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A History Of Vieques

By Wanda Bermudez

February 22, 2001
Copyright © 2001 FLORIDA TODAY. All Rights Reserved.

The name Vieques comes from the Indian word bieque, or small island.

The little we know about the pre-Columbian inhabitants is derived from archaeological findings. The most important finding to date is the one at La Hueca, where artifacts made in amethyst, agate, turquoise and jadeite were found. The most remarkable were shaped like South American condors.The Indians inhabiting the island when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1493 were Tainos. Two brave brother Caciques in Vieques , Cacimar and Yaureibo, led separate revolts against the Spaniards. They were soon defeated and killed. What was left of the Indian population was reduced to slavery and taken to Puerto Rico.

Once the Indians were expelled from the island, a succession of attempted colonizations by the English, French and Danish failed. The Puerto Rico Spaniards drove them out every time. In between the attempted colonizations, the island was used by pirates to resupply their ships. There was abundant shellfish, fish, birds and timber.

The Spaniards decided to colonize Vieques during the first half of the 19th century. In 1843, the municipality was established and fort construction began. The first governor was Don Teofilo Jaime Maria LeGuillou, a Frenchman. At that time Vieques was independent from Puerto Rico.

Later that century, there was a great economic boom driven by the sugar industry. Black slaves were brought in from the neighboring British islands. Several centrales (mills) were in operation. Their names were eventually adopted for the barrios: Playa Grande, Santa Maria, Puerto Real, Esperanza.

By the time the USA took over the island in 1898, after the Hispanic American War, there were four big centrales. Sugar milling made a few families rich while most of the population worked on the fields. The workers were very impoverished and worked under very harsh conditions. After the general strike of 1915, working conditions improved greatly.

When the U.S. Navy arrived in 1941, there were 10,362 inhabitants in Vieques and 8,000 tons of sugar were produced that year. The Navy expropriated two-thirds of the land, including most of that for farming. La Central Playa Grande did the last milling in 1942.

Right after the Navy arrived, there were plenty of base construction jobs in Vieques . People came from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands to work. When construction was finished, the workers left. And when the dust had settled, 3,000 of the 9,000 inhabitants of Vieques had been relocated to St. Croix. The rest were settled in the areas of Santa Maria and Monte Santo in Vieques . There was no sugar and no base construction left to do.

The government of Puerto Rico tried, between 1945 and the 1960s, to re-establish an agricultural economy in what was left of the civilian section of Vieques but the effort failed. Between 1960 and 1970 the economy shifted from agriculture to manufacturing, the General Electric plant becoming the most consistent source of employment.

The population has not changed much through the decades and still remains close to 10,000. Unemployment runs high. College-bound kids seldom come back to live in Vieques but you can usually find them visiting the island around summer. Currently, there is some development of the tourism industry. There are more small hotels and restaurants in Vieques than ever before. Many residents make a living out of renting their properties to tourists and this new industry has brought along a new influx of residents from the continental USA.

Development of any kind will be limited as long as the Navy keeps control of two-thirds of the total island. Some people like it this way, so that the natural beauty of some beaches on the military side is preserved. Other people protest the bombing of the beaches beyond tourists' reach, the consequences to the ecology and the health of the population, the destruction of archaeological sites, and the restricted access to the beautiful resources on the bases.

Bermudez is a native of Vieques who now lives in West Palm Beach. This piece is reprinted with permission from the Web site

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