Vieques and Culebra Feature
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For nearly six decades, the U.S. Navy had a stranglehold on Vieques. It controlled the island's eastern half and western end and exerted enormous influence over the destiny of the civilian area in between. Though long protested, the bombing, shelling, and amphibious landings continued. When an off-target bomb killed a civilian on navy land in April 1999, opposition began to transform the island's placid beaches into political hotbeds.
Protesters camping out on the bombing range kept it shut down from 1999 to 2000. Hundreds of Puerto Rican residents were arrested for trespassing on navy land during war games. They were joined by celebrity protesters from the United States, including environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (who gave his baby daughter the middle name Vieques), the wife of Reverend Jesse Jackson, and Reverend Al Sharpton, all of whom were arrested for trespassing on the bombing range. For much of 2000 and 2001, protests were so commonplace that there were semipermanent encampments of opponents. Songs such as "Paz Pa' Vieques" ("Peace for Vieques") began to surface, as did bumper stickers and T-shirts with protest slogans. Latin pop celebrities such as singer-songwriter Robie Draco Rosa (who wrote Ricky Martin's "Livin' la Vida Loca"), actor Edward James Olmos, singer Millie Corejter, protest singer Zoraida Santiago, and other actors, painters, doctors, and lawyers added to the fanfare when they joined the activities.
President Bill Clinton finally agreed that residents could vote on whether to continue to host the navy. A nonbinding referendum held in 2001 found that 68% of the island's voters wanted the military to leave immediately. Although some members of Congress argued that the navy should stay indefinitely—their cries grew louder after September 11, 2001, when even local protesters called for a moratorium on civil disobedience—the administration agreed to withdraw the troops. As a result of the protests, the navy finally withdrew from its Atlantic Fleet training grounds in May 2002. In 2003, the naval base was officially closed. By the end of 2005, much of the former military base was transformed into the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. Today, there are concerns that the sustained bombing activity produced high levels of contamination that are linked to health issues such as higher cancer rates among residents. This is widely regarded as a long-term exposure issue that doesn't affect vacationers, but visitors who may be concerned about potential risks associated with travel to the area should check the Center for Disease Control Web site (www.cdc.gov) for the latest information.
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