Vieques: Living (and dying) under military occupation

Professor Katherine McCaffrey gave the following testimony to the White House Interagency Task Force on Puerto Rico. It is a powerful story of the social and economic violence wrought by the military occupation of Vieques.  It should sound familiar to the many communities where military occupation has left its boot print.   Thanks to the Comite Pro-Rescate y Desarollo de Vieques for sharing this.


(Complete version of Katherine McCaffrey’s presentation before the White House Interagency Task Force on Puerto Rico in Washington D.C. this past Tuesday.)

I’m honored to be invited today to speak before the commission. My name is Katherine McCaffrey. I am an associate professor of anthropology at Montclair State University and for the past 20 years I have conducted historical and ethnographic work in Vieques.

Today I want to make a statement about my dear friend, Mario Solis, who died in January this year at the age of 60. Mario was a person whose life wasboth shaped and constricted by Vieques. He died earlier this year of a heart attack brought on by a poorly managed case of diabetes. I have no doubt that if Mario lived in the States, or perhaps even on the main island of Puerto Rico, he would still be alive today. Mario’s life and death were shaped by Vieques’ poverty, its lack of opportunity, and the socioeconomic crisis created by 70 years of military occupation of all aspects of island life.

Mario was born in Vieques in 1949 in a military resettlement tract called Tortuguero. His family was one of the last evicted from eastern Vieques in 1947 to make way for the expansion of the Navy base. Mario’s father had been a milkman on the farm of a wealthy family. After the evictions, he pieced together day work in the cane fields and made charcoal. Mario’s mother washed and ironed sailor’s shirts. As a child Mario worked nights as a bootblack, cleaning the shoes of waves of sailors in town on maneuver. He picked up some English and supplemented the family’s meager income with his earnings.

Life was tough in Vieques these days. The Navy was bluntly antagonistic to any kind of economic development on the Island that could interfere with its unfettered access to the Vieques’ land, waters and airspace. The Navy wanted Vieques to serve as a theater of war, as a place to bomb and rehearse maneuvers. The military had very little use for the island residents, and planned unsuccessfully on several occasions to evict them all.

What the Navy failed to accomplish by decree, it achieved de facto. When Mario graduated high school, like most of the island youth, he left Vieques.

He worked in construction in St Thomas. When he learned of the opening of Pueblo Supermarket in St. Croix, he moved there. After two years away from his family and friends, Mario was so homesick that he returned home to Vieques. He worked for 13 years in a supermarket in Vieques, before his back was crushed by an avalanche of packaged pig’s feet. He was hospitalized for 6 months and unable to work for 3 years.

When I first met Mario twenty years ago, he was working as a staff member of El Fuerte Conde de Mirasol, a nineteenth century fort that now serves as a museum and cultural center in Vieques. What Mario lacked in formal education, he compensated for with diligence, attentiveness, and deep love of his island. Mario was an untrained archaeologist. He assisted Professor Luis Chanlatte in his decades long archaeological excavation of La Hueca site in Vieques.

Mario’s exquisite attention to detail and to the natural environment revealed clues to the past that other eyes would miss. He knew every crag and valley of his island. He knew the boulders outside of Camp Garcia that were etched with Taino petroglyphs. He could find nineteenth century pottery shards and old bottles on the shores next to the old municipal dump. Mario kept a cloth bag of pre Hispanic artifacts in the glove compartment of his battered car. He was ready at any moment to give an impromptu lecture on the amulets and sharpened stones crafted by ancient travelers to Vieques from the Amazon. In Mario’s hands, the past came to life. Visitors understood Vieques as a crossroads of the Caribbean, whose ancient past remains largely unexplored. I often wondered what Mario could have become if he had access to a college education, if had the opportunity to pursue an advanced degree.

Mario died because there isn’t a decent hospital in Vieques. Vieques’ sole health clinic is incapable of responding to any kind of real emergency. There is no x-ray machine, no pharmacy. Patients line up in the early morning darkness to see one of the clinic’s two doctors. Recent layoffs cut a dozen positions at the hospital, leaving only a skeleton staff. Any kind of crisis—a car accident, an asthma attack, a miscarriage, or in Mario’s case, a heart attack—any kind of crisis that might be managed by an average hospital in the United States, can lead to death in Vieques.

When Mario died, his family was scattered. His long marriage to a high school sweetheart had dissolved. His three children left the island for school and work. He lived in a one room concrete house, owned by a sister who lived in St. Croix. His nutrition was poor. Food in Vieques is expensive and its quality poor. The island’s fish, crabs, and fruit are all contaminated with heavy metals, the legacy of decades of live fire exercises. Mario was able to get two hot meals a day at the local senior center and he still played his harmonica, but diabetes, poverty and loneliness devoured him.

Mario Solis officially died of natural causes. In my mind, however, he died a violent death. He died of the violence of poverty, of the squelching of opportunity, of the fragmenting of family and community that 70 years of military occupation brought to the island. He died because there is no health care in Vieques. He died because all of these stresses –economic, social, environmental, and psychological –take a toll on a person, even a person as vibrant and optimistic as Mario.

I urge this committee to seek justice for the island of Vieques, where residents continue to suffer from the consequences of military occupation. I urge the committee to compensate residents who have been burdened with health problems, economic disadvantage, and social disorder. I urge the committee to pursue a fair resolution to the tragedy and violence that has been perpetuated on Vieques Island and make amends for decades of neglect.

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