Vieques (IPA: ; Pronunciation: [viːˈeɪkeɪz] or [-kɛz]), in full Isla de Vieques, is an island-municipality of Puerto Rico in the northeastern Caribbean. 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 to the east of the Puerto Rican mainland, and measures approximately long by 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 US Navy's use of the island as a bombing range and weapons testing ground, which eventually led to the Navy's departure in 2003.
Excavations at the Puerto Ferro site by Luis Chanlatte and Yvonne Narganes 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 Taino 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.
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 as slaves and some as independent economic migrants. Since this time black people have formed an important part of Vieques’ society.
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 St. 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 base 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 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.
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 Kahoolawe in the Hawaiian Islands.
These protests came to a head in 1999 when Vieques native David Sanes 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 protestors were joined by sympathetic groups and prominent individuals from mainland USA (such as 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 wildlife reserve under the control of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Closure of the Roosevelt Roads base 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 Dámaso Serrano López. Like the rest of Puerto Rico, the head of state is the President of the United States.
Administratively Vieques is divided into Isabel Segunda plus seven wards:
These are often referred to as "barrios", though this term is also applied to various other localities and townships on the island.
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 is prone to tropical storms and at risk from hurricanes from June to November. In 1989 Hurricane Hugo caused considerable damage to the island.
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.
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, unspoilt 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 wild or semi-wild horses, which roam free over parts of the island. These are descended from stock originally brought by European colonisers.