I arrived to Puerto Rico very excited, I needed a change of air. I had spent more than two months in the Antilles, and cross them around by bike was not easy. It took me a little over two hours putting together my bike at the airport and arrange my luggage on it .Then I started to pedal for its wide, well paved and traffic avenues. I was in the US or rather its associated free territory, which is not the same.
Through the internet I contacted Laura, who welcomed me into her home for a few days. talking with her I understood that Puerto Rico is not a state in the US, but a commonwealth territory, meaning it is free in its internal policy, but in terms of international relations depends on US. Puerto Ricans can not vote for US president and eventhough they receive some benefits they have not all rights and / or privileges as a state. They have a person who represents them in Congress, which has a voice but not a vote.
During my stay in San Juan I stopped a couple of days in the old town, to expose my trip and sell my DVDs to the thousands of tourists who land daily on cruises. But mostly they were all Americans, older people or family, walking, eating and drinking, but that does not stop for more curiosity they may have. Public on cruises along the Caribbean islands has been one of the worst for my sales. But it does not apply to Puerto Ricans and during the weekend I went to the square of Santurce where I sold very well. The place is the old sanjuaneros market that after decades of neglect has emerged as one of the best night scenes. It is the meeting point for people of all ages, that relaxed, approaches its sidewalk to drink a mojito or listening to live music.
Also for me Puerto Rico has been a meeting place. Norma came to visit me for some days. So I hung my bike for several days and went to explore the island by car. The beaches of Cabo Rojo and Rincon on the west were the target. They are beaches with calm and rough waters, with fabulous sunsets beyond the great Puerto Rican bustle. An excellent place to explore and camp for several days. But Easter was approaching, and I had to choose a good place to make a little money before traveling to the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba. There are 3 seasons in the year where I stop to work full time selling my DVDs on the street, and Easter is one. I do so for a few weeks during the winter and summer either. I chose the island of Vieques, not only because it is a destination where Puerto Rican travels on summer but because the island has a story that grabbed me and that is worth to talk about it.
During my stay in Vieques I met Carlos Prieto Ventura, leader of the fishermen and key player in the struggle against the US Navy on the island. Mestizo skin, graying beard and a penetrating gaze Carlos sat on the patio of my house and tell me what happened on the island of Vieques.
“In the 40s, when all Puerto Ricans were American citizens, there was an expropriation of 79% of the territory of the island of Vieques for use as a test camp of war. Therefore here we live an undeclared war over 6 decades. Our island was shaking more than 200 days a year, the ships firing, bombs falling, you heard the machine gun, aircraft; and that happened from 7 am until 10 or 11 at night. As military exercises they let loose on a beach between 30 and 40,000 soldiers to practice war. At night there was no control of these soldiers that came in, to break the civilian sectors, toward the lights of the houses, looking for ladies. There were rapes, children who never had a name and there were even cases of raped men. There were civilian deaths at the hands of drunken soldiers who tried to help a woman who was being raped. Nobody paid for those crimes. And while this was going on our island the central government of Puerto Rico would not look towards here, because Vieques was a bargaining chip between Puerto Rico and Washington. While we picked Vieques bombs, they caught federal funds. The federal government blackmailing the government of Puerto Rico, saying, if we loose Vieques as a darts game, the strong federal financial support is not justified until they become a state. “
“From the 40s until 2003, when the Navy was practically out, were always excuses to perpetuate their presence, involving a social-economic disaster on the island, leading our people to have the lowest income level of all the municipalities of Puerto Rico, as well as becoming the place of higher cancer incidence in the territory, or having 150% more heart disease and diabetes to 300% more than any municipality of Puerto Rico. That’s part of the sequels that have left the military activities, which have destroyed not only our country, but also our shores, coral reefs, desirable species for food, and worst of all is that they have had impunity. The worst is that asking for justice the Supreme Court said that the navy has supreme immunity. Really what we wanted to avoid is that Vieques was a precedent, because if they were to recognize and indemnify the thousands of people who were confined as laboratory rats and the diseases that they caused, they would have to do so elsewhere in the world, to millions of people. Because what they tested here they threw it in Grenada, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Kosovo, Iraq, Iran, Vietnam, etc“.
