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A Latinx Resource Guide: Civil Rights Cases and Events in the United States

1999: Vieques Island Protests

Jack Delano, Photographer. Tent colony of twenty-five families who had been squatters on land taken over by the Navy. They are to be resettled by the land authority. 1941. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

On April 19, 1999, during a military exercise on Vieques (pronounced vee-EHkus) Island, Navy planes dropped a bomb and accidentally killed David Sanes, a Puerto Rican security guard at the Naval training range. Sanes' death provoked rekindled public denunciation of Naval presence in Vieques, which other civilian deaths and injuries from naval bombs had already fueled. It also revitalized activism from individuals and organizations including the Committee to Rescue and Develop Vieques and the Crusade for the Rescue of Vieques. Rubén Berríos, leader of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, and community activists, such as Ismael Guadalupe, Myrna Pagan, and Carlos Zenón, mobilized civilian protests, which captivated national and international attention. Despite arrests, these protests led to the permanent shutdown of Vieques’ Naval Base after more than 60 years of operation.

Vieques Island is a small 63-square-mile island municipality located 8 miles northeast of mainland Puerto Rico and the Carribean Sea. The United States annexed this island along with Puerto Rico after the conclusion of the Spanish-American War and the Treaty of Paris (1898). During 1940s, the Navy converted two-thirds of Vieques Island into an extension of the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, thereby evicting civilians who resided in the area to expand military training space. After the war, the Navy remained on Vieques and conducted 180 days of military exercises per year. The Navy heightened its presence there in 1975 after its departure from Culebra, another Puerto Rican island also used for U.S. military training. Island civilians felt the economic and environmental impacts of U. S. Naval control of Vieques’ land, water, and air rights. With no economic compensation for the land acquired by the Navy, the blow was especially acute.

President George W. Bush ordered the Navy’s withdrawal from Vieques to occur by May 1, 2003. Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees the former Naval base. Nevertheless, the island faces continued economic and health repercussions as a result of former military operations, which failed to guarantee Vieques' inhabitants environmental justice. This crucial component of civil rights ensures proper implementation and enforcement of just environmental policies or laws.


1898 The U.S. annexes Puerto Rico along with Vieques Island.
1947 During World War II, the U.S. Navy sets up a training base, firing range, and ammunition storage in Vieques Island, evicting native residents.
1975 The U.S. Navy departs from Culebra, another Puerto Rican island used for military operations leading to an increased Naval presence in Vieques.
1983 Puerto Rican Governor Carlos Romero Barceló signs the Fortin Accord with the Navy, ending civilian protest on the island and the U.S. consents to return expropriated land and bring economic production to the island.
October 1993 A navy jet drops five hundred pound bombs off target, destroying homes in Vieques’ civilian sector.
March 1993 The Committee to Rescue and Develop Vieques protests naval presence in the island by gathering signatures and sending them in a letter to Les Aspin, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense.
1994 The Vieques Land Transfer Act of 1994 contends to transfer 8,000 acres of land in western Vieques for public usage.
April 19, 1999 While training for a conflict with Yugoslavia, the U.S. Navy dropped a 500-pound bomb on a Vieques lookout post and killed David Sanes, a Vieques native.
May 8, 1999 Rubén Berríos from the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) camps for 362 days inside the U.S. Navy training facility.
June 9, 1999 The Clinton administration requests Secretary of Defense William Cohen to establish a 4 person panel to provide a study and recommendation of the issue.
October 19, 1999 The four person panel proposes to end all naval operation on Vieques within the next 5 years.
June 14, 2001 The Bush Administration decides to withdrawal the Navy from Vieques by May 2003.
May 1, 2003 President George W. Bush orders the shutdown of naval facilities in Vieques.
2003-Present The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees the former Naval base and reports indicate cancer rates to be 25% higher among residents in Vieques than residents in mainland Puerto Rico.


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