Interview on Vieques & the peoples struggle: Paradise bombed

What follows are excerpts of Stephanie McMillan’s interview of Leña Verde, an activist, born and raised, in struggle against the U.S. Navy’s theft and destruction of his island, Vieques. The piece was just published by One Struggle in South Florida.

For more than 60 years, the U.S. Navy pounded the island of Vieques, of the main island of Puerto Rico, with live explosives, including napalm, depleted-uranium projectiles, and experimental weapons systems.

In the 1940s, with the permission of the Puerto Rican government, the Navy expropriated 26,000 of Vieques’ 33,000 acres to build a testing and practice ground for US military invasions. (See chart on pg. X). Viequenses were forced off their land and into the center of the island. The eastern portion of the island became a bombing range; the western side stored ammunition.

With their environment, economy, and culture being blasted away, Viequenses waged battle for over half a century for expulsion of the Navy. In 1999, after years of local conflict and protest, the Viequenses’ struggle sparked international solidarity when an F-18 fighter jet accidentally dropped two, 500-pound live bombs on an observation post, killing David Sanes Rodríguez, a civilian Viequense security guard working for the Navy.

Supporters from around the globe participated in a four year civil disobedience campaign, setting up protester camps across the island and using human barricades to prevent bombings.

Efforts resulted in thousands of arrests, and finally, the expulsion of the U.S. Navy from Vieques. * * * * * * * *

Interview with Leña Verde

LV: Before I was born, the Navy offered the people of the island a job somewhere else… They cut out all the sugar cane. So eventually everybody have to leave the island ‘cause there is no more work... The Navy put the civilians right in the center of the island. It was 5 miles by 5 miles. They took 3/4 part of the island to use for ammunition supplies, the other part for war games. So they could bring that same line to other countries, and they could do the war games.


Everybody left the island. Only the oldest people were left behind. My grandfather… he told me when the navy came to their land…they gave them 24 hours. They would come with bulldozers and knock down their little wooden house. And they would come out with a big truck and take them to middle of the island, and say, "This is a piece of land for you. Do whatever you want there."


SM: What year did they start?

LV: I'm 58, so... it's been about 70 years... So, I’m going to tell about what happened to me… When I was 10 years old, my grandmother sent me to buy some brooms. She was close to the Navy fence... My cousin say, "Hey let's go over there…" We start walking towards the Navy land… and we were getting closer to the main road. A homeboy, a Navy was coming from the public beach, Sun Bay beach.... so we went like this, [gestures] and they chased us… They took us inside the barracks, start drinking beer... They was partying… And what they did, they took a lightbulb, put our fingers in there. Owww! I never forget. It was a lot of pain. SM: They shocked you. And your cousin was nine, and you were ten.

LV: And they was laughing... It was like a torture... My cousin was crying, and I was crying too… And they kick us. SM: How long did they do that?

LV: All day... every about 45 minutes to an hour. Constantly they would send us back and kick us, put beer on top our heads, peed on our face… you know… that left a scar...

So I was growing up, seeing more, and then I used to go inside the [Navy] land. But the Navy kept the line, when they put the… 16 or 18 footer high fence… Nobody could go in there, so we used to cut, and penetrate inside… I know that line... like the palm of my hand. I learned all the trails. The cow makes a trail. The horses make a trail. I follow those trails… and I got them [protestors] inside there... I say, “Listen, you guys lay down here, and you come up with the banner, but wait. Give me ten minutes, so I could run and go back.” I...knew the land, so my job was to take people inside and not get caught.

SM: Oh like a guide.

LV: Most of the time it was just to get them in there. And then, they be arrested because it was civil disobedience... So when they find out that those people [protestors] was there right in their face, they try to find out how the hell we went through. SM: Was that the time when they were bombing?

LV: No, that was after the bombing... when we were protesting them being there.

SM: So what year?

LV: That was in 2000... Let me tell it how I go back to my island and try to get the Navy out. I took a vacation to Vieques… I was living in the U.S. Virgin Islands... I went there on a Friday. Saturday, I saw my cousin who work for the Navy… When I spoke to him, he was telling me so much stuff about it, and I say “Hey man... why don't you leave that job.” He say “... But it's the only way I can support my family.” I left on a Sunday. When I got to St. Croix, that Sunday...Bam! They told me, “The navy just killed your cousin, David...” They threw a bomb.

SM: What was his official job?

LV: He was a security guard... His name was David Sanes. And when they dropped the bomb…it was hundreds, the whole town, the whole island came to the fence, to the main gate and protest, but we can't go any farther than the gates.

I did help infiltrate so many people that the navy personnel they say,

"We gonna get you… We know you're... causing too many problems inside here.”

I told them “Hold on one minute.”


I call one of the guys [protestors]. I say,

“Hey listen I want you to go 100 feet from here and cut the fence, and tell me where you cut it, so I can tell this guy right here to go and take care of it.”

So the guy [protestor] came back. I told him [Navy personnel],

“Hey you better go. The cow just cut your fence. You gotta go over there.”

He would come and throw me gasses right there.


SM: Really they threw gas at you?

LV: Tear gas and something where it really burn[ed]... they throw because we used to have our camp just about… 30 feet or forty feet from the fence.. on the outside, in the civilian sector.

SM: So how many camps were there at that time?

LV: It was more than 50… People would come from different part of the islands or different part of the world, and from the main island. We used to have a few from Japan, China, sign on, begin to help us… We used to have doctors, all kinds of scientific people ‘cause they wanted to know how, why so many people were dying from cancer on that island. Oh my god, it's 27% higher than the main island.

SM: How long did that struggle go on - the part with the camps and the protest?

LV: Well that for 3 years... The day they supposed to leave, the 3rd of May… the Navy left the trucks, fire trucks and all kind of boats and everything... We went in there. We start the trucks, the water truck, four wheel drive, everything… A lot of people got arrested because there was… a lot of undercover US government there… More than a thousand people went to jail...

SM: So what do you mostly attribute your victory to? What was it that actually made them leave?

LV: Because they lied so much. They say they never use no chemical weapons… And then after they left, guess what. They admit it. Right now, we have to clean up. But you could never, it would take millions and millions of years to clean it up.

SM: Well it's all in the land. It's all over.

LV: Where they used to keep the ammunition…right now they're turning to national wildlife, right? That's where they used to have the magazines, the bunkers. They have a lagoon… It's called Quiani.

Quiani is contaminated. .. But before it was nothing like that!

 Vieques from the air

All in the water, 30 feet, forty feet, they have unexploded bombs… They call it potato fields… The area around there, you don't see nothing, not even a fish going in there. It's too contaminated. I took this guy there. The guy know about chemicals and all that. He say, “Leña Verde, let's get out of here.” He took a machine that tell how high the contamination was. He said, “Don't even dive around here anymore.” And to this day, nothing growing there.

The U.S. Navy vacated Vieques in 2003. The land stolen from Viequenses was not returned to them, but transferred to the Department of the Interior.

What was once a bombing range is now a wildlife refuge with unexploded ordnance. The land and water are contaminated with depleted uranium, heavy metals, mercury.

While the Navy is responsible for “cleaning up” its waste, US Federal agencies found, in 2009 and 2011, high contamination levels to be unrelated to high rates of cancer and respiratory problems on the island. Viequenses succeeded in ousting the Navy from their island, but continue to battle the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments, as well as, real estate developers, to reclaim and restore their land, water, and way of life.

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