“About 15 or 20% of the bombs that they threw did not explode by mistake on its mechanism. If there are an estimated 100,000 bombs unexploded under water, it is easy to deduce that about 500,000 were explode destroying the entire marine life. Even they threw unconventional weapons, uranium was tested in Vieques before being used elsewhere in the world. “
“In 2003 we got the permanent and immediate end to all activities of the US Navy in Vieques. But of the 26,000 acres that they had, they returned 4,325 acres, the rest is controlled by the US Fish and Wildlife of the United States which is an agency of the Department of the US Interior “
“Currently the cleaning process, nor the government of Puerto Rico or the United States Environmental Protection Agency may be physically present on the site supervising, because is not permited. Who performed cleaning is the same army, with companies hired retired military. There are groups of people working without any protection and then mixed with the civilian population, in supermarkets, on banks, at the post office, all filled with gunpowder, while a particle of uranium is 14 times smaller than the thickness of a hair. One particle that you breathe is enough to develop a cancerous tumor in the lungs”.
“There are places as Lujan that is known as the neighborhood of death, where more than 90% of the population died of cancer. There is one person who is conducting chelation, which is the way to drive the heavy metals out of the body. In his study, of 50 people, 35 had showed radioactive uranium in the body. The problem is that this person who comes in voluntary for a free service, was denied by the government of Puerto Rico to use the public hospital of our island, so we say that they are complicit in what happens to us”.
“They claim they are removing the imminent danger on the ground, detonating the bombs remained unexploded, but the pollution is still there. On American soil what they do is remove a completelayer of soil,and bring new land. Here what they are thinking is to make holes, place a gate and leave it there.
“Some people think that the US government has no real interest in helping the places where they come. But what you must understand is that in all places where there is an approach of the navy or the US Government the main feature is the lie, they always bring things in disguise. They give the wing to eat the breast. In Puerto Rico they say they bring 9 billion USD per year, but did not say that their mega-stores take out 24 billion USD annually.
“Now we face another fight because there is forced displacement of our people, the seizure of our coasts and business. Puerto Rico is a US colony, and we are a colony of the colony. Some hotels charge hundreds of USD per person per night, and pay no dues of construction, exempt from paying a contribution of ownership of 90% and above that give 20 years of tax exemption. And that happens because the decisions about what happens here are taken from a chair at a distance by someone who sometimes has never come to our island. The one who pay is the local resident. Now here in Vieques there are more than 390 homes of Americans that have realized that is easy to evade contributions and have bought a house that they occupied for two months a year, fleeing the cold North, and then rent it to tourists. Foreigners have control of everything and are the recipients of that bunch of tourists coming to our island to collect the money and take it outside. That way our people can not get better. There are many ways to take the rabbit skin, say the Americans… “
“Before you get a bricklayer by USD 50 per day, now you have to pay 100 or more because they pay that price. Before you were buying a house of concrete with two acres of land for $ 50,000, now they want $ 350,000 for the same concrete house because they came and paid the price. You go to a restaurant in Esperanza, where once bought a hamburger for $ 3, you now have to pay 10 USD. It is a way to go pushing the local industry to stay away they want to set exclusive areas for tourists living in a capsule. They do not know the problems of our island, here we are not talking about health, disease, pollution, as if nothing has happened here. So that every time there are tourists who come and stumble upon a bomb, as happened not long ago in Culebra, the neighboring island; when a Japanese girl who was playing in the sand found white phosphorus bomb and burned. So they have closed beaches where the Navy said they have not contaminated. Now there are signs everywhere, we can not go anywhere. Unfortunately the cleaning process is like hiding the dirt under the carpet “
During the last days of my stay in Vieques Fernando Cobo an Argentinien friend who came to pedalled with me for a few months arrived. Fernando was one of those who inspired you to travel. With only 15 years old he was known as a bohemian that ran Argentina by ride. Since then, I began to fantasize about his journeys. Years later, when I started my travel around the world by bicycle, Fernando promised me that one day would come and travel with me. Over more than 13 years past and Fernando fulfiled, now he would be traveling with me through Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba. The funny thing is that the last 75 km Fernando pedaled was in 2005. Wonderful!
Thanks to all those Puerto Ricans, who were brothers as Latino, offering home and I could not visit.