Where were we?
Oh right, LeGuillou and his merry band of thugs from Guadaloupe were about to invade Vieques and take control of the island.
Well, they did. And in the process they replicated the hellish conditions of Haiti by creating vast sugar cane plantations in Vieques and importing slaves from Martinique and Guadaloupe to work them.
And just like that, Vieques became a sugar “monoculture,” which it remained for the next hundred years.
Only two or three vestiges of this period remain, the main one being the fort that stands above Isabel II. Begun around 1845, the fort went so far over budget that Queen Isabel II (a descendant of the first Isabel) asked petulantly “if its walls were made of gold.”
This handsome fort, the last one ever built under Spanish control, first protected the island from invasion, then housed its recalcitrants in a moldy jail (pointedly called “La Discplinaria”), and finally became the island’s chief museum in the 1990s.
Despite its grandeur, the fort is named for the Count of Mirasol, whose title is vaguely reminiscent of a toilet bowl cleaner.
The U.S. first made its presence felt in Vieques in 1898 by defeating Spain in the aptly named Spanish-American war, thereby claiming control of all of Puerto Rico for the duration. Vieques’ downtrodden and weary residents hoped that the U.S. would upgrade living standards but alas, not so much.
Then the workers took matters into their own hands by launching a general strike in 1915 that helped improve conditions quite a bit, but in the end Vieques became a victim of its own success. By over-cultivating the land, the big plantations essentially dried themselves up. Sugar cane was no longer king by 1935.
As if this weren’t bad enough, in the late ‘40s the U.S. military claimed over seventy percent of the island for military use. This meant shipping out a third of the civilian population to other islands (mainly St. Croix) and squeezing the remaining Viequenses into the central third of the island.
Needless to say, this was a spectacularly unpopular move.
I try to imagine how I’d feel if my condo were appropriated by some foreign super-power and I was herded, along with my fellow D.C. citizens, into a small quadrant of the city so the land I once lawfully owned could be used for bombing practice.
All I can say is this: it’s amazing the locals are as gracious to North Americans today as they almost unfailingly are.
This is how it was for fifty years: the bombs were stored on the western end of the island and blown up, for target practice, on the eastern end. The locals, clustered in the middle, covered their ears and swallowed their pride for half a century until they couldn’t take it any longer.
Things came to a head in the late ‘90s. In 1999 a civilian security guard was killed when the Navy accidentally bombed an observation tower on the naval base. Widespread protests ensued. Demi-celebrities like Al Sharpton, Edward James Olmos, Bobby Kennedy, Jr., etc. came to the island to join in the fun and were promptly arrested, which only added to the publicity value of the story.
In May 2003 the Navy left the island forever.
As far as I can tell, not one tear was shed.
Tomorrow I promise I’ll get off my history soapbox and continue our renovation saga!