US Marines in the island. He was a civilian employed to patrol the grounds outside the Observation Post, and his death triggered the growth of peaceful protest movements among the local population.

  • The commemorative bust of Angel Rodriguez Cristobal in Esperanza, Vieques. Angel, 33, was one of the fisherman protestors and exponent of the socialist party who was arrested for his role in the protest and died in federal prison under suspicious circumstances, where he was serving a sixmonth sentence for trespassing on Navy land while military maneuvers were under way.

  • Vieques map.

  • The wreck of an abandoned cargo ship a few meters from the shore in Isabel II, Vieques.

  • Free horses walking in front of the dismissed Municipal Hospital José Benítez Guzmán built in 1912 in the outskirts of Isabel II, Vieques. The island is still lacking proper hospital and medical facilities, causing several problems to the many residents in need of constant medical assistance: more than 2 years after Hurricane Maria (Sept.2017), the Federal Emergency Management Agency has not decided whether to reconstruct Vieques’s only hospital amid conflicting estimates about how much the federal government is required to rebuild